A JOURNAL OF IMPRESSIONS IN BELGIUM
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
NEW YORK . BOSTON . CHICAGO . DALLAS ATLANTA . SAN FRANCISCO
MACMILLAN & CO., LIMITED
LONDON . BOMBAY . CALCUTTA MELBOURNE
THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, LTD.
A JOURNAL OF IMPRESSIONS IN BELGIUM
Author of "The Three Sisters," "The Return of The Prodigal," etc.
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1915
All rights reserved
BY MAY SINCLAIR
Set up and electrotyped. Published, September, 1915
(To a Field Ambulance in Flanders)
I do not call you comrades, You, Who did what I only dreamed. Though you have taken my dream, And dressed yourselves in its beauty and its glory, Your faces are turned aside as you pass by. I am nothing to you, For I have done no more than dream.
Your faces are like the face of her whom you follow, Danger, The Beloved who looks backward as she runs, calling to her lovers, The Huntress who flies before her quarry, trailing her lure. She called to me from her battle-places, She flung before me the curved lightning of her shells for a lure; And when I came within sight of her, She turned aside, And hid her face from me.
But you she loved; You she touched with her hand; For you the white flames of her feet stayed in their running; She kept you with her in her fields of Flanders, Where you go, Gathering your wounded from among her dead. Grey night falls on your going and black night on your returning. You go Under the thunder of the guns, the shrapnel's rain and the curved lightning of the shells, And where the high towers are broken, And houses crack like the staves of a thin crate filled with fire; Into the mixing smoke and dust of roof and walls torn asunder You go; And only my dream follows you.
That is why I do not speak of you, Calling you by your names. Your names are strung with the names of ruined and immortal cities, Termonde and Antwerp, Dixmude and Ypres and Furnes, Like jewels on one chain—
Thus, In the high places of Heaven, They shall tell all your names.
March 8th, 1915.
This is a "Journal of Impressions," and it is nothing more. It will not satisfy people who want accurate and substantial information about Belgium, or about the War, or about Field Ambulances and Hospital Work, and do not want to see any of these things "across a temperament." For the Solid Facts and the Great Events they must go to such books as Mr. E. A. Powell's "Fighting in Flanders," or Mr. Frank Fox's "The Agony of Belgium," or Dr. H. S. Souttar's "A Surgeon in Belgium," or "A Woman's Experiences in the Great War," by Louise Mack.
For many of these impressions I can claim only a psychological accuracy; some were insubstantial to the last degree, and very few were actually set down there and then, on the spot, as I have set them down here. This is only a Journal in so far as it is a record of days, as faithful as I could make it in every detail, and as direct as circumstances allowed. But circumstances seldom did allow, and I was always behindhand with my Journal—a week behind with the first day of the seventeen, four months behind with the last.
This was inevitable. For in the last week of the Siege of Antwerp, when the wounded were being brought into Ghent by hundreds, and when the fighting came closer and closer to the city, and at the end, when the Germans were driving you from Ghent to Bruges, and from Bruges to Ostend and from Ostend to Dunkirk, you could not sit down to write your impressions, even if you were cold-blooded enough to want to. It was as much as you could do to scribble the merest note of what happened in your Day-Book.
But when you had made fast each day with its note, your impressions were safe, far safer than if you had tried to record them in their flux as they came. However far behind I might be with my Journal, it was kept. It is not written "up," or round and about the original notes in my Day-Book, it is simply written out. Each day of the seventeen had its own quality and was soaked in its own atmosphere; each had its own unique and incorruptible memory, and the slight lapse of time, so far from dulling or blurring that memory, crystallized it and made it sharp and clean. And in writing out I have been careful never to go behind or beyond the day, never to add anything, but to leave each moment as it was. I have set down the day's imperfect or absurd impression, in all its imperfection or absurdity, and the day's crude emotion in all its crudity, rather than taint its reality with the discreet reflections that came after.
I make no apology for my many errors—where they were discoverable I have corrected them in a footnote; to this day I do not know how wildly wrong I may have been about kilometres and the points of the compass, and the positions of batteries and the movements of armies; but there were other things of which I was dead sure; and this record has at least the value of a "human document."
* * * * *
There is one question that I may be asked: "Why, when you had the luck to go out with a Field Ambulance Corps distinguished by its gallantry—why in heaven's name have you not told the story of its heroism?"
Well—I have not told it for several excellent reasons. When I set out to keep a Journal I pledged myself to set down only what I had seen or felt, and to avoid as far as possible the second-hand; and it was my misfortune that I saw very little of the field-work of the Corps. Besides, the Corps itself was then in its infancy, and it is its infancy—its irrepressible, half-irresponsible, whole engaging infancy—that I have touched here. After those seventeen days at Ghent it grew up in all conscience. It was at Furnes and Dixmude and La Panne, after I had left it, that its most memorable deeds were done.[A]
And this story of the Corps is not mine to tell. Part of it has been told already by Dr. Souttar, and part by Mr. Philip Gibbs, and others. The rest is yet to come.
July 15th, 1915.
[Footnote A: See Postscript.]
A JOURNAL OF IMPRESSIONS IN BELGIUM
A JOURNAL OF IMPRESSIONS IN BELGIUM
[September 25th, 1914.]
After the painful births and deaths of I don't know how many committees, after six weeks' struggling with something we imagined to be Red Tape, which proved to be the combined egoism of several persons all desperately anxious to "get to the Front," and desperately afraid of somebody else getting there too, and getting there first, we are actually off. Impossible to describe the mysterious processes by which we managed it. I think the War Office kicked us out twice, and the Admiralty once, though what we were doing with the Admiralty I don't to this day understand. The British Red Cross kicked us steadily all the time, on general principles; the American snubbed us rather badly; what the French said to us I don't remember, and I can't think that we carried persistency so far as to apply to the Russian and the Japanese. Many of our scheme perished in their own vagueness. Others, vivid and adventurous, were checked by the first encounter with the crass reality. At one time, I remember, we were to have sent out a detachment of stalwart Amazons in khaki breeches who were to dash out on to the battle-field, reconnoitre, and pick up the wounded and carry them away slung over their saddles. The only difficulty was to get the horses. But the author of the scheme—who had bought her breeches—had allowed for that. The horses were to be caught on the battle-field; as the wounded and dead dropped from their saddles the Amazons were to leap into them and ride off. On this system "remounts" were also to be supplied. Whenever a horse was shot dead under its rider, an Amazon was to dash up with another whose rider had been shot dead. It was all perfectly simple and only needed a little "organization." For four weeks the lure of the battle-field kept our volunteers dancing round the War Office and the Red Cross Societies, and for four weeks their progress to the Front was frustrated by Lord Kitchener. Some dropped off disheartened, but others came on, and a regenerated committee dealt with them. Finally the thing crystallized into a Motor Ambulance Corps. An awful sanity came over the committee, chastened by its sufferings, and the volunteers, under pressure, definitely renounced the battle-field. Then somebody said, "Let's help the Belgian refugees." From that moment our course was clear. Everybody was perfectly willing that we should help the refugees, provided we relinquished all claim on the wounded. The Belgian Legation was enchanted. It gave passports to a small private commission of inquiry under our Commandant to go out to Belgium and send in a report. At Ostend the commission of inquiry whittled itself down to the one energetic person who had taken it out. And before we knew where we were our Ambulance Corps was accepted by the Belgian Red Cross.
Only we had not got the ambulances.
And though we had got some money, we had not got enough. This was really our good luck, for it saved us from buying the wrong kind of motor ambulance car. But at first the blow staggered us. Then, by some abrupt, incalculable turn of destiny, the British Red Cross, which had kicked us so persistently, came to our help and gave us all the ambulances we wanted.
And we are off.
There are thirteen of us: The Commandant, and Dr. Haynes and Dr. Bird under him; and Mrs. Torrence, a trained nurse and midwife, who can drive a motor car through anything, and take it to bits and put it together again; Janet McNeil, also an expert motorist, and Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert, Red Cross emergency nurses; Mr. Grierson, Mr. Foster and Mr. Riley, stretcher-bearers, and two chauffeurs and me. I don't know where I come in. But they've called me the Secretary and Reporter, which sounds very fine, and I am to keep the accounts (Heaven help them!) and write the Commandant's reports, and toss off articles for the daily papers, to make a little money for the Corps. We've got some already, raised by the Commandant's Report and Appeal that we published in the Daily Telegraph and Daily Chronicle. I shall never forget how I sprinted down Fleet Street to get it in in time, four days before we started.
And we have landed at Ostend.
I'll confess now that I dreaded Ostend more than anything. We had been told that there were horrors upon horrors in Ostend. Children were being born in the streets, and the state of the bathing-machines where the refugees lived was unspeakable. I imagined the streets of Ostend crowded with refugee women bearing children, and the Digue covered with the horrific bathing-machines. On the other hand, Ostend was said to be the safest spot in Europe. No Germans there. No Zeppelins. No bombs.
And we found the bathing-machines planted out several miles from the town, almost invisible specks on a vanishing shore-line. The refugees we met walking about the streets of Ostend were in fairly good case and bore themselves bravely. But the town had been bombarded the night before and our hotel had been the object of very special attentions. We chose it (the "Terminus") because it lay close to the landing-stage and saved us the trouble of going into the town to look for quarters. It was under the same roof as the railway station, where we proposed to leave our ambulance cars and heavy luggage. And we had no difficulty whatever in getting rooms for the whole thirteen of us. There was no sort of competition for rooms in that hotel. I said to myself, "If Ostend ever is bombarded, this railway station will be the first to suffer. And the hotel and the railway station are one." And when I was shown into a bedroom with glass windows all along its inner wall and a fine glass front looking out on to the platforms under the immense glass roof of the station, I said, "If this hotel is ever bombarded, what fun it will be for the person who sleeps in this bed between these glass windows."
We were all rather tired and hungry as we met for dinner at seven o'clock. And when we were told that all lights would be put out in the town at eight-thirty we only thought that a municipality which was receiving all the refugees in Belgium must practise some economy, and that, anyway, an hour and a half was enough for anybody to dine in; and we hoped that the Commandant, who had gone to call on the English chaplain at the Grand Hotel Littoral, would find his way back again to the peaceful and commodious shelter of the "Terminus."
