YOUNG HILDA AT THE WARS
ARTHUR H. GLEASON
Author of "The Spirit of Christmas" "Love, Home and the Inner Life," Etc.
New York Frederick A. Stokes Company Publishers
Copyright, 1915, by Frederick A. Stokes Company
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages
TO CHEVALIER HELEN OF PERVYSE
EXPERIENCE (by way of Preface) 1
I. YOUNG HILDA AT THE WARS 5 Good Will 37
II. THE RIBBONS THAT STUCK IN HIS COAT 39 The Belgian Refugee 59
III. ROLLO, THE APOLLO 63 The Brotherhood of Man 91
IV. THE PIANO OF PERVYSE 93 Lost 113
V. WAR 115 In Ramskappele Barnyard 141
VI. THE CHEVALIER 143 With the Ambulance 163
VII. THE AMERICAN 165 The Bonfire 189
VIII. THE WAR BABY 191
(By way of Preface)
Of these sketches that tell of ruined Belgium, I must say that I saw what I have told of. They are not meditations in a library. Because of the great courtesy of the Prime Minister of Belgium, who is the war minister, and through the daily companionship of his son, our little group of helpers were permitted to go where no one else could go, to pass in under shell fire, to see action, to lift the wounded out of the muddy siding where they had fallen. Ten weeks of Red Cross work showed me those faces and torn bodies which I have described. The only details that have been altered for the purpose of story-telling are these: The Doctor who rescued the thirty aged at Dixmude is still alive; Smith did not receive the decoration, but Hilda did; it was a candlestick on the piano of Pervyse that vibrated to shell fire; the spy continues to signal without being caught; "Pervyse," the war-baby, was not adopted by an American financier; motor ambulances were given to the Corps, not to an individual. With these exceptions, the incidents are lifted over from the experience of two English women and my wife in Pervyse, and my own weeks as stretcher-bearer on an ambulance.
In that deadlock of slaughter where I worked, I saw no pageantry of war, no glitter and pomp, at all. Nothing remains to me of war pictures except the bleakness. When I think suddenly of Belgium, I see a town heavy with the coming horror:—almost all the houses sealed, the curtains drawn, the friendly door barred. And then I see a town after the invaders have shelled it and burned it, with the homeless dogs howling in the streets, and the pigeons circling in search of their cote, but not finding it. Or I look down a long, lonely road, gutted with shell holes, with dead cattle in the fields, and farm-houses in a heap of broken bricks and dust.
And when I do not see a landscape, dreary with its creeping ruin, I see men in pain. Sometimes I see the faces of dead boys—one boy outstretched at length on a doorstep with the smoke of his burning body rising through the mesh of his blue army clothing; and then a half mile beyond, in the yard of a farm-house, a young peasant spread out as he had fallen when the chance bullet found him.
That alone which seemed good in the horror was the courage of the modern man. He dies as simply and as bravely as the young of Thermopylae. These men of the factory and office are crowding more meaning into their brief weeks by the Yser and under the shattering of Ypres than is contained in all the last half century of clerk routine.
YOUNG HILDA AT THE WARS
She was an American girl from that very energetic and prosperous state of Iowa, which if not as yet the mother of presidents, is at least the parent of many exuberant and useful persons. Will power is grown out yonder as one of the crops. She had a will of her own and her eye showed a blue cerulean. Her hair was a bright yellow, lighting up a gloomy room. It had three shades in it, and you never knew ahead of time which shade was going to enrich the day, so that an encounter with her always carried a surprise. For when she arranged that abundance in soft nun-like drooping folds along the side of the head, the quieter tones were in command. And when it was piled coil on coil on the crown, it added inches to the prairie stature, and it was mellow like ripe corn in the sun. But the prettiest of all was at the seashore or on the hills, when she unbuckled it from its moorings and let it fall in its plenty to the waist. Then its changing lights came out in a rippling play of color, and the winds had their way with it. It was then youth's battleflag unfurled, and strong men were ready to follow. It was such a vivid possession that strangers were always suspicious of it, till they knew the girl, or saw it in its unshackled freedom. She had that wayward quality of charm, which visits at random a frail creature like Maude Adams, and a burly personality, such as that of Mr. Roosevelt. It is a pleasant endowment, for it leaves nothing for the possessor to do in life except to bring it along, in order to obtain what he is asking for. When it is harnessed to will power, the pair of them enjoy a career.
So when Hilda arrived in large London in September of the great war, there was nothing for it but that somehow she must go to war. She did not wish to shoot anybody, neither a German grocer nor a Flemish peasant, for she liked people. She had always found them willing to make a place for her in whatever was going her way. But she did want to see what war was like. Her experience had always been of the gentler order. Canoeing and country walks, and a flexible wrist in playing had given her only a meagre training for the stresses of the modern battlefield. Once she had fainted when a favorite aunt had fallen from a trolley car. And she had left the room when a valued friend had attacked a stiff loaf of bread with a crust that turned the edge of the knife into his hand. She had not then made her peace with bloodshed and suffering.
On the Strand, London, there was a group of alert professional women, housed in a theatre building, and known as the Women's Crisis League. To their office she took her way, determined to enlist for Belgium. Mrs. Bracher was in charge of the office—a woman with a stern chin, and an explosive energy, that welcomed initiative in newcomers.
"It's a poor time to get pupils," said the fair-haired Hilda, "I don't want to go back to the Studio Club in New York, as long as there's more doing over here. I'm out of funds, but I want to work."
"Are you a trained nurse?" asked Mrs. Bracher, who was that, as well as a motor cyclist and a woman of property, a certificated midwife, and a veterinarian.
"Not even a little bit," replied Hilda, "but I'm ready to do dirty work. There must be lots to do for an untrained person, who is strong and used to roughing it. I'll catch hold all right, if you'll give me the chance."
"Right, oh," answered Mrs. Bracher. "Dr. Neil McDonnell is shortly leaving for Belgium with a motor-ambulance Corps," she said, "but he has hundreds of applications, and his list is probably completed."
"Thank you," said Hilda, "that will do nicely."
"I don't mind telling you," continued Mrs. Bracher, "that I shall probably go with him to the front. I hope he will accept you, but there are many ahead of you in applying, and he has already promised more than he can take."
Hilda took a taxi from St. Mary Le Strand to Harley Street. Dr. Neil McDonnell was a dapper mystical little specialist, who was renowned for his applications of psychotherapy to raging militants and weary society leaders. He was a Scottish Highlander, with a rare gift of intuitive insight. He, too, had the agreeable quality of personal charm. Like all to whom the gods have been good, he looked with a favoring eye on the spectacle of youth.
"You come from a country which will one day produce the choicest race in history," he began, "you have a blend of nationalities. We have a little corner in Scotland where several strains were merged, and the men were finer and the women fairer than the average. But as for going to Belgium, I must tell you that we have many more desiring to go than we can possibly find room for."
"That is why I came to you," responded Hilda. "That means competition, and then you will have to choose the youngest and strongest."
"I can promise you nothing," went on the Doctor; "I am afraid it is quite impossible. But if you care to do it, keep in touch with me for the next fortnight. Send me an occasional letter. Call me up, if you will."
She did. She sent him telegrams, letters by the "Boots" in her lodging-house. She called upon him. She took Mrs. Bracher with her.
* * * * *
And that was how Hilda came to go to Flanders. When the Corps crossed from happy unawakened London to forlorn Belgium, they felt lost. How to take hold, they did not know. There were the cars, and here were the workers, but just what do you do?
Their first weeks were at Ghent, rather wild, disheveled weeks of clutching at work. They had one objective: the battlefield; one purpose: to make a series of rescues under fire. Cramped in a placid land, smothered by peace-loving folk, they had been set quivering by the war. The time had come to throw themselves at the Continent, and do or die where action was thick. Nothing was quainter, even in a land of astounding spectacles, than the sight of the rescuing ambulances rolling out to the wounded of a morning, loaded to the gunwale with charming women and several men. "Where will they put the wounded?" was the query that sprang to every lip that gaped at their passing. There was room for everybody but wounded. Fortunately there were few wounded in those early days when rescuers tingled for the chance to serve and see. So the Ghent experience was a probation rather than a fulfilled success. Then the enemy descended from fallen Antwerp, and the Corps sped away, ahead of the vast gray Prussian machine, through Bruges and Ostend, to Furnes. Here, too, in Furnes, the Corps was still trying to find its place in the immense and intricate scheme of war.
The man that saved them from their fogged incertitude was a Belgian doctor, a military Red Cross worker. The first flash of him was of a small silent man, not significant. But when you had been with him, you felt reserves of force. That small person had a will of his own. He was thirty-one years of age, with a thoughtful but kindly face. His eye had pleasant lights in it, and a twinkle of humor. His voice was low and even-toned. He lifted the wounded in from the trenches, dressed their wounds, and sent them back to the base hospitals. He was regimental dentist as well as Doctor, and accompanied his men from point to point, along the battlefront from the sea to the frontier. Van der Helde was his name. He called on the Corps soon after their arrival in Furnes, one of the last bits of Belgian soil unoccupied by the invaders.
"You are wandering about like lost souls," he said to them; "let me tell you how to get to work."
He did so. As the results of his suggestions, the six motor ambulances and four touring cars ran out each morning to the long thin line of troops that lay burrowed in the wet earth, all the way from the Baths of Nieuport-on-the-Sea down through the shelled villages of the Ramskappele-Dixmude frontier to the beautiful ancient city of Ypres. The cars returned with their patient freight of wounded through the afternoon and evening.
What had begun as an adventure deepened to a grim fight against blood-poisoning and long-continuing exposure and hunger. Hilda learned to drop the antiseptic into open wounds, to apply the pad, and roll the cotton. She learned to cut away the heavy army blue cloth to reach the spurting artery. She built the fire that heated the soup. She distributed the clean warm socks. Doubtless someone else could have done the work more skilfully, but the someone else was across the water in a comfortable country house, or watching the Russian dancers at the Coliseum.
The leader of the Corps, Dr. McDonnell, was an absurdly brave little man. His heart may not have been in the Highlands, but his mind certainly was, for he led his staff into shell fire, week-days and Sundays, and all with a fine unconsciousness that anything unusual was singing and breaking around the path of their performance. He carried a pocket edition of the Oxford Book of Verse, and in the lulls of slaughter turned to the Wordsworth sonnets with a fine relish.
"Something is going to happen. I can feel it coming," said Mrs. Bracher after one of these excursions into the troubled regions.
"Yes," agreed Hilda, "they are long chances we are taking, but we are fools for luck."
A famous war correspondent paid them a fleeting visit, before he was ordered twenty miles back to Dunkirk by Kitchener.
"By the law of probabilities," he observed to Dr. McDonnell, as he was saying good-bye, "you and your staff are going to be wiped out, if you keep on running your motors into excitement."
The Doctor smiled. It was doubtful if he heard the man.
One day, the Doctor got hold of Smith, a London boy driver, and Hilda, and said:
"I think we would better visit Dixmude, this morning. It sounds like guns in that direction. That means work for us. Get your hat, my dear."
"But I never wear a hat," she said with a touch of irritation.
"Ah, I hadn't noticed," returned the Doctor, and he hadn't. Hilda went free and fair those days, with uncovered head. Where the men went, there went she. For the modern woman has put aside fear along with the other impediments. The Doctor and Hilda, and, lastly, Smith, climbed aboard and started at fair speed.