He did find his way back, at seven-thirty, just in time to give us a chance of clearing out, if we chose to take it. The English chaplain, it seemed, was surprised and dismayed at our idea of a suitable hotel, and he implored us to fly, instantly, before a bomb burst in among us (this was the first we had heard of the bombardment of the night before). The Commandant put it to us as we sat there: Whether would we leave that dining-room at once and pack our baggage all over again, and bundle out, and go hunting for rooms all through Ostend with the lights out, and perhaps fall into the harbour; or stay where we were and risk the off-chance of a bomb? And we were all very tired and hungry, and we had only got to the soup, and we had seen (and smelt) the harbour, so we said we'd stay where we were and risk it.
And we stayed. A Taube hovered over us and never dropped its bomb.
When we compared notes the next morning we found that we had all gone soundly to sleep, too tired to take the Taube seriously, all except our two chauffeurs, who were downright annoyed because no bomb had entered their bedroom. Then we all went out and looked at the little hole in the roof of the fish market, and the big hole in the hotel garden, and thought of bombs as curious natural phenomena that never had and never would have any intimate connection with us.
And for five weeks, ever since I knew that I must certainly go out with this expedition, I had been living in black funk; in shameful and appalling terror. Every night before I went to sleep I saw an interminable spectacle of horrors: trunks without heads, heads without trunks, limbs tangled in intestines, corpses by every roadside, murders, mutilations, my friends shot dead before my eyes. Nothing I shall ever see will be more ghastly than the things I have seen. And yet, before a possibly-to-be-bombarded Ostend this strange visualizing process ceases, and I see nothing and feel nothing. Absolutely nothing; until suddenly the Commandant announces that he is going into the town, by himself, to buy a hat, and I get my first experience of real terror.
For the hats that the Commandant buys when he is by himself—there are no words for them.
This morning the Corps begins to realize its need of discipline. First of all, our chauffeurs have disappeared and can nowhere be found. The motor ambulances languish in inactivity on Cockerill's Wharf. We find one chauffeur and set him to keep guard over a tin of petrol. We know the ambulances can't start till heaven knows when, and so, first Mrs. Lambert, our emergency nurse, then, I regret to say, our Secretary and Reporter make off and sneak into the Cathedral. We are only ten minutes, but still we are away, and Mrs. Torrence, our trained nurse, is ready for us when we come back. We are accused bitterly of sight-seeing. (We had betrayed the inherent levity of our nature the day before, on the boat, when we looked at the sunset.) Then the Secretary and Reporter, utterly intractable, wanders forth ostensibly to look for the Commandant, who has disappeared, but really to get a sight of the motor ambulances on Cockerill's Wharf. And Mrs. Torrence is ready again for the Secretary, convicted now of sight-seeing. And I have seen no Commandant, and no motor ambulances and no wharf. (Unbearable thought, that I may never, absolutely never, see Cockerill's Wharf!) It is really awful this time, because the President of the Belgian Red Cross is waiting to get the thirteen of us to the Town Hall to have our passports vises. And the Commandant is rounding up his Corps, and Ursula Dearmer is heaven knows where, and Mrs. Lambert only somewhere in the middle distance, and Mrs. Torrence's beautiful eyes are blazing at the slip-sloppiness of it all. Things were very different at the —— Hospital, where she was trained.
Only the President remains imperturbable.
For, after all this fuming and fretting, the President isn't quite ready himself, or perhaps the Town Hall isn't ready, and we all stroll about the streets of Ostend for half an hour. And the Commandant goes off by himself, to buy that hat.
It is a terrible half-hour. But after all, he comes back without it, judging it better to bear the ills he has.
Very leisurely, and with an immense consumption of time, we stroll and get photographed for our passports. Then on to the Town Hall, and then to the Military Depot for our Laissez-passer, and then to the Hotel Terminus for lunch. And at one-thirty we are off.
Whatever happens, whatever we see and suffer, nothing can take from us that run from Ostend to Ghent.
We go along a straight, flat highway of grey stones, through flat, green fields and between thin lines of trees—tall and slender and delicate trees. There are no hedges. Only here and there a row of poplars or pollard willows is flung out as a screen against the open sky. This country is formed for the very expression of peace. The straight flat roads, the straight flat fields and straight tall trees stand still in an immense quiet and serenity. We pass low Flemish houses with white walls and red roofs. Their green doors and shutters are tall and slender like the trees, the colours vivid as if the paint had been laid on yesterday. It is all unspeakably beautiful and it comes to me with the natural, inevitable shock and ecstasy of beauty. I am going straight into the horror of war. For all I know it may be anywhere, here, behind this sentry; or there, beyond that line of willows. I don't know. I don't care. I cannot realize it. All that I can see or feel at the moment is this beauty. I look and look, so that I may remember it.
Is it possible that I am enjoying myself?
I dare not tell Mrs. Torrence. I dare not tell any of the others. They seem to me inspired with an austere sense of duty, a terrible integrity. They know what they are here for. To me it is incredible that I should be here.
I am in Car 1., sitting beside Tom, the chauffeur; Mrs. Torrence is on the other side of me. Tom disapproves of these Flemish roads. He cannot see that they are beautiful. They will play the devil with his tyres.
I am reminded unpleasantly that our Daimler is not a touring car but a motor ambulance and that these roads will jolt the wounded most abominably.
There are straggling troops on the road now. At the nearest village all the inhabitants turn out to cheer us. They cry out "Les Anglais!" and laugh for joy. Perhaps they think that if the British Red Cross has come the British Army can't be far behind. But when they hear that we are Belgian Red Cross they are gladder than ever. They press round us. It is wonderful to them that we should have come all the way from England "pour les Belges!" Somehow the beauty of the landscape dies before these crowding, pressing faces.
We pass through Bruges without seeing it. I have no recollection whatever of having seen the Belfry. We see nothing but the Canal (where we halt to take in petrol) and more villages, more faces. And more troops.
Half-way between Bruges and Ghent an embankment thrown up on each side of the road tells of possible patrols and casual shooting. It is the first visible intimation that the enemy may be anywhere.
A curious excitement comes to you. I suppose it is excitement, though it doesn't feel like it. You have been drunk, very slightly drunk with the speed of the car. But now you are sober. Your heart beats quietly, steadily, but with a little creeping, mounting thrill in the beat. The sensation is distinctly pleasurable. You say to yourself, "It is coming. Now—or the next minute—perhaps at the end of the road." You have one moment of regret. "After all, it would be a pity if it came too soon, before we'd even begun our job." But the thrill, mounting steadily, overtakes the regret. It is only a little thrill, so far (for you don't really believe that there is any danger), but you can imagine the thing growing, growing steadily, till it becomes ecstasy. Not that you imagine anything at the moment. At the moment you are no longer an observing, reflecting being; you have ceased to be aware of yourself; you exist only in that quiet, steady thrill that is so unlike any excitement that you have ever known. Presently you get used to it. "What a fool I should have been if I hadn't come. I wouldn't have missed this run for the world."
I forget myself so far as to say this to Mrs. Torrence. My voice doesn't sound at all like the stern voice of duty. It is the voice of somebody enjoying herself. I am behaving exactly as I behaved this morning at Ostend; and cannot possibly hope for any sympathy from Mrs. Torrence.
But Mrs. Torrence has unbent a little. She has in fact been unbending gradually ever since we left Ostend. There is a softer light in her beautiful eyes. For she is not only a trained nurse but an expert motorist; and a Daimler is a Daimler even when it's an ambulance car. From time to time remarks of a severely technical nature are exchanged between her and Tom. Still, up till now, nothing has passed to indicate any flagging in the relentless spirit of the —— Hospital.
The next minute I hear that the desire of Mrs. Torrence's heart is to get into the greatest possible danger—and to get out of it.
The greatest possible danger is to fall into the hands of the Uhlans. I feel that I should be very glad indeed to get out of it, but that I'm not by any means so keen on getting in. I say so. I confess frankly that I'm afraid of Uhlans, particularly when they're drunk.
But Mrs. Torrence is not afraid of anything. There is no German living, drunk or sober, who could break her spirit. Nothing dims for her that shining vision of the greatest possible danger. She does not know what fear is.
I conceive an adoration for Mrs. Torrence, and a corresponding distaste for myself. For I do know what fear is. And in spite of the little steadily-mounting thrill, I remember distinctly those five weeks of frightful anticipation when I knew that I must go out to the War; the going to bed, night after night, drugged with horror, black horror that creeps like poison through your nerves; the falling asleep and forgetting it; the waking, morning after morning, with an energetic and lucid brain that throws out a dozen war pictures to the minute like a ghastly cinema show, till horror becomes terror; the hunger for breakfast; the queer, almost uncanny revival of courage that follows its satisfaction; the driving will that strengthens as the day goes on and slackens its hold at evening. I remember one evening very near the end; the Sunday evening when the Commandant dropped in, after he had come back from Belgium. We were stirring soup over the gas stove in the scullery—you couldn't imagine a more peaceful scene—when he said, "They are bringing up the heavy siege guns from Namur, and there is going to be a terrific bombardment of Antwerp, and I think it will be very interesting for you to see it." I remember replying with passionate sincerity that I would rather die than see it; that if I could nurse the wounded I would face any bombardment you please to name; but to go and look on and make copy out of the sufferings I cannot help—I couldn't and I wouldn't, and that was flat. And I wasn't a journalist any more than I was a trained nurse.
I can still see the form of the Commandant rising up on the other side of the scullery stove, and in his pained, uncomprehending gaze and in the words he utters I imagine a challenge. It is as if he said, "Of course, if you're afraid"—(haven't I told him that I am afraid?).
The gage is thrown down on the scullery floor. I pick it up. And that is why I am here on this singular adventure.
Thus, for the next three kilometres, I meditate on my cowardice. It is all over as if it had never been, but how can I tell that it won't come back again? I can only hope that when the Uhlans appear I shall behave decently. And this place that we have come to is Ecloo. We are not very far from Ghent.