Smith's motor-ambulance was a swift machine, canopied by a brown hood, the color of a Mediterranean sail, with red crosses on the sides to ward off shells, and a huge red cross on the top to claim immunity from aeroplanes with bombs and plumbed arrows.
"Make haste, make haste," urged Dr. McDonnell, who felt all time was wasted that was not spent where the air was thick. They had ridden for a half hour.
"There are limits, sir," replied Smith. "If you will look at that piece of road ahead, sir, you will see that it's been chewed up with Jack Johnsons. It's hard on the machine."
But the Doctor's attention was already far away, for he had been seized with the beauty of the fresh spring morning. There was a tang in the air, and sense of awakening life in the ground, which not all the bleakness of the wasted farms and the dead bodies of cattle could obscure for him.
"Isn't that pretty," he observed, as a shrapnel exploded overhead in the blue with that ping with which it breaks its casing and releases the pattering bullets. It unfolded itself in a little white cloud, which hung motionless for an instant before the winds of the morning shredded it.
To Hilda the sensation of being under fire was always exhilarating. The thought of personal peril never entered her head. The verse of a favorite gypsy song often came into her memory these days:—
"I am breath, dew, all resources. Laughing in your face, I cry Would ye kill me, save your forces. Why kill me, who cannot die."
They swept on to Oudekappele and its stout stone church, where lonely in the tower, the watcher, leaning earthward, told off his observations of the enemy to a soldier in the rafters, who passed them to another on the ladder, who dropped them to another on the stone floor, who hurried them to an officer at the telephone in the west front, who spoke them to a battery one mile away.
They took the poplar-lined drive-way that leads to the crossroads. They turned east, and made for Caeskerke. And now Smith let out his engine, for it is not wise to delay along a road that is in clear sight and range of active guns. At Caeskerke station, they halted for reports on the situation in Dixmude.
There, they saw their good friend, Dr. van der Helde, in the little group behind the wooden building of the station.
"I have just come from Dixmude," he said; "it is under a fairly heavy fire. The Hospital of St. Jean is up by the trenches. I have thirty poor old people there, who were left in the town when the bombardment started. They have been under shell fire for four days, and their nerves are gone. They are paralyzed with fright, and cannot walk. I brought them to the hospital from the cellars where they were hiding. I have come back here to try to get cars to take them to Furnes. Will you help me get them?"
"That's what we're here for," said Dr. McDonnell.
"Thank you," said the Belgian quietly. "Shall we not leave the lady?" he suggested, turning to Hilda.
"Try it," she replied with a smile.
Dr. van der Helde jumped aboard.
"And you mean to tell me you couldn't get hold of an army car to help you out, all this time?" asked Dr. McDonnell, in amazement.
"Orders were strict," replied the Belgian; "the military considered it too dangerous to risk an ambulance."
They had entered the town of Dixmude. Hilda had never seen so thorough a piece of ruin. Walls of houses had crumbled out upon the street into heaps of brick and red dust. Stumps of building still stood, blackened down their surface, as if lightning had visited them. Wire that had once been telegraph and telephone crawled over the piles of wreckage, like a thin blue snake. The car grazed a large pig, that had lost its pen and trough and was scampering wildly at each fresh detonation from the never-ceasing guns.
"It's a bit warm," said Smith, as a piece of twisted metal, the size of a man's fist, dropped by the front wheel.
"That is nothing," returned Dr. van der Helde.
They had to slow up three times for heaps of ruin that had spread across the road. They reached the Hospital. It still stood unbroken. It had been a convent, till Dr. van der Helde commandeered it to the reception of his cases. He led them to the hall. There down the long corridor were seated the aged poor of Dixmude. Not one of the patient creatures was younger than seventy. Some looked to be over eighty. White-haired men and women, bent over, shaking from head to foot, muttering. Most of them looked down at the floor. It seemed as if they would continue there rooted, like some ancient lichen growth in a forest. A few of them looked up at the visitors, with eyes in which there was little light. No glimmer of recognition altered the expression of dim horror.
"Come," said Dr. van der Helde, firmly but kindly, "come, old man. We are going to take you to a quiet place."
The one whom he touched and addressed shook his head and settled to the same apathy which held the group.
"Oh, yes," said Dr. van der Helde, "you'll be all right."
He and Smith and Dr. McDonnell caught hold of the inert body and lifted it to the car. Two old women and one more aged man they carried from that hall-way of despair to the motor which had been left throbbing under power.
"Will you come back?" asked Dr. van der Helde.
"As soon as we have found a place for them," replied Dr. McDonnell.
The car pulled out of the hospital yard and ran uninjured through the town. The firing was intermittent, now. Two miles back at the cross-roads, four army ambulances were drawn up waiting for orders.
"Come on in. The water's fine," cried Hilda to the drivers.
"Comment?" asked one of them.
"Why don't you go into Dixmude?" she explained. "There are twenty-six old people in St. Jean there. We've got four of them here."
The drivers received an order of release from their commanding officer, and streamed into the doomed town and on to the yard of the hospital. In two hours they had emptied it of its misery.
At Oudekappele Hilda found a room in the little inn, and made the old people comfortable. At noon, Dr. van der Helde joined her there, and they had luncheon together out of the ample stores under the seat of the ambulance. Up to this day, Doctor van der Helde had always been reserved. But the brisk affair had unlocked something in his hushed preserves.
"It is a sight for tired eyes," said the gallant doctor, "to see such hair in these parts. You bring me a pleasure."
"I am glad you like it," returned Hilda.
"Oh, it is better than that," retorted the Doctor, "I love it. It brings good luck, you know. Beautiful hair brings good luck."
"I never heard that," said Hilda.
That night, for the first time since the hidden guns had marked Dixmude for their own, the Doctor slept in security ten kilometers back of the trenches. That night a shell struck the empty hospital of St. Jean and wrecked it.
* * * * *
"Well, have you worked out a plan to cure this idleness," said Mrs. Bracher, thundering into the room, like a charge of cavalry. "I've done nothing but cut buttons off army coats, all day."
"Such a day," said Hilda, "yes, we've got a plan. We met Dr. van der Helde again to-day. He is a brave man, and he is very pleasant, too. He has been working in Dixmude, but no one is there any more, and he wants to start a new post. He wants to go to Pervyse, and he wishes you and Scotch and me to go with him and run a dressing-station for the soldiers."
"Pervyse!" cried Mrs. Bracher. "Why, my dear girl, Pervyse is nothing but a rubbish heap. They've shot it to pieces. There's no one at Pervyse."
"The soldiers are there," replied Hilda; "they come in from the trenches with a finger off or a flesh wound. They are full of colds from all the wet weather we had last month. They haven't half enough to eat. They need warm soup and coffee after a night out on duty. Oh, there's lots to do. Will you do it?"
"Certainly," said Mrs. Bracher. "How about you, Scotch?"
Scotch was a charming maiden of the same land as Dr. McDonnell. She was the silent member of a noisy group, but there was none of the active work that she missed.
"Wake up, Scotch," said Hilda, "and tell us. Will you go to Pervyse and stay? Mrs. Bracher and I are going."
"Me, too," said Scotch.
The next day, Dr. van der Helde called for them, and they motored the seven miles to Pervyse. What Dixmude was on a large scale, that was Pervyse in small. A once lovely village had been made into a black waste. On the main streets, not one house had been left unwrecked. They found a roomy cellar, under a house that had two walls standing. Here they installed themselves with sleeping bags, a soup kitchen, and a kit of first-aid-to-the-injured apparatus.
Then began for Hilda the most spirited days of her life. They had callers from all the world at seasons when there was quiet in the district. Maxine Elliot, Prince Alexander of Teck, Generals, the Queen of the Belgians, labor leaders—so ran the visiting list. The sorrow that was Belgium had become famous, and this cellar of loyal women in Pervyse was one of the few spots left on Belgium soil where work was being done for the little hunted field army.
The days were filled with care of the hurt, and food for the hungry, and clothing for the dilapidated. And the nights—she knew she would not forget those nights, when the three of them took turns in nursing the wounded men resting on stretchers. The straw would crackle as the sleepers turned. The faint yellow light from the lantern threw shadows on the unconscious faces. And she was glad of the smile of the men in pain, as they received a little comfort. She had never known there was such goodness in human nature. Who was she ever to be impatient again, when these men in extremity could remember to thank her. Here in this worst of the evils, this horror of war, men were manifesting a humanity, a consideration, at a higher level than she felt she had ever shown it in happy surroundings in a peaceful land. Hilda won the sense, which was to be of abiding good to her, that at last she had justified her existence. She, too, was now helping to continue that great tradition of human kindness which had made this world a more decent place to live in. No one could any longer say she was only a poor artist in an age of big things. Had not the poor artist, in her own way, served the general welfare, quite as effectively, as if she had projected a new breakfast food, or made a successful marriage. Her fingers, which had not gathered much gold, had at least been found fit to lessen some human misery. In that strength she grew confident.
As the fair spring days came back and green began to put out from the fields, the soldiers returned to their duty.
Now the killing became brisk again. The cellar ran full with its tally of scotched and crippled men. Dr. van der Helde was in command of the work. He was here and there and everywhere—in the trenches at daybreak, and gathering the harvest of wounded in the fields after nightfall. Sometimes he would be away for three days on end. He would run up and down the lines for seven miles, watching the work. The Belgian nation was a race of individualists, each man merrily minding his own business in his own way. The Belgian army was a volunteer informal group of separate individuals. The Doctor was an individualist. So the days went by at a tense swift stride, stranger than anything in the story-books.
One morning the Doctor entered the cellar, with a troubled look on his face.
"I am forced to ask you to do something," began he, "and yet I hardly have the heart to tell you."
"What can the man be after," queried Hilda, "will you be wanting to borrow my hair brush to curry the cavalry with?"
"Worse than that," responded he; "I must ask you to cut off your beautiful hair."
"My hair," gasped Hilda, darting her hand to her head, and giving the locks an unconscious pat.
"Your hair," replied the Doctor. "It breaks my heart to make you do it, but there's so much disease floating around in the air these days, that it is too great a risk for you to live with sick men day and night and carry all that to gather germs."
"I see," said Hilda in a subdued tone.
"One thing I will ask, that you give me a lock of it," he added quietly. She thought he was jesting with his request.
That afternoon she went to her cellar, and took the faithful shears which had severed so many bandages, and put them pitilessly at work on her crown of beauty. The hair fell to the ground in rich strands, darker by a little, and softer far, than the straw on which it rested. Then she gathered it up into one of the aged illustrated papers that had drifted out to the post from kind friends in Furnes. She wrapped it tightly inside the double page picture of laughing soldiers, celebrating Christmas in the trenches. And she carried it outside behind the black stump of a house which they called their home, and threw it on the cans that had once contained bully-beef. She was a little heart-sick at her loss, but she had no vanity. As she was stepping inside, the Doctor came down the road.
He stopped at sight of her.
"Oh, I am sorry," he said.
"I don't care," she answered, and braved it off by a little flaunt of her head, though there was a film over her eyes.
"And did you keep a lock for me?" he asked.
"You are joking," she replied.
"I was never more serious," he returned. She shook her head, and went down into the cellar. The Doctor walked around to the rear of the house.
A few minutes later, he entered the cellar.
"Good-bye," he said, holding out his hand, "I'm going up the line to Nieuport. I'll be back in the morning." He turned to climb the steps, and then paused a moment.
"Beautiful hair brings good luck," he said.
"Then my luck's gone," returned Hilda.
"But mine hasn't," he answered.
* * * * *
"Let us go up the road this morning," suggested Mrs. Bracher, next day, "and see how the new men are getting on."