A church spire, a few roofs rising above trees. Then many roofs all together. Then the beautiful grey-white foreign city.
As we run through the streets we are followed by cyclists; cyclists issue from every side-street and pour into our road; cyclists rise up out of the ground to follow us. We don't realize all at once that it is the ambulance they are following. Bowing low like racers over their handle-bars, they shoot past us; they slacken pace and keep alongside, they shoot ahead; the cyclists are most fearfully excited. It dawns on us that they are escorting us; that they are racing each other; that they are bringing the news of our arrival to the town. They behave as if we were the vanguard of the British Army.
We pass the old Military Hospital—Hopital Militaire No. I.—and presently arrive at the Flandria Palace Hotel, which is Hopital Militaire No. II. The cyclists wheel off, scatter and disappear. The crowd in the Place gathers round the porch of the hotel to look at the English Ambulance.
We enter. We are received by various officials and presented to Madame F., the head of the Red Cross nursing staff. There is some confusion, and Mrs. Torrence finds herself introduced as the Secretary of the English Committee. Successfully concealed behind the broadest back in the Corps, which belongs to Mr. Grierson, I have time to realize how funny we all are. Everybody in the hospital is in uniform, of course. The nurses of the Belgian Red Cross wear white linen overalls with the brassard on one sleeve, and the Red Cross on the breasts of their overalls, and over their foreheads on the front of their white linen veils. The men wear military or semi-military uniforms. We had never agreed as to our uniform, and some of us had had no time to get it, if we had agreed. Assembled in the vestibule, we look more like a party of refugees, or the cast of a Barrie play, than a field ambulance corps. Mr. Grierson, the Chaplain, alone wears complete khaki, in which he is indistinguishable from any Tommy. The Commandant, obeying some mysterious inspiration, has left his khaki suit behind. He wears a Norfolk jacket and one of his hats. Mr. Foster in plain clothes, with a satchel slung over his shoulders, has the air of an inquiring tourist. Mrs. Torrence and Janet McNeil in short khaki tunics, khaki putties, and round Jaeger caps, and very thick coats over all, strapped in with leather belts, look as if they were about to sail on an Arctic expedition; I was told to wear dark blue serge, and I wear it accordingly; Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert are in normal clothes. But the amiable officials and the angelic Belgian ladies behave as if there was nothing in the least odd about our appearance. They remember only that we are English and that it is now six o'clock and that we have had no tea. They conceive this to be the most deplorable fate that can overtake the English, and they hurry us into the great kitchen to a round table, loaded with cake and bread-and-butter and enormous bowls of tea. The angelic beings in white veils wait on us. We are hungry and we think (a pardonable error) that this meal is hospital supper; after which some work will surely be found for us to do.
We are shown to our quarters on the third floor. We expect two bare dormitories with rows of hard beds, which we are prepared to make ourselves, besides sweeping the dormitories, and we find a fine suite of rooms—a mess-room, bedrooms, dressing-rooms, bathrooms—and hospital orderlies for our valets de chambre.
We unpack, sit round the mess-room and wait for orders. Perhaps we may all be sent down into the kitchen to wash up. Personally, I hope we shall be, for washing up is a thing I can do both quickly and well. It is now seven o'clock.
At half-past we are sent down into the kitchen, not to wash up, but, if you will believe it, to dine. And more hospital orderlies wait on us at dinner.
The desire of our hearts is to do something, if it is only to black the boots of the angelic beings. But no, there is nothing for us to do. To-morrow, perhaps, the doctors and stretcher-bearers will be busy. We hear that only five wounded have been brought into the hospital to-day. They have no ambulance cars, and ours will be badly needed—to-morrow. But to-night, no.
We go out into the town, to the Hotel de la Poste, and sit outside the cafe and drink black coffee in despair. We find our chauffeurs doing the same thing. Then we go back to our sumptuous hotel and so, dejectedly, to bed. Aeroplanes hover above us all night.
We hang about waiting for orders. They may come at any moment. Meanwhile this place grows incredible and fantastic. Now it is an hotel and now it is a military hospital; its two aspects shift and merge into each other with a dream-like effect. It is a huge building of extravagant design, wearing its turrets, its balconies, its very roofs, like so much decoration. The gilded legend, "Flandria Palace Hotel," glitters across the immense white facade. But the Red Cross flag flies from the front and from the corners of the turrets and from the balconies of the long flank facing south. You arrive under a fan-like porch that covers the smooth slope of the approach. You enter your hotel through mahogany revolving doors. A colossal Flora stands by the lift at the foot of the big staircase. Unaware that this is no festival of flowers, the poor stupid thing leans forward, smiling, and holds out her garland to the wounded as they are carried past. Nobody takes any notice of her. The great hall of the hotel has been stripped bare. All draperies and ornaments have disappeared. The proprietor has disappeared, or goes about disguised as a Red Cross officer. The grey mosaic of floors and stairs is cleared of rugs and carpeting; the reading-room is now a secretarial bureau; the billiard-room is an operating theatre; the great dining-hall and the reception-rooms and the bedrooms are wards. The army of waiters and valets and chambermaids has gone, and everywhere there are surgeons, ambulance men, hospital orderlies and the Belgian nurses with their white overalls and red crosses. And in every corridor and on every staircase and in every room there is a mixed odour, bitter and sweet and penetrating, of antiseptics and of ether. When the ambulance cars come up from the railway stations and the battle-fields, the last inappropriate detail, the mahogany revolving doors, will disappear, so that the wounded may be carried through on their stretchers.
I confess to a slight, persistent fear of seeing these wounded whom I cannot help. It is not very active, it has left off visualizing the horror of bloody bandages and mangled bodies. But it's there; it waits for me in every corridor and at the turn of every stair, and it makes me loathe myself.
We have news this morning of a battle at Alost, a town about fifteen kilometres south-east of Ghent. The Belgians are moving forty thousand men from Antwerp towards Ghent, and heavy fighting is expected near the town. If we are not in the thick of it, we are on the edge of the thick.
They have just told us an awful thing. Two wounded men were left lying out on the battle-field all night after yesterday's fighting. The military ambulances did not fetch them. Our ambulance was not sent out. There are all sorts of formalities to be observed before it can go. We haven't got our military passes yet. And our English Red Cross brassards are no use. We must have Belgian ones stamped with the Government stamp. And these things take time.
Meanwhile we, who have still the appearance of a disorganized Cook's tourist party, are beginning to realize each other, the first step to realizing ourselves. We have come from heaven knows where to live together here heaven knows for how long. The Commandant and I are friends; Mrs. Torrence and Janet McNeil are friends; Dr. Haynes and Dr. Bird are evidently friends; our chauffeurs, Bert and Tom, are bound to fraternize professionally; we and they are all right; but these pairs were only known to each other a week or two ago, and some of the thirteen never met at all till yesterday. An unknown fourteenth is coming to-day. We are five women and nine men. You might wonder how, for all social purposes, we are to sort ourselves? But the idea, sternly emphasized by Mrs. Torrence, is that we have no social purposes. We are neither more nor less than a strictly official and absolutely impersonal body, held together, not by the ordinary affinities of men and women, but by a common devotion and a common aim. Differences, if any should exist, will be sunk in the interest of the community. Probabilities that rule all human intercourse, as we have hitherto known it, will be temporarily suspended in our case. But we shall gain more than we lose. Insignificant as individuals, as a corps we share the honour and prestige of the Military Authority under which we work. We have visions of a relentless discipline commanding and controlling us. A cold glory hovers over the Commandant as the vehicle of this transcendent power.
When the Power has its way with us it will take no count of friendships or affinities. It will set precedence at naught. It will say to itself, "Here are two field ambulance cars and fourteen people. Five out of these fourteen are women, and what the devil are they doing in a field ambulance?" And it will appoint two surgeons, who will also serve as stretcher-bearers, to each car; it will set our trained nurse, Mrs. Torrence, in command of the untrained nurses in one of the wards of the Military Hospital No. II.; the Hospital itself will find suitable feminine tasks for Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert; while Janet McNeil and the Secretary will be told off to work among the refugees. And until more stretcher-bearers are wanted the rest of us will be nowhere. If nothing can be found for our women in the Hospital they will be sent home.
It seems inconceivable that the Power, if it is anything like Lord Kitchener, can decide otherwise.
Odd how the War changes us. I, who abhor and resist authority, who hardly know how I am to bring myself to obey my friend the Commandant, am enamoured of this Power and utterly submissive. I realize with something like a thrill that we are in a military hospital under military orders; and that my irrelevant former self, with all that it has desired or done, must henceforth cease (perhaps irrevocably) to exist. I contemplate its extinction with equanimity. I remember that one of my brothers was a Captain in the Gunners, that another of them fought as a volunteer in the first Boer War; that my uncle, Captain Hind, of the Bengal Fusiliers, fought in the Mutiny and in the Crimean War, and his son at Chitral, and that I have one nephew in Kitchener's Army and one in the West Lancashire Hussars; and that three generations of solid sugar-planters and ship-owners cannot separate me from my forefathers, who seem to have been fighting all the time. (At the moment I have forgotten my five weeks' blue funk.)
Mrs. Torrence's desire for discipline is not more sincere than mine. Meanwhile the hand that is to lick us into shape hovers over us and does not fall. We wait expectantly in the mess-room which is to contain us.
It was once the sitting-room of a fine suite. A diminutive vestibule divides it from the corridor. You enter through double doors with muffed glass panes in a wooden partition opposite the wide French windows opening on the balcony. A pale blond light from the south fills the room. Its walls are bare except for a map of Belgium, faced by a print from one of the illustrated papers representing the King and Queen of the Belgians. Of its original furnishings only a few cane chairs and a settee remain. These are set back round the walls and in the window. Long tables with marble tops, brought up from what was once the hotel restaurant, enclose three sides of a hollow square, like this:
Round these we group ourselves thus: the Commandant in the middle of the top table in the window, between Mrs. Torrence and Ursula Dearmer; Dr. Haynes and Dr. Bird, on the other side of Ursula Dearmer; the chauffeurs, Tom and Bert, round the corner at the right-hand side table; I am round the other corner at the left-hand side table, by Mrs. Torrence, and Janet McNeil is on my right, and on hers are Mrs. Lambert and Mr. Foster and the Chaplain. Mr. Riley sits alone on the inside opposite Mrs. Torrence.