There was a line of trenches to the north, where reinforcements had just come in, all their old friends having been ordered back to Furnes for a rest.
"How loud the shells are, this morning," said Hilda. There were whole days when she did not notice them, so accustomed the senses grow to a repetition.
"Yes, they're giving us special treatment just now," replied Mrs. Bracher; "it's that six-inch gun over behind the farm-house, trying out these new men. They're gradually getting ready to come across. It will only be a few days now."
They walked up the road a hundred yards, and came on a knot of soldiers stooping low behind the roadside bank.
"What are those men looking at?" exclaimed Mrs. Bracher sharply.
"Some poor fellow. Probably work for us," returned Hilda.
Mrs. Bracher went nearer, peered at the outstretched form on the grass bank, then turned her head away suddenly.
"No work for us," she said. "Don't go near, child. It's too horrible. His face is gone. A shell must have taken it away. Oh, I'm sick of this war. I am sick of these sights."
One of the little group of men about the body had drawn near to her.
"What do you want?" she asked crossly, as a woman will who is interrupted when she is close to tears.
"Will I identify him?" she repeated after him. "I tell you I never saw the man."
A little gasp of amazement came from the soldiers about the body.
"See what we have found," called one of the men—"in his pocket."
It was a lock of the very lightest and gayest of hair.
"Ah, my doctor," Hilda cried.
She spread the lock across the breast of the dead man. It was so vivid in the morning sun as to seem almost a living thing.
"And he said it would bring him luck," she murmured.
I looked into the face of my brother. There was no face there, only a red interior. This thing had been done to my brother, the Belgian, by my brother, the German. He had sent a splinter of shell through five miles of sunlight, hoping it would do some such thing as this.
THE RIBBONS THAT STUCK IN HIS COAT
The little group was gathered in the cellar of Pervyse. An occasional shell was heard in the middle distance, as artillery beyond the Yser threw a lazy feeler over to the railway station. The three women were entertaining a distinguished guest at the evening meal of tinned rabbit and dates. Their visitor was none other than F. Ainslie-Barkleigh, the famous English war-correspondent. He was dressed for the part. He wore high top-boots, whose red leather shone richly even in the dim yellow of the lantern that lit them to their feast. About his neck was swung a heavy black strap from which hung a pair of very elegant field-glasses, ready for service at a moment's call. He could sweep a battle-field with them, or expose a hidden battery, or rake a road. From the belt that made his jacket shapely about his person, there depended a map of the district, with heavy inked red lines for the position of friend or foe. He was a tall man, with an immense head, on which were stuck, like afterthoughts, very tiny features—a nose easily overlooked, a thin slit of a mouth, and small inset eyes. All the upper part of him was overhanging and alarming, till you chanced on those diminutive features. It was as if his growth had been terminated before it reached the expressive parts. He had an elaborate manner—a reticence, a drawl, and a chronic irony. Across half of his chest there streaked a rainbow of color; gay little ribbons of decoration, orange and crimson and purple and white.
Mrs. Bracher, sturdy, iron-jawed, and Scotch, her pretty young assistant, sat opposite him at table. Hilda did the honors by sitting next him, and passing him tins of provender, as required.
"What pretty ribbons you wear," said Hilda. "Where did you get them?"
"Oh, different wars," returned Barkleigh carelessly.
"That's modest, but it's vague," urged Hilda. "If I had such pretty ribbons, I should have the case letter and the exhibit number printed on each. Now this one, for instance. What happened to set this fluttering?"
"Oh, that one," he said, nearly twisting his eyes out of their sockets to see which one her fingers had lighted on. "That's one the Japs gave me."
"Thank you for not calling them the little brown people," returned Hilda; "that alone would merit decoration at their hands. And this gay thing, what principality gave you this?"
"That came from somewhere in the Balkans. I always did get those states muddled up."
"Incredible haziness," responded Hilda. "You probably know the exact hour when the King and his Chief of Staff called you out on the Town-hall steps. You must either be a very brave man or else write very nice articles about the ruling powers."
"The latter, of course," returned he, a little nettled.
"Vain as a peacock," whispered Scotch to the ever-watchful Mrs. Bracher.
"I don't understand you women," said Ainslie-Barkleigh, clearing his throat for action. But Hilda was too quick for him.
"I know you don't," she cut in, "and that is no fault in you. But what you really mean is that you don't like us, and that, I submit, is your own fault."
"But let me explain," urged he.
"Go ahead," said Hilda.
"Well, what I mean is this," he explained. "Here I find you three women out at the very edge of the battle-front. Here you are in a cellar, sleeping in bags on the straw, living on bully-beef and canned stuff. Now, you could just as well be twenty miles back, nursing in a hospital."
"Is there any shortage of nurses for the hospitals?" interposed Hilda. "When I went to the Red Cross at Pall Mall in London, they had over three thousand nurses on the waiting list."
"That's true enough," assented Barkleigh. "But what I mean is, this is reckless; you are in danger, without really knowing it."
"So are the men in danger," returned Hilda. "The soldiers come in here, hungry, and we have hot soup for them. They come from the trenches, with a gunshot wound in the hand, or a piece of shell in a leg, and we fix them up. That's better than travelling seven or eight miles before getting attention. Why it was only a week ago that Mrs. Bracher here—"
"Now none of that," broke in the nurse sternly.
"Hush," said Hilda, "it isn't polite to interrupt when a gentleman is asking for information."
She turned back to the correspondent.
"Last week," she took up her story, "a young Belgian private came in here with his lower lip swollen out to twice its proper size. It had got gangrene in it. A silly old military doctor had clapped a treatment over it, when the wound was fresh and dirty, without first cleaning it out. Mrs. Bracher treated it every two hours for six days. The boy used to come right in here from the trenches. And would you believe it, that lip is looking almost right. If it hadn't been for her, he would have been disfigured for life."
"Very good," admitted the correspondent, "but it doesn't quite satisfy me. Wait till you get some real hot shell fire out here, then you'll make for your happy home."
"Why," began Scotch, rising slowly but powerfully to utterance.
"It's all right, Scotch," interposed Hilda, at a gallop, "save the surprise. It will keep."
Scotch subsided into a rich silence. She somehow never quite got into the conversation, though she was always in the action. She was one of those silent, comfortable persons, without whom no group is complete. Into her ample placidity fell the high-pitched clamor of noisier people, like pebbles into a mountain lake.
"Now, what do you women think you are doing?" persisted the correspondent. "Why are you here?"
"You really want to know?" queried Hilda.
"I really want to know," he repeated.
"I'll answer you to-morrow," said Hilda. "Come out here to-morrow afternoon and we'll go to Nieuport. We promised to go over and visit the dressing-station there, and on the way I'll tell you why we are here."
* * * * *
Next day was grey and chilly. A low rumble came out of the north. The women had a busy morning, for the night had been full of snipers perched on trees. The faithful three spread aseptics and bandaged and sewed, and generally cheered the stream of callers from the Ninth and Twelfth Regiments, Army of the King of the Belgians. In the early afternoon, the buzz of motors penetrated to the stuffy cellar, and it needed no yelping horn, squeezed by the firm hand of Smith, to bring Hilda to the surface, alert for the expedition. Two motor ambulances were puffing their lungs out, in the roadway. Pale-faced Smith sat in one at the steering-gear—Smith, the slight London boy who would drive a car anywhere. Beside him sat F. Ainslie-Barkleigh, bent over upon his war map, studying the afternoon's campaign. In the second ambulance were Tom, the Cockney driver, and the leader of the Ambulance Corps, Dr. Neil McDonnell.
"Jump in," called he, "we're off for Nieuport."
She jumped into the first ambulance, and they turned to the north and took the straight road that leads all the way from Dixmude to the sea. Barkleigh was much too busy with his glasses and his map to give her any of his attention for the first quarter hour. They speeded by sentinel after sentinel, who smiled and murmured, "Les Anglais." Corporals, captains, commandants, gazed in amazement and awe at the massive figure of the war-correspondent, as he challenged the horizon with his binoculars and then dipped to his map for consultation. Only once did the party have to yield up the pass-word, which for that afternoon was "Charleroi." Finally Barkleigh turned to the girl.
"We had a discussion last evening," he began, "and you promised to answer my question. Why are you out here? Why isn't a hospital good enough for you, back in Furnes or Dunkirk?"
"I remember," returned Hilda. "I'll tell you. I could answer you by saying that we're out to help, and that would be true, too. But it wouldn't be quite the whole truth, for there's a tang of adventure in Pervyse, where we can see the outposts of the other fellows, that there isn't in the Carnegie Library in Pittsburg, let us say. Yes, we're out to help. But we're out for another reason, too. For generations now, you men have had a monopoly of physical courage. You have faced storms at sea, and charged up hills, and pulled out drowning children, and footed it up fire-ladders, till you think that bravery is a male characteristic. You've always handed out the passive suffering act to us. We had any amount of compliments as long as we stuck to silent suffering. But now we want to see what shells look like. As long as sons and brothers have to stand up to them, why, we're going to be there, too."
"But you haven't been in the thick of it," objected Barkleigh. "When the danger is so close you can see it, a woman's nerve isn't as good as a man's. It can't be. She isn't built that way."
"That's the very point," retorted Hilda, "we're going to show you."
"Damn quick," muttered Smith.
In the pleasant heat of their discussion, they hadn't been noticing the roadway. It was full of soldiers, trudging south. The rumble had become a series of reports. The look of the peaceful day was changing. Barkleigh turned from his concentration on the girl, and glanced up the road.
"These troops are all turning," he said.
"You are right," Hilda admitted.
"Can't you see," he urged, "they're all marching back. That means they've given the place up."
"Oh, hardly that," corrected Hilda; "it simply means that Nieuport is hot for the present moment."
"You're not going in?" continued Barkleigh. "It is foolish to go into the town, when the troops are coming out of it."
"True enough," assented Hilda, "but it's a curious fact that the wounded can't retreat as fast as the other men, so I'm afraid we shall have to look them up. Of course, it would be a lot pleasanter if they could come to meet us half-way."
Smith let out his motor, and turned up his coat collar, a habit of his when he anticipated a breezy time. They pounded down the road, and into the choice old town.
They had chanced on the afternoon when the enemy's guns were reducing it from an inhabited place into a rubbish heap. They could not well have chosen a brisker hour for the promised visit. The shells were coming in three and four to the minute. There was a sound of falling masonry. The blur of red brick-dust in the air, and the fires from a half dozen blazing houses, filled the eyes with hot prickles. The street was a mess over which the motor veered and tossed like a careening boat in a heavy seawash. In the other car, their leader, brave, perky little Dr. McDonnell, sat with his blue eyes dreaming away at the ruin in front of him. The man was a mystic and burrowed down into his sub-consciousness when under fire. This made him calm, slow, and very absent-minded, during the moments when he passed in under the guns.
They steamed up to the big yellow Hotel de Ville. This was the target of the concentrated artillery fire, for here troops had been sheltering. Here, too, in the cellar, was the dressing-station for the wounded. A small, spent, but accurately directed obus, came in a parabola from over behind the roofs, and floated by the ambulance and thudded against the yellow brick of the stately hall.
"Ah, it's got whiskers on it," shouted Hilda in glee. "I didn't know they got tired like that, and came so slow you could see them, did you, Mr. Barkleigh?"
"No, no, of course not," he muttered, "they don't. What's that?"
The clear, cold tinkle of breaking and spilling glass had seized his attention. The sound came out from the Hotel de Ville.