This rather quiet and very serious person interests me. He doesn't say anything, and you wonder what sort of consciousness goes on under the close-cropped, boyish, black velvet hair. Nature has left his features a bit unfinished, the further to baffle you.
All these people are interesting, intensely interesting and baffling, as men and women are bound to be who have come from heaven knows where to face heaven knows what. Most of them are quite innocently unaware. They do not know that they are interesting, or baffling either. They do not know, and it has not occurred to them to wonder, how they are going to affect each other or how they are going to behave. Nobody, you would say, is going to affect the Commandant. When he is not dashing up and down, driven by his mysterious energy, he stands apart in remote and dreamy isolation. His eyes, when they are not darting brilliantly in pursuit of the person or the thing he needs, stand apart too in a blank, blue purity, undarkened by any perception of the details that may accumulate under his innocent nose. He has called this corps into being, gathered these strange men and women up with a sweep of his wing and swept them almost violently together. He doesn't know how any of us are going to behave. He has taken for granted, with his naive and heart-rending trust in the beauty of human nature, that we are all going to behave beautifully. He is absorbed in his scheme. Each one of us fits into it at some point, and if there is anything in us left over it is not, at the moment, his concern.
Yet he himself has margins about him and a mysterious hinterland not to be confined or accounted for by any scheme. He alone of us has the air, buoyant, restless, and a little vague, of being in for some tremendous but wholly visionary adventure.
When I look at him I wonder again what this particular adventure is going to do to him, and whether he has, even now, any vivid sense of the things that are about to happen. I remember that evening in my scullery, and how he talked about the German siege-guns as if they were details in some unreal scene, the most interesting part, say, of a successful cinematograph show.
But they are really bringing up those siege-guns from Namur.
And the Commandant has brought four women with him besides me. I confess I was appalled when I first knew that they would be brought.
Mrs. Torrence, perhaps—for she is in love with danger, and she is of the kind whom no power, military or otherwise, can keep back from their desired destiny.
But why little Janet McNeil? She is the youngest of us, an eighteen-year-old child who has followed Mrs. Torrence, and will follow her if she walks straight into the German trenches. She sits beside me on my right, ready for anything, all her delicate Highland beauty bundled up in the kit of a little Arctic explorer, utterly determined, utterly impassive. Her small face, under the woolly cap that defies the North Pole, is nearly always grave; but it has a sudden smile that is adorable.
And the youngest but one, Ursula Dearmer, who can't be so much older—Mr. Riley's gloom and the Commandant's hinterland are nothing to the mystery of this young girl. She looks as if she were not yet perfectly awake, as if it would take considerably more than the siege-guns of Namur to rouse her. She moves about slowly, as if she were in no sort of hurry for the adventure. She has slow-moving eyes, with sleepy, drooping eyelids that blink at you. She has a rather sleepy, rather drooping nose. Her shoulders droop; her small head droops, slightly, half the time. If she were not so slender she would be rather like a pretty dormouse half-recovering from its torpor. You insist on the determination of her little thrust-out underlip, only to be contradicted by her gentle and delicately-retreating chin.
In our committee-room, among a band of turbulent female volunteers, all clamouring for the firing-line, Ursula Dearmer, dressed very simply, rather like a senior school-girl, and accompanied by her mother, had a most engaging air of submission and docility. If anybody breaks out into bravura it will not be Ursula Dearmer.
This thought consoles me when I think of the last solemn scenes in that committee-room and of the pledges, the frightfully sacred pledges, I gave to Ursula Dearmer's mother. As a result of this responsibility I see myself told off to the dreary duty of conducting Ursula Dearmer back to Dover at the moment when things begin to be really thick and thrilling. And I deplore the Commandant's indiscriminate hospitality to volunteers.
Mrs. Lambert (she must surely be the next youngest) you can think of with less agitation, in spite of her youth, her charming eyes and the recklessly extravagant quantity of her golden hair. For she is an American citizen, and she has a husband (also an American citizen) in Ghent, and her husband has a high-speed motor-car, and if the Germans should ever advance upon this city he can be relied upon to take her out of it before they can possibly get in. Besides, even in the German lines American citizens are safe.
We are all suffering a slight tension. The men, who can see no reason why the ambulance should not have been sent out last night, are restless and abstracted and impatient for the order to get up and go. No wonder. They have been waiting five weeks for their chance.
There is Dr. Haynes, whose large dark head and heavy shoulders look as if they sustained the whole weight of an intolerable world. His features, designed for sensuous composure, brood in a sad and sulky resignation to the boredom of delay.
His friend, Dr. Bird, the young man with the head of an enormous cherub and the hair of a blond baby, hair that will fall in a shining lock on his pink forehead, Dr. Bird has an air of boisterous preparation, as if the ambulance were a picnic party and he was responsible for the champagne.
Mr. Foster, the inquiring tourist, looks a little anxious, as if he were preoccupied with the train he's got to catch.
Bert, the chauffeur, sits tight with the grim assurance of a man who knows that the expedition cannot start without him. The chauffeur Tom has an expressive face. Every minute it becomes more vivid with humorous, contemptuous, indignant protest. It says plainly: "Well, this is about the rottenest show I ever was let in for. Bar none. Call yourself a field ambulance? Garn! And if you are a field ambulance, who but a blanky fool would have hit upon this old blankety haunt of peace. It'll be the 'Ague Conference next!"
But it is on the Chaplain, Mr. Grierson, that the strain is telling most. It shows in his pale and prominent blue eyes, and in a slight whiteness about his high cheek-bones. In his valiant khaki he has more than any of us the air of being on the eve. He is visibly bracing himself to a stupendous effort. He smokes a cigarette with ostentatious nonchalance. We all think we know these symptoms. We turn our eyes away, considerately, from Mr. Grierson. Which of us can say that when our turn comes the thought of danger will not spoil our breakfast?
The poor boy squares his shoulders. He is white now round the edges of his lips. But he is going through with it.
Suddenly he speaks.
"I shall hold Matins in this room at ten o'clock every Sunday morning. If any of you like to attend you may."
There is a terrible silence. None of us look at each other. None of us look at Mr. Grierson.
Presently Mrs. Torrence is heard protesting that we haven't come here for Matins; that this is a mess-room and not a private chapel; and that Matins are against all military discipline.
"I shall hold Matins all the same," says Mr. Grierson. His voice is thick and jerky. "And if anybody likes to attend, they can. That's all I've got to say."
He gets up. He faces the batteries of unholy and unsympathetic eyes. He throws away the end of his cigarette with a gesture of superb defiance.
He has gone through with it. He has faced the fire. He has come out, not quite victorious, but with his hero's honour unstained.
It seemed to me awful that none of us should want his Matins. I should like, personally, to see him through with them. I could face the hostile eyes. But what I cannot face is the ceremony itself. My moral was spoiled with too many ceremonies in my youth; ceremonies that lacked all beauty and sincerity and dignity. And though I am convinced of the beauty and sincerity and dignity of Mr. Grierson's soul I cannot kneel down with him and take part in the performance of his prayer. Prayer is either the Supreme Illusion, or the Supreme Act, the pure and naked surrender to Reality, and attended by such sacredness and shyness that you can accomplish it only when alone or lost in a multitude that prays.
But why is there no Victoria Cross for moral courage?
(Dr. Wilson has come. He looks clever and nice.)
Our restlessness increases.
I have seen one of them. As I went downstairs this morning, two men carrying a stretcher crossed the landing below. I saw the outline of the wounded body under the blanket, and the head laid back on the pillow.
It is impossible, it is inconceivable, that I should have been afraid of seeing this. It is as if the wounded man himself absolved me from the memory and the reproach of fear.
I stood by the stair-rail to let them pass. There was some difficulty about turning at the stair-head. Mr. Riley was there. He came forward and took one end of the stretcher and turned it. He was very quiet and very gentle. You could see that he did the right thing by instinct. And I saw his face, and knew what had brought him here.
And here on the first landing is another wounded. His face is deformed by an abscess from a bullet in his mouth. It gives him a terrible look, half savage, wholly suffering. He sits there and cannot speak.
Mr. Riley is the only one of us who has found anything to do. So presently we go out to get our military passes. We stroll miserably about the town, oppressed with a sense of our futility. We buy cigarettes for the convalescents.
And at noon no orders have come for us.
They come just as we are sitting down to lunch. Our ambulance car is to go to Alost at once. The Commandant is arrested in the act of cutting bread. Dr. Bird is arrested in the act of eating it. We are all arrested in our several acts. As if they had been criminal acts, we desist suddenly. The men get up and look at each other. It is clear that they cannot all go. Mr. Grierson looks at the Commandant. His face is a little white and strained, as it was this morning when he announced Matins for ten o'clock.
The Commandant looks at Dr. Bird and tells him that he may go if he likes. His tone is admirably casual; it conveys no sense of the magnificence of his renunciation. He looks also at Mr. Grierson and Mr. Foster. The lot of honour falls upon these three.
They set out, still with their air of a youthful picnic party. Dr. Bird is more than ever the boisterous young man in charge of the champagne.
I am contented so long as Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert and Mrs. Torrence and Janet McNeil and the Commandant do not go yet. To anybody who knows the Commandant he is bound to be a prominent figure in the terrible moving pictures made by fear. Smitten by some great idea, he dashes out of cover as the shrapnel is falling. He wanders, wrapped in a happy dream, into the enemies' trenches. He mingles with their lines of communication as I have seen him mingle with the traffic at the junction of Chandos Street and the Strand. If you were to inform him of a patrol of Uhlans coming down the road, he would only say, "I see no Uhlans," and continue in their direction. It is inconceivable to his optimism that he should encounter Uhlans in a world so obviously made for peace and righteousness.
So that it is a relief to see somebody else (whom I do not know quite so well) going first. Time enough to be jumpy when the Commandant and the women go forth on the perilous adventure.
That is all very well. But I am jumpy all the same. By the mere fact that they are going out first Mr. Grierson and Mr. Foster have suddenly become dear and sacred. Their lives, their persons, their very clothes—Dr. Bird's cheerful face, which is so like an overgrown cherub's, his blond, gold lock of infantile hair, Mr. Grierson's pale eyes that foresee danger, his not too well fitting khaki coat—have acquired suddenly a priceless value, the value of things long seen and long admired. It is as if I had known them all my life; as if life will be unendurable if they do not come back safe.
It is not very endurable now. Of all the things that can happen to a woman on a field ambulance, the worst is to stay behind. To stay behind with nothing in the world to do but to devise a variety of dreadful deaths for Tom, the chauffeur, and Dr. Bird and Mr. Grierson and Mr. Foster. To know nothing except that Alost is being bombarded and that it is to Alost that they are going.
And the others who have been left behind are hanging about in gloom, disgusted with their fate. Mrs. Torrence and Janet McNeil are beginning to ask themselves what they are here for. To go through the wards is only to be in the way of the angelic beings with red crosses on their breasts and foreheads who are already somewhat in each other's way. Mrs. Torrence and the others do, however, go into the wards and talk to the wounded and cheer them up. I sit in the deserted mess-room, and look at the lunch that Tom and Dr. Bird and Mr. Grierson should have eaten and were obliged to leave behind. I would give anything to be able to go round the wards and cheer the wounded up. I wonder whether there is anything I could conceivably do for the wounded that would not bore them inexpressibly if I were to do it. I frame sentence after sentence in strange and abominable French, and each, apart from its own inherent absurdity, seems a mockery of the wounded. You cannot go to an immortal hero and grin at him and say Comment allez-vous? and expect him to be cheered up, especially when you know yourself to be one of a long procession of women who have done the same.
I abandon myself to my malady of self-distrust.
It is at its worst when Jean and Max, the convalescent orderlies, come in to remove the ruins of our mess. They are pathetic and adorable with their close-cropped heads in the pallor of their convalescence (Jean is attired in a suit of yellowish linen and Max in striped flannels). Jean's pallor is decorated (there is no other word for it) with blue-grey eyes, black eyebrows, black eyelashes and a little black moustache. He is martial and ardent and alert. But the pallor of Max is unredeemed; it is morbid and profound. It has invaded his whole being. His eyelids and his small sensitive mouth are involved; and his round dark eyes have the queer grey look of some lamentable wonder and amazement. But neither horror nor discipline have spoiled his engaging air—the air of a very young collegien who has broken loose and got into this Military Hospital by mistake.
I do not know whether intuition is a French or Belgian gift. Jean and Max are not Belgian but French, and they have it to a marvellous degree. They seemed to know in an instant what was the matter with the English lady; and they set about curing the malady. I have seldom seen such perfect tact and gentleness as was then displayed by those two hospital orderlies, Max and Jean. They had been wounded not so very long ago. But they think nothing of that. They intimate that if I insist on helping them with their plates and dishes they will be wounded, and more severely, in their honour.
It is in conversation that they are most adorable. They gaze at you with candid, innocent eyes; not a quiver of a lip or an eyelash betrays to you the outrageous quality of your French. The behaviour of your sentences would cause a scandal in a private boarding school for young ladies, it is so fantastically incorrect. But Max and Jean receive each phrase with an imperturbable and charming gravity. By the subtlest suggestion of manner they assure you that you speak with fluency and distinction, that yours is a very perfect French. Only their severe attentiveness warns you of the strain you are putting on them.
Max lingered long after Jean had departed to his kitchen. And presently he gave up his secret. He is a student, and they took him from his College (his course unfinished) to fight for his country. When the War broke out his mother went mad with the horror of it. He told me this quite simply, as if he were relating a common incident of war-time. Then, with a little air of mystery, he signed to me to follow him along the corridor. He stopped at a closed door and showed me a name inscribed in thick ornamental Gothic characters on a card tacked to the panel:
Max is not his real name. It is the name that Prosper Panne has taken to disguise himself while he is a servant. Prosper Panne—il est ecrivain, journaliste. He writes for the Paris papers. He looked at me with his amazed, pathetic eyes, and pointed with a finger to his breast to assure me that he is he, Prosper Panne.
And in the end I asked him whether it would bore the wounded frightfully if I took them some cigarettes? (I laid in cigarettes this morning as a provision for this desolate afternoon.)
And—dear Prosper Panne—so thoroughly did he understand my malady, that he himself escorted me. It is as if he knew the peur sacre that restrains me from flinging myself into the presence of the wounded. Soft-footed and graceful, turning now and then with his instinct of protection, the orderly glides before me, smoothing the way between my shyness and this dreaded majesty of suffering.
I followed him (with my cigarettes in my hand and my heart in my mouth) into the big ward on the ground floor.
I don't want to describe that ward, or the effect of those rows upon rows of beds, those rows upon rows of bound and bandaged bodies, the intensity of physical anguish suggested by sheer force of multiplication, by the diminishing perspective of the beds, by the clear light and nakedness of the great hall that sets these repeated units of torture in a world apart, a world of insufferable space and agonizing time, ruled by some inhuman mathematics and given over to pure transcendent pain. A sufficiently large ward full of wounded really does leave an impression very like that. But the one true thing about this impression is its transcendence. It is utterly removed from and unlike anything that you have experienced before. From the moment that the doors have closed behind you, you are in another world, and under its strange impact you are given new senses and a new soul. If there is horror here you are not aware of it as horror. Before these multiplied forms of anguish what you feel—if there be anything of you left to feel—is not pity, because it is so near to adoration.
If you are tired of the burden and malady of self, go into one of these great wards and you will find instant release. You and the sum of your little consciousness are not things that matter any more. The lowest and the least of these wounded Belgians is of supreme importance and infinite significance. You, who were once afraid of them and of their wounds, may think that you would suffer for them now, gladly; but you are not allowed to suffer; you are marvellously and mercilessly let off. In this sudden deliverance from yourself you have received the ultimate absolution, and their torment is your peace.
In the big ward very few of the men were well enough to smoke. So we went to the little wards where the convalescents are, Max leading.
I do not think that Max has received absolution yet. It is quite evident that he is proud of his entree into this place and of his intimacy with the wounded, of his role of interpreter.
But how perfectly he does it! He has no Flemish, but through his subtle gestures even the poor Flamand, who has no French, understands what I want to say to him and can't. He turns this modest presentation of cigarettes into a high social function, a trifle ambitious, perhaps, but triumphantly achieved.
All that was over by about three o'clock, when the sanctuary cast us out, and Max went back to his empty kitchen and became Prosper Panne again, and remembered that his mother was mad; and I went to the empty mess-room and became my miserable self and remembered that the Field Ambulance was still out, God knows where.
The mess-room windows look south over the railway lines towards the country where the fighting is. From the balcony you can see the lines where the troop trains run, going north-west and south-east. The Station, the Post Office, the Telegraph and Telephone Offices are here, all in one long red-brick building that bounds one side of the Place. It stands at right angles to the Flandria and stretches along opposite its flank. It has a flat roof with a crenelated parapet. Grass grows on the roof. No guns are mounted there, for Ghent is an open city. But in German tactics bombardment by aeroplane doesn't seem to count, and our situation is more provocative now than the Terminus Hotel at Ostend.
Beyond the straight black railway lines are miles upon miles of flat open country, green fields and rows of poplars, and little woods, and here and there a low rise dark with trees. Under our windows the white street runs south-eastward, and along it scouting cars and cycling corps rush to the fighting lines, and military motor-cars hurry impatiently, carrying Belgian staff officers; the ammunition wagons lumber along, and the troops march in a long file, to disappear round the turn of the road. That is where the others have gone, and I'd give everything I possess to go with them.
They have come back, incredibly safe, and have brought in four wounded.
There was a large crowd gathered in the Place to see them come, a crowd that has nothing to do and that lives from hour to hour on this spectacle of the wounded. Intense excitement this time, for one of the four wounded is a German. He was lying on a stretcher. No sooner had they drawn him out of the ambulance than they put him back again. (No Germans are taken in at our Hospital; they are all sent to the old Hopital Militaire No. I.) He thrust up his poor hand and grabbed the hanging strap to raise himself a little in his stretcher, and I saw him. He was ruddy and handsome. His thick blond hair stood up stiff from his forehead. His little blond moustache was turned up and twisted fiercely like the Kaiser's. The crowd booed at him as he lay there. His was a terrible pathos, unlike any other. He was so defiant and so helpless. And there's another emotion gone by the board. You simply could not hate him.
Later in the evening both cars were sent out, Car No. 1 with the Commandant and, if you will believe it, Ursula Dearmer. Heavens! What can the Military Power be thinking of? Car No. 2 took Dr. Wilson and Mrs. Torrence. The Military Power, I suppose, has ordained this too. And when I think of Mrs. Torrence's dream of getting into the greatest possible danger, I am glad that the Commandant is with Ursula Dearmer. We pledged our words, he and I, that danger and Ursula Dearmer should never meet.
They all come back, impossibly safe. They are rather like children after the party, too excited to give a lucid and coherent tale of what they've done. My ambulance Day-Book stores the stuff from which reports and newspaper articles are to be made. I note that Car No. 1 has brought three wounded to Hospital I., and that Car No. 2 has brought four wounded to Hospital II., also that a dum-dum bullet has been found in the hand of one of the three. There is a considerable stir among the surgeons over this bullet. They are vaguely gratified at its being found in our hospital and not the other.
Little Janet McNeil and Mr. Riley and all the others who were left behind have gone to bed in hopeless gloom. Even the bullet hasn't roused them beyond the first tense moment.
I ask for ink, and dear Max has given me all his in his own ink-pot.
We have been here a hundred years.
Car No. 1 went out at eight-thirty this morning, with the Commandant and Dr. Bird and Ursula Dearmer and Mr. Grierson and a Belgian Red Cross guide. With Tom, the chauffeur, that makes six. Tom's face, as he sees this party swarming on his car, is expressive of tumultuous passions. Disgust predominates.