"The window had a pane," said Hilda.
"The town is doomed," said Barkleigh.
"Can't we get out of this?" he insisted. "This is no place to be."
"No place for a woman, is it?" laughed Hilda.
"Don't let me keep you," she added politely, "if you feel you must go."
"Listen," said the war-correspondent. About a stone's throw to their left, a wall was crumpling up.
Dr. McDonnell had slowly crawled down from his perch on the ambulance. His legs were stiff from the long ride, so he carefully shook them one after the other, and spoke pleasantly to a dog that was wandering about the Grand Place in a forlorn panic. Then he remembered why he had come to the place. There were wounded downstairs in the Town-hall.
"Come on, boys," he said to Tom and Smith, "bring one stretcher, and we'll clear the place out. Hilda, you stay by the cars. We shan't be but a minute."
They disappeared inside the battered building. Barkleigh walked up and down the Grand Place, felt of the machinery of each of the two ambulances, lit a cigarette, threw it away and chewed at an unlighted cigar.
"It's hot," he said; "this is hot."
"And yet you are shaking as if you were chilly," observed Hilda.
"We should never have come," went on Barkleigh. "I said so, away back there on the road. You remember I said so."
"Yes, the first experience under fire is trying," assented Hilda. "I think the shells are the most annoying, don't you, Mr. Barkleigh? Now shrapnel seems more friendly—quite like a hail-storm in Iowa. I come from Iowa, you know. I don't believe you do know that I come from Iowa."
"They're slow," said Barkleigh, looking toward the Town-hall. "Why can't they hurry them out?"
"You see," explained Hilda, "there are only three of them actively at work, and it's quite a handful for them."
In a few moments Smith and Tom appeared, carrying a man with a bandaged leg on their stretcher. Dr. McDonnell was leading two others, who were able to walk with a little direction. One more trip in and out and the ambulances were loaded.
"Back to Pervyse," ordered Dr. McDonnell.
At Pervyse, Scotch and Mrs. Bracher were ready for them. So was an English Tommy, who singled out Ainslie-Barkleigh.
"Orders from Kitchener, sir," said the orderly. "You must return to Dunkirk at once. No correspondent is allowed at the front."
Barkleigh listened attentively, and assented with a nod of his head. He walked up to the three ladies.
"Very sorry," explained he. "I had hoped to stay with you, and go out again. Very interesting and all that. But K. is strict, you know, so I must leave you."
He bowed himself away.
"Oh, welcome intervention," breathed Mrs. Bracher.
* * * * *
A few weeks had passed with their angry weather, and now all was green again and sunny. Seldom had the central square of Poperinghe looked gayer than on this afternoon, when soldiers were lined up in the middle, and on all the sides the people were standing by the tens and hundreds. High overhead from every window and on every pole, flags were streaming in the spring wind. Why shouldn't the populace rejoice, for had not this town of theirs held out through all the cruel winter: refuge and rest for their weary troops, and citadel of their King? And was not that their King, standing over yonder on the pavement, higher than the generals and statesmen on the steps of the Town-hall back of him? Tall and slender, crowned with youth and beauty, did he not hold in his hand the hearts of all his people? And to-day he was passing on merit to two English dames, and the people were glad of this, for the two English dames had been kind to their soldiers in sickness, and had undergone no little peril to carry them comfort and healing. Yes, they were glad to shout and clap hands, when, as Chevaliers of the Order of Leopold, the ribbon and star pendant were pinned on the breast of the sturdy Mrs. Bracher, and the silent, charming Scotch. The band bashed the cymbals and beat the drum, and the wind instruments roared approval. And the modest young King saluted the two brave ladies.
In a shop door, a couple of hundred yards from the ceremony, Hilda was standing quietly watching the joyous crowds and their King. Pushing through the throng that hemmed her in, a massive man came and stood by her.
"Ah, Mr. Barkleigh," said Hilda, "this is a surprise."
"It's a shame," he began.
"What's a shame?" asked Hilda.
"Why aren't they decorating you? You're the bravest of the lot."
"By no means," said Hilda; "those two women deserve all that is coming to them. I am glad they are getting their pretty ribbon."
With a sudden nervous gesture, Barkleigh unfastened the bright decorations on his chest, and placed them in Hilda's hand.
"Take them and wear them," he said, "I have no heart for them any more. They are yours."
"I didn't win them, so I can't wear them," she answered, and started to hand them back.
"No, I won't take them back," he said harshly, brushing her hand from him, "if you won't wear them, keep them. Hide them, throw them away. I'm done with them. I can't wear them any more since that afternoon in Nieuport."
Hilda pinned the ribbons upon his coat.
"I decorate you," she said, "for, verily, you are now worthy."
THE BELGIAN REFUGEE
By acts not his own, his consciousness is crowded with horror. Names of his ancient cities which should ring pleasantly in his ear—Louvain, Dinant, Malines: there is an echo of the sound of bells in the very names—recall him to his suffering. No indemnity will cleanse his mind of the vileness committed on what he loved. By every aspect of a once-prized beauty, the face of his torment is made more clear. Of all that fills the life of memory—the secure home, the fruitful village and the well-loved land—there is no acre remaining where his thought can rest. Each remembered place brings a sharper stroke of poignancy to the mind that is dispossessed.
His is a mental life uprooted and flung out into a vast loneliness. Where can his thought turn when it would heal itself? To the disconsolate there has always been comfort in recalling the early home where childhood was nourished, the orchard and the meadow where first love came to the meeting, the eager city where ambition, full-panoplied, sprang from the brain. The mind is hung with pictures of what once was. But there must always be a local habitation for these rekindled heats. Somewhere, in scene and setting, the boy played, the youth loved, the man struggled. That richness of feeling is interwoven with a place. No passion or gladness comes out of the buried years without some bit of the soil clinging to it.