Their clothes seem stranger than ever by contrast with the severe military khaki of the car. Dr. Bird has added to his civilian costume a Belgian forage cap with a red tassel that hangs over his forehead. It was given to him yesterday by way of homage to his courage and his personal charm. But it makes him horribly vulnerable. The Chaplain, standing out from the rest of the Corps in complete khaki, is an even more inevitable mark for bullets. Tom stares at everybody with eyes of violent inquiry. He still evidently wants to know whether we call ourselves a field ambulance. He starts his car with movements of exasperation and despair. We are to judge what his sense of discipline must be since he consents to drive the thing at all.
The Commandant affects not to see Tom. Perhaps he really doesn't see him.
It is just as well that he can't see Mrs. Torrence, or Janet McNeil or Mr. Riley or Dr. Haynes. They are overpowered by this tragedy of being left behind. Under it the discipline of the —— Hospital breaks down. The eighteen-year-old child is threatening to commit suicide or else go home. She regards the two acts as equivalent. Mr. Riley's gloom is now so awful that he will not speak when he is spoken to. He looks at me with dumb hostility, as if he thought that I had something to do with it. Dr. Haynes's melancholy is even more heart-rending, because it is gentle and unexpressed.
I try to console them. I point out that it is a question of arithmetic. There are only two cars and there are fourteen of us. Fourteen into two won't go, even if you don't count the wounded. And, after all, we haven't been here two days. But it is no good. We have been here a hundred years, and we have done nothing. There isn't anything to do. There are not enough wounded to go round. We turn our eyes with longing towards Antwerp, so soon to be battered by the siege-guns from Namur.
And Bert, poor Bert! he has crawled into Ambulance Car No. 2 where it stands outside in the hospital yard, and he has hidden himself under the hood.
Mrs. Lambert is a little sad, too. But we are none of us very sorry for Mrs. Lambert. We have gathered that her husband is a journalist, and that he is special correspondent at the front for some American paper. He has a motor-car which we assume rashly to be the property of his paper. He is always dashing off to the firing-line in it, and Mrs. Lambert is always at liberty to go with him. She is mistaken if she thinks that her sorrow is in any way comparable with ours.
But if there are not enough wounded to go round in Ghent, there are more refugees than Ghent can deal with. They are pouring in by all the roads from Alost and Termonde. Every train disgorges multitudes of them into the Place.
This morning I went to the Matron, Madame F., and told her I wasn't much good, but I'd be glad if she could give me some work. I said I supposed there was some to be done among the refugees.
Work? Among the refugees? They could employ whole armies of us. There are thousands of refugees at the Palais des Fetes. I had better go there and see what is being done. Madame will give me an introduction to her sister-in-law, Madame F., the Presidente of the Comite des Dames, and to her niece, Mademoiselle F., who will take me to the Palais.
And Madame adds that there will soon be work for all of us in the Hospital. Yes: even for the untrained.
Life is once more bearable.
But the others won't believe it. They say there are three hundred nurses in the hospital.
And the fact remains that we have two young surgeons cooling their heels in the corridors, and a fully-trained nurse tearing her hair out, while the young girl, Ursula Dearmer, takes the field.
And I think of the poor little dreamy, guileless Commandant in his conspicuous car, and I smile at her in secret, thanking Heaven that it's Ursula Dearmer and not Mrs. Torrence who is at his side.
The ambulance has come back from Alost with two or three wounded and some refugees. The Commandant is visibly elated, elated out of all proportion to the work actually done. Ursula Dearmer is not elated in the very least, but she is wide-awake. Her docility has vanished with her torpor. She and the Commandant both look as if something extremely agreeable had happened to them at Alost. But they are reticent. We gather that Ursula Dearmer has been working with the nuns in the Convent at Alost, where the wounded were taken before the ambulance cars removed them to Ghent. It sounded very safe.
But the Commandant dashed into my room after luncheon. His face was radiant, almost ecstatic. He was like a child who has rushed in to tell you how ripping the pantomime was.
"We've been under fire!"
But I was very angry. Coldly and quietly angry. I felt like that when I was ten years old and piloting my mother through the thick of the traffic between Guildhall and the Bank, and she broke from me and was all but run over. I don't quite know what I said to him, but I think I said he ought to be ashamed of himself. For it seems that Ursula Dearmer was with him.
I remembered how Ursula Dearmer's mother had come to me in the committee-room and asked me how near we proposed to go to the firing-line, and whether her daughter would be in any danger, and how I said, first of all, that there wasn't any use pretending that there wouldn't be danger, and that the chances were—and how the Commandant had intervened at that moment to assure her that danger there would be none. With a finger on the map of France and Belgium he traced the probable, the inevitable, course of the campaign; and in light, casual tones which allayed all anxiety, he explained how, as the Germans advanced upon any point, we should retire upon our base. As for the actual field-work, with one gesture he swept the whole battle-line into the distance, and you saw it as an infinitely receding tide that left its wrack strewn on a place of peace where the ambulance wandered at its will, secure from danger. The whole thing was done with such compelling and convincing enthusiasm that Ursula Dearmer's mother adopted more and more the humble attitude of a mere woman who has failed to grasp the conditions of modern warfare. Ursula Dearmer herself looked more docile than ever, though a little bored, and very sleepy.
And I remembered how when it was all over Ursula Dearmer's mother implored me, if there was any danger, to see that Ursula Dearmer was sent home, and how I promised that whatever happened Ursula Dearmer would be safe, clinching it with a frightfully sacred inner vow, and saying to myself at the same time what a terrible nuisance this young girl is going to be. I saw myself at the moment of parting, standing on the hearthrug, stiff as a poker with resolution, and saying solemnly, "I'll keep my word!"
And here was the Commandant informing me with glee that a shell had fallen and burst at Ursula Dearmer's feet.
He was so pleased, and with such innocent and childlike pleasure, that I hadn't the heart to tell him that there wasn't much resemblance between those spaces of naked peace behind the receding battle-line and the narrow streets of a bombarded village. I only said that I should write to Ursula Dearmer's mother and ask her to release me from my promise. He said I would do nothing of the kind. I said I would. And I did. And the poor Commandant left me, somewhat dashed, and not at all pleased with me.
It seems that the shell burst, not exactly at Ursula Dearmer's feet, but ten yards away from her. It came romping down the street with immense impetus and determination; and it is not said of Ursula Dearmer that she was much less coy in the encounter. She took to shell-fire "like a duck to water."
Dr. Bird told us this. Ursula Dearmer herself was modest, and claimed no sort of intimacy with the shell that waked her up. She was as nice as possible about it. But all the same, into the whole Corps (that part of it that had been left behind) there has crept a sneaking envy of her luck. I feel it myself. And if I feel it, what must Mrs. Torrence and Janet feel?
Mrs. Lambert, anyhow, has had nothing to complain of so far. Her husband took her to Alost in his motor-car; I mean the motor-car which is the property of his paper.
In the afternoon Mademoiselle F. called to take me to the Palais des Fetes. We stopped at a shop on the way to buy the Belgian Red Cross uniform—the white linen overall and veil—which you must wear if you work among the refugees there.
Madame F. is very kind and very tired. She has been working here since early morning for weeks on end. They are short of volunteers for the service of the evening meals, and I am to work at the tables for three hours, from six to nine P.M. This is settled, and a young Red Cross volunteer takes me over the Palais. It is an immense building, rather like Olympia. It stands away from the town in open grounds like the Botanical Gardens, Regent's Park. It is where the great Annual Shows were held and the vast civic entertainments given. Miles of country round Ghent are given up to market-gardening. There are whole fields of begonias out here, brilliant and vivid in the sun. They will never be sold, never gathered, never shown in the Palais des Fetes. It is the peasants, the men and women who tilled these fields, and their children that are being shown here, in the splendid and wonderful place where they never set foot before.
There are four thousand of them lying on straw in the outer hall, in a space larger than Olympia. They are laid out in rows all round the four walls, and on every foot of ground between; men, women and children together, packed so tight that there is barely standing-room between any two of them. Here and there a family huddles up close, trying to put a few inches between it and the rest; some have hollowed out a place in the straw or piled a barrier of straw between themselves and their neighbours, in a piteous attempt at privacy; some have dragged their own bedding with them and are lodged in comparative comfort. But these are the very few. The most part are utterly destitute, and utterly abandoned to their destitution. They are broken with fatigue. They have stumbled and dropped no matter where, no matter beside whom. None turns from his neighbour; none scorns or hates or loathes his fellow. The rigidly righteous bourgeoise lies in the straw breast to breast with the harlot of the village slum, and her innocent daughter back to back with the parish drunkard. Nothing matters. Nothing will ever matter any more.
They tell you that when darkness comes down on all this there is hell. But you do not believe it. You can see nothing sordid and nothing ugly here. The scale is too vast. Your mind refuses this coupling of infamy with transcendent sorrow. It rejects all images but the one image of desolation which is final and supreme. It is as if these forms had no stability and no significance of their own; as if they were locked together in one immense body and stirred or slept as one.
Two or three figures mount guard over this litter of prostrate forms. They are old men and old women seated on chairs. They sit upright and immobile, with their hands folded on their knees. Some of them have fallen asleep where they sit. They are all rigid in an attitude of resignation. They have the dignity of figures that will endure, like that, for ever. They are Flamands.
This place is terribly still. There is hardly any rustling of the straw. Only here and there the cry of a child fretting for sleep or for its mother's breast. These people do not speak to each other. Half of them are sound asleep, fixed in the posture they took when they dropped into the straw. The others are drowsed with weariness, stupefied with sorrow. On all these thousands of faces there is a mortal apathy. Their ruin is complete. They have been stripped bare of the means of life and of all likeness to living things. They do not speak. They do not think. They do not, for the moment, feel. In all the four thousand—except for the child crying yonder—there is not one tear.
And you who look at them cannot speak or think or feel either, and you have not one tear. A path has been cleared through the straw from door to door down the middle of the immense hall, a narrower track goes all round it in front of the litters that are ranged under the walls, and you are taken through and round the Show. You are to see it all. The dear little Belgian lady, your guide, will not let you miss anything. "Regardez, Mademoiselle, ces deux petites filles. Qu'elles sont jolies, les pauvres petites." "Voici deux jeunes maries, qui dorment. Regardez l'homme; il tient encore la main de sa femme."
You look. Yes. They are asleep. He is really holding her hand. "Et ces quatre petits enfants qui ont perdu leur pere et leur mere. C'est triste, n'est-ce pas, Mademoiselle?"
And you say, "Oui, Mademoiselle. C'est bien triste."
But you don't mean it. You don't feel it. You don't know whether it is "triste" or not. You are not sure that "triste" is the word for it. There are no words for it, because there are no ideas for it. It is a sorrow that transcends all sorrow that you have ever known. You have a sort of idea that perhaps, if you can ever feel again, this sight will be worse to remember than it is to see. You can't believe what you see; you are stunned, stupefied, as if you yourself had been crushed and numbed in the same catastrophe. Only now and then a face upturned (a face that your guide hasn't pointed out to you) surging out of this incredible welter of faces and forms, smites you with pity, and you feel as if you had received a lacerating wound in sleep.
Little things strike you, though. Already you are forgetting the faces of the two little girls and of the young husband and wife holding each other's hands, and of the four little children who have lost their father and mother, but you notice the little dog, the yellow-brown mongrel terrier, that absurd little dog which belongs to all nations and all countries. He has obtained possession of the warm centre of a pile of straw and is curled up on it fast asleep. And the Flemish family who brought him, who carried him in turn for miles rather than leave him to the Germans, they cannot stretch themselves on the straw because of him. They have propped themselves up as best they may all round him, and they cannot sleep, they are too uncomfortable.
More thousands than there is room for in the straw are fed three times a day in the inner hall, leading out of this dreadful dormitory. All round the inner hall and on the upper story off the gallery are rooms for washing and dressing the children and for bandaging sore feet and attending to the wounded. For there are many wounded among the refugees. This part of the Palais is also a hospital, with separate wards for men, for women and children and for special cases.
Late in the evening M. P—— took the whole Corps to see the Palais des Fetes, and I went again. By night I suppose it is even more "triste" than it was by day. In the darkness the gardens have taken on some malign mystery and have given it to the multitudes that move there, that turn in the winding paths among ghostly flowers and bushes, that approach and recede and approach in the darkness of the lawns. Blurred by the darkness and diminished to the barest indications of humanity, their forms are more piteous and forlorn than ever; their faces, thrown up by the darkness, more awful in their blankness and their pallor. The scene, drenched in darkness, is unearthly and unintelligible. You cannot account for it in saying to yourself that these are the refugees, and everybody knows what a refugee is; that there is War—and everybody knows what war is—in Belgium; and that these people have been shelled out of their homes and are here at the Palais des Fetes, because there is no other place for them, and the kind citizens of Ghent have undertaken to house and feed them here. That doesn't make it one bit more credible or bring you nearer to the secret of these forms. You who are compelled to move with them in the sinister darkness are more than ever under the spell that forbids you and them to feel. You are deadened now to the touch of the incarnate.
On the edge of the lawn, near the door of the Palais, some ghostly roses are growing on a ghostly tree. Your guide, M. P——, pauses to tell you their names and kind. It seems that they are rare.
Several hundred more refugees have come into the Palais since the afternoon. They have had to pack them a little closer in the straw. Eight thousand were fed this evening in the inner hall.
In the crush I get separated from M. P—— and from the Corps. I see some of them in the distance, the Commandant and Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert and M. P——. I do not feel as if I belonged to them any more. I belong so much to the stunned sleepers in the straw who cannot feel.
Nice Dr. Wilson comes across to me and we go round together, looking at the sleepers. He says that nothing he has seen of the War has moved him so much as this sight. He wishes that the Kaiser could be brought here to see what he has done. And I find myself clenching my hands tight till it hurts, not to suppress my feelings—for I feel nothing—but because I am afraid that kind Dr. Wilson is going to talk. At the same time, I would rather he didn't leave me just yet. There is a sort of comfort and protection in being with somebody who isn't callous, who can really feel.
But Dr. Wilson isn't very fluent, and presently he leaves off talking, too.
Near the door we pass the family with the little yellow-brown dog. All day the little dog slept in their place. And now that they are trying to sleep he will not let them. The little dog is wide awake and walking all over them. And when you think what it must have cost to bring him—
C'est triste, n'est-ce pas?
As we left the gardens M. P—— gathered two ghostly roses, the last left on their tree, and gave one to Mrs. Lambert and one to me. I felt something rather like a pang then. Heaven knows why, for such a little thing.
Conference in our mess-room. M. ——, the Belgian Red Cross guide who goes out with our ambulances, is there. He is very serious and important. The Commandant calls us to come and hear what he has to say. It seems it had been arranged that one of our cars should be sent to-morrow morning to Termonde to bring back refugees. But M. —— does not think that car will ever start. He says that the Germans are now within a few miles of Ghent, and may be expected to occupy it to-morrow morning, and that instead of going to Termonde to-morrow we had very much better pack up and retreat to Bruges to-night. There are ten thousand Germans ready to march into Ghent.
M. —— is weighed down by the thought of his ten thousand Germans. But the Commandant is not weighed down a bit. On the contrary, a pleasant exaltation comes upon him. It comes upon the whole Corps, it comes even upon me. We refuse to believe in his ten thousand Germans. M. —— himself cannot swear to them. We refuse to pack up. We refuse to retreat to Bruges to-night. Time enough for agitation in the morning. We prefer to go to bed. M. —— shrugs his shoulders, as much as to say that he has done his duty and if we are all murdered in our beds it isn't his fault.
Does M. —— really believe in the advance of the ten thousand? His face is inscrutable.
No Germans in Ghent. No Germans reported near Ghent.
Madame F. and her daughter smile at the idea of the Germans coming into Ghent. They will never come, and if they do come they will only take a little food and go out again. They will never do any harm to Ghent. Namur and Liege and Brussels, if you like, and Malines, and Louvain, and Termonde and Antwerp (perhaps); but Ghent—why should they? It is Antwerp they are making for, not Ghent.
And Madame represents the mind of the average Gantois. It is placid, incredulous, stolidly at ease, superbly inhospitable to disagreeable ideas. No Gantois can conceive that what has been done to the citizens of Termonde would be done to him. C'est triste—what has been done to the citizens of Termonde, but it doesn't shake his belief in the immunity of Ghent.
Which makes M. ——'s behaviour all the more mysterious. Why did he try to scare us so? Five theories are tenable:
(1.) M. —— did honestly believe that ten thousand Germans would come in the morning and take our ambulance prisoner. That is to say, he believed what nobody else believed.
(2.) M. —— was scared himself. He had no desire to be taken quite so near the firing-line as the English Ambulance seemed likely to take him; so that the departure of the English Ambulance would not be wholly disagreeable to M. ——. (This theory is too far-fetched.)
(3.) M. —— was the agent of the Military Power, commissioned to test the nerve of the English Ambulance. ("Stood fire, have they? Give 'em a real scare, and see how they behave.")
(4.) M. —— is a psychologist and made this little experiment on the English Ambulance himself.
(5.) He is a humorist and was simply "pulling its leg."
The three last theories are plausible, but all five collapse before the inscrutability of Monsieur's face.
Germans or no Germans, one ambulance car started at five in the morning for Quatrecht, somewhere between Ghent and Brussels, to fetch wounded and refugees. The other went, later, to Zele. I am not very clear as to who has gone with them, but Mrs. Torrence, Mrs. Lambert, Janet McNeil and Dr. Haynes and Mr. Riley have been left behind.
It is their third day of inactivity, and three months of it could not have devastated them more. They have touched the very bottom of suicidal gloom. Three months hence their state of mind will no doubt appear in all its absurdity, but at the moment it is too piteous for words. When you think what they were yesterday and the day before, there is no language to express the crescendo of their despair. I came upon Mr. Riley this morning, standing by the window of the mess-room, and contemplating the facade of the railway station. (It is making a pattern on our brains.) I tried to soothe him. I said it was hard lines—beastly hard lines—and told him to cheer up—there'd be heaps for him to do presently. And he turned from me like a man who has just buried his first-born.
Janet McNeil is even more heart-rending, sunk in a chair with her hands stuck into the immense pockets of her overcoat, her flawless and impassive face tilted forward as her head droops forlornly to her breast. She is such a child that she can see nothing beyond to-day, and yesterday and the day before that. She is going back to-morrow. Her valour and energy are frustrated and she is wounded in her honour. She is conscious of the rottenness of putting on a khaki tunic, and winding khaki putties round and round her legs to hang about the Hospital doing nothing. And she had to sell her motor bicycle in order to come out. Not that that matters in the least. What matters is that we are here, eating Belgian food and quartered in a Belgian Military Hospital, and "swanking" about with Belgian Red Cross brassards (stamped) on our sleeves, and doing nothing for the Belgians, doing nothing for anybody. We are not justifying our existence. We are frauds.
I tell the poor child that she cannot possibly feel as big a fraud as I do; that there was no earthly reason why I should have come, and none whatever why I should remain.
And then, to my amazement, I learn that I am envied. It's all right for me. My job is clearly defined, and nobody can take it from me. I haven't got to wind khaki putties round my legs for nothing.
I should have thought that the child was making jokes at my expense but for the extreme purity and candour of her gaze. Incredible that there should exist an abasement profounder than my own. I have hidden my tunic and breeches in my hold-all. I dare not own to having brought them.
Down in the vestibule I encounter Mrs. Torrence in khaki. Mrs. Torrence yearning for her wounded. Mrs. Torrence determined to get to her wounded at any cost. She is not abased or dejected, but exalted, rather. She is ready to go to the President or to the Military Power itself, and demand her wounded from them. Her beautiful eyes demand them from Heaven itself.
I cannot say there are not enough wounded to go round, but I point out for the fifteenth time that the trouble is there are not enough ambulance cars to go round.