Now, in a passing autumn, for a nation of people, all places are alike to them bitter in the recollection. The Belgian, disinherited, can never summon a presence out of the past which will not, in its coming, bring burning and slaughter. All that was fair in his consciousness has been seared with horror. Where can he go to be at home? To England? To a new continent? What stranger-city will give him back his memories? He is condemned forever to live in the moment, never to let his mind stray over the past. For, in the past, in gracious prospect, lie village and city of Flanders, and the name of the ravaged place will suddenly release a cloud of darkness with voices of pain.
ROLLO, THE APOLLO
Mrs. Bracher was just starting on one of her excursions from Pervyse into Furnes. Her tiny first-aid hospital, hidden in the battered house, needed food, clothing, and dressings for the wounded. One morning when the three nurses were up in the trenches, a shell had dug down into their cellar and spilled ruin. Now, it is not well to live in a place which a gun has located, because modern artillery is fine in its workings to a hair's-breadth, and can repeat its performance to a fractional inch. So the little household had removed themselves from the famous cellar to a half-shattered house, which had one whole living-room on the ground floor, good for wounded and for the serving of meals; and one unbroken bedroom on the first floor, large enough for three tired women.
"Any errands, girls?" she called to her two assistants as she mounted to her seat on the motor ambulance.
"Bring me a man," begged Hilda. "Bring back some one to stir things up."
Indeed, it had been slow for the nurses during the last fortnight. They were "at the front," but the front was peaceful. After the hot toil of the autumn attack and counter-attack, there had come a deadlock to the wearied troops. They were eaten up with the chill of the moist earth, and the perpetual drizzle. So they laid by their machine guns, and silently wore through the grey days.
Victor, the orderly, cranked the engine for Mrs. Bracher, and she hummed merrily away. She drove the car. She was not going to have any fumbling male hand spoil that sweetly running motor. She had chosen the battle-front in Flanders as the perfect place for vindicating woman's courage, coolness, and capacity for roughing it. She was determined to leave not one quality of initiative and daring to man's monopoly. If he had worn a decoration for some "nervy" hazardous trait, she came prepared to pluck it from his swelling pride, cut it in two pieces and wear her half of it.
Her only delay was a mile in from Pervyse. The engine choked, and the car grunted to a standstill. She was in front of a deserted farm-house. She had a half hope that there might be soldiers billeted there. In that case, she could ask one of them to step out and start up the engine for her. Cranking a motor is severe on even a sturdy woman. She climbed out over the dashboard from the wheel side, and entered the door-yard. The barn had been demolished by shells. The ground around the house was pitted with shell-holes, a foot deep, three feet deep, one hole six feet deep. The chimney of the house had collapsed from a well-aimed obus. Mrs. Bracher knocked at the door, and shook it. But there was no answer. The house carried that silent horror of a deserted and dangerous place. It seemed good to her to come away from it, and return to the motor. She bent her back to the crank, and set the engine chugging. It was good to travel along to the sight of a human face.
"No one stationed there?" she asked of the next sentinel.
"It is impossible, Madame," he replied; "the enemy have located it exactly with a couple of their guns. Not one day passes but they throw their shells around it."
As Mrs. Bracher completed the seven-mile run, and tore into the Grand Place of Furnes, she was greeted by cheers from the populace. And, indeed, she was a striking figure in her yellow leather jerkin, her knee-breeches and puttees, and her shining yellow "doggy" boots. She carried all the air of an officer planning a desperate coup. As she cut her famous half-moon curve from the north-east corner of the Place by the Gendarmerie over to the Hotel at the south-west, she saluted General de Wette standing on the steps of the Municipal Building. He, of course, knew her. Who of the Belgian army did not know those three unquenchable women living up by the trenches on the Yser? He gravely saluted the streak of yellow as it flashed by. Just when she was due to bend the curb or telescope her front wheel, she threw in the clutch, and, with a shriek of metal and a shiver of parts, the car came to a stop. She jumped out from it and strode away from it, as if it were a cast-off ware which she was never to see again. She entered the restaurant. At three of the tables sat officers of the Belgian regiments—lieutenants, two commandants, one captain. At the fourth table, in the window, was dear little Doctor Neil McDonnell, beaming at the velocity and sensation of her advent.
"You come like a yellow peril," said he. "If you are not careful, you will make more wounded than you heal."
"Never," returned Mrs. Bracher, firmly; "it is always in control."
The Doctor, who was a considerate as well as a brave leader, well knew how restricted was the diet under which those loyal women lived in the chilly house, caring for "les blesses" among the entrenched soldiers. So he extended himself in ordering an ample and various meal, which would enable Mrs. Bracher to return to her bombarded dug-out with renewed vigor.
"What's the news?" she asked, after she had broken the back of her hunger.
"We are expecting a new member for our corps," replied the Doctor, "a young cyclist of the Belgian army. He fought bravely at Liege and Namur, and later at Alost. But since Antwerp, his division has been disbanded, and he has been wandering about. We met him at Dunkirk. We saw at once how valuable he would be to us, with his knowledge of French and Flemish, and his bravery."
"Which ambulance will he go out with?" asked Mrs. Bracher.
"He will have a touring-car of his own," replied Dr. McDonnell.
"I thought you said he was a cyclist," objected Mrs. Bracher.
"I gave him an order on Calais," explained the Doctor. "He went down there and selected a speed-car. I'm expecting him any minute," he added.
The short afternoon had waned away into brief twilight, and then, with a suddenness, into the blackness of the winter night. As they two faced out into the Grand Place, there was depth on depth of black space, from which came the throb of a motor, the whistle of a soldier, the clatter of hooves on cobbles. Only out from their window there fell a short-reaching radiance that spread over the sidewalk and conquered a few feet of the darkness beyond.
Into this thin patch of brightness, there rode a grey car, two-seated, long, slim, pointed for speed. The