But it is no use. It does not explain why Heaven should have chosen Ursula Dearmer and caused shells to bound in her direction, and have rejected Mrs. Torrence. The Military Power that should have ordered these things has abandoned us to the caprice of Heaven.
Of course if Mrs. Torrence was a saint she would fold her hands and bow her superb little head before the decrees of Heaven; but she is only a mortal woman, born with the genius of succour and trained to the last point of efficiency; so she rages. The tigress, robbed of her young, is not more furiously inconsolable than Mrs. Torrence.
It is not Ursula Dearmer's fault. She is innocent of supplanting Mrs. Torrence. The thing simply happened. More docile than determined, unhurrying and uneager, and only half-awake, she seems to have rolled into Car No. 1 with Heaven's impetus behind her. Like the shell at Alost, it is her luck.
And on the rest of us our futility and frustration weigh like lead. The good Belgian food has become bitter in our mouths. When we took our miserable walk through Ghent this morning we felt that l'Ambulance Anglaise must be a mark for public hatred and derision because of us. I declare I hardly dare go into the shops with the Red Cross brassard on my arm. I imagine sardonic raillery in the eyes of every Belgian that I meet. We do not think the authorities will stand it much longer; they will fire us out of the Hopital Militaire No. II.
But no, the authorities do not fire us out. Impassive in wisdom and foreknowledge, they smile benignly on our agitation. They compliment the English Ambulance on the work it has done already. They convey the impression that but for the English Ambulance the Belgian Army would be in a bad way. Mademoiselle F. insists that the Hospital will soon be overflowing with the wounded from Antwerp and that she can find work even for me. It is untrue that there are three hundred nurses in the Hospital. There are only three hundred nurses in all Belgium. They pile it on so that we are more depressed than ever.
Janet McNeil is convinced that they think we are no good and that they are just being angels to us because they are sorry for us.
I break it to them very gently that I've volunteered to serve at the tables at the Palais des Fetes. I feel as if I had sneaked into a remunerative job while my comrades are starving.
The Commandant is not quite as pleased as I thought he would be to hear of my engagement at the Palais des Fetes. He says, "It is not your work." I insist that my work is to do anything I can do; and that if I cannot dress wounds I can at least hand round bread and pour out coffee and wash up dishes. It is true that I am Secretary and Reporter and (for the time being) Treasurer to the Ambulance, and that I carry its funds in a leather purse belt round my body. Because I am the smallest and weakest member of the Corps that is the most unlikely place for the funds to be. It was imprudent, to say the least of it, for the Chaplain in his khaki, to carry them, as he did, into the firing-line. The belt, which fitted the Chaplain, hangs about half a yard below my waist and is extremely uncomfortable, but that is neither here nor there. Keeping the Corps' accounts only takes two hours and a half, even with Belgian and English money mixed, and when I've added the same column of figures ten times up and ten times down, to make certain it's all right (I am no good at accounts, but I know my weakness and guard against it, giving the Corps the benefit of every doubt and making good every deficit out of my private purse). Writing the Day-Book—perhaps half an hour. The Commandant's correspondence, when he has any, and reporting to the British Red Cross Society, when there is anything to report, another half-hour at the outside; and there you have only three and a half hours employed out of the twenty-four, even if I balanced my accounts every day, and I don't.
True that The Daily Chronicle promised to take any articles that I might send them from the front, but I haven't written any. You cannot write articles for The Daily Chronicle out of nothing; at least I can't.
The Commandant finally yields to argument and entreaty.
* * * * *
I do not tell him that what I really want to do is to go out with the Field Ambulance, and get beyond the turn of that road.
I know I haven't the ghost of a chance; I know that if I had—as things stand at present—not being a surgeon or a trained nurse, I wouldn't take it, even to get there. And at the same time I know, with a superior certainty, that this unlikely thing will happen. This sense of certainty is not at all uncommon, but it is, or seems, unintelligible. You can only conceive it as a premonition of some unavoidable event. It is as if something had been looking for you, waiting for you, from all eternity out here; something that you have been looking for; and, when you are getting near, it begins calling to you; it draws your heart out to it all day long. You can give no account of it. All that you know about it is that it is unique. It has nothing to do with your ordinary curiosities and interests and loves; nothing to do with the thirst for experience, or for adventure, or for glory, or for the thrill. You can't "get" anything out of it. It is something hidden and secret and supremely urgent. Its urgency, indeed, is so great that if you miss it you will have missed reality itself.
For me this uncanny anticipation is somehow connected with the turn of the south-east road. I do not see how I am ever going to get there or anywhere near there. But I am not uneasy or impatient any more. There is no hurry. The thing, whatever it is, will be irresistible, and if I don't go out to find it, it will find me.
* * * * *
Mrs. Torrence has gone, Heaven knows where. She has not been with the others at the Palais des Fetes. Janet McNeil and Mrs. Lambert have been working there for five hours, serving meals to the refugees. Ursula Dearmer with extreme docility has been working all the afternoon with the nurses.
It looks as if we were beginning to settle down.
Mrs. Torrence has come back. The red German pom-pom has gone from her cap and she wears the badge of the Belgian Motor Cyclist Corps, black wings on a white ground. Providence has rehabilitated himself. He has abased our trained nurse and expert motorist in order to exalt her. He fairly flung her in the path of the Colonel of (I think) the Belgian Motor Cyclist Corps at a moment when the Colonel found himself in a jibbing motor-car without a chauffeur. We gather that the Colonel was becoming hectic with blasphemy when she appeared and settled the little difficulty between him and his car. She seems to have followed it up by driving him then and there straight up to the firing-line to look for wounded.
End of the adventure—she volunteered her services as chauffeur to the Colonel and was accepted.
The Commandant has received the news with imperturbable optimism.
As for her, she is appeased. She will realize her valorous dream of "the greatest possible danger;" and she will get to her wounded.
The others have come back too. They have toiled for five hours among the refugees.
It is my turn now at the Palais des Fetes.
It took ages to get in. The dining-hall is narrower than the sleeping-hall, but it extends beyond it on one side where there is a large door opening on the garden. But this door is closed to the public. You can only reach the dining-hall by going through the straw among the sleepers. And at this point the Commandant's optimism has broken down. He won't let you go in through the straw, and the clerk who controls the entry won't let you go in through the other door. You explain to the clerk that the English Ambulance being quartered in a Military Hospital, its rules are inviolable; it is not allowed to expose itself to the horrors of the straw. The clerk is not interested in the English Ambulance, he is not impressed by the fact that it has volunteered its priceless services to the Refugee Committee, and he is contemptuous of the orders of its Commandant. His business is to see that you go into the Palais through his door and not through any other door. And when you tell him that if he will not withdraw his regulations the Ambulance will be compelled to withdraw its services, he replies with delicious sarcasm, "Nous n'avons pas prevu ca." In the end you are referred to the Secretary in his bureau. He grasps the situation and is urbanity itself. Provided with a special permit bearing his sacred signature, you are admitted by the other door.
Your passage to the Vestiaire takes you through the infants' room and along the galleries past the wards. The crowd of refugees is so great that beds have been put up in the galleries. You take off your outer garments and put on the Belgian Red Cross uniform (you have realized by this time that your charming white overall and veil are sanitary precautions).
Coming down the wide wooden stairways you have a full view of the Inner Hall. This enormous oblong space below the galleries is the heart, the fervid central foyer of the Palais des Fetes. At either end of it is an immense auditorium, tier above tier of seats, rising towards the gallery floors. All down each side of it, standards with triumphal devices are tilted from the balustrade. Banners hang from the rafters.
And under them, down the whole length of the hall from auditorium to auditorium, the tables are set out. Bare wooden tables, one after another, more tables than you can count.
From the door of the sleeping-hall to each auditorium, and from each auditorium down the line of the tables a gangway is roped off for the passage of the refugees.
They say there are ten thousand five hundred here to-night. Beyond the rope-line, along the inner hall, more straw has been laid down to bed the overflow from the outer hall. They come on in relays to be fed. They are marshalled first into the seats of each auditorium, where they sit like the spectators of some monstrous festival and wait for their turn at the tables.
This, the long procession of people streaming in without haste, in perfect order and submission, is heart-rending if you like. The immensity of the crowd no longer overpowers you. The barriers make it a steady procession, a credible spectacle. You can take it in. It is the thin end of the wedge in your heart. They come on so slowly that you can count them as they come. They have sorted themselves out. The fathers and the mothers are together, they lead their little children by the hand or push them gently before them. There is no anticipation in their eyes; no eagerness and no impatience in their bearing. They do not hustle each other or scramble for their places. It is their silence and submission that you cannot stand.
For you have a moment of dreadful inactivity after the setting of the tables for the premier service. You have filled your bowls with black coffee; somebody else has laid the slices of white bread on the bare tables. You have nothing to do but stand still and see them file in to the banquet. On the banners and standards from the roof and balustrades the Lion of Flanders ramps over their heads. And somewhere in the back of your brain a song sings itself to a tune that something in your brain wakes up:
Ils ne vont pas dompter Le vieux lion de Flandres, Tant que le lion a des dents, Tant que le lion peut griffer.
It is the song the Belgian soldiers sang as they marched to battle in the first week of August. It is only the end of September now.
And somebody standing beside you says: "C'est triste, n'est-ce pas?"
You cannot look any more.
At the canteen the men are pouring out coffee from enormous enamelled jugs into the small jugs that the waitresses bring. This wastes your time and cools the coffee. So you take a big jug from the men. It seems to you no heavier than an ordinary teapot. And you run with it. To carry the largest possible jug at the swiftest possible pace is your only chance of keeping sane. (It isn't till it is all over that you hear the whisper of "Anglaise!" and realize how very far from sane you must have looked running round with your enormous jug.) You can fill up the coffee bowls again—the little bowls full, the big bowls only half full; there is more than enough coffee to go round. But there is no milk except for the babies. And when they ask you for more bread there is not enough to go twice round. The ration is now two slices of dry bread and a bowl of black coffee three times a day. Till yesterday there was an allowance of meat for soup at the mid-day meal; to-day the army has commandeered all the meat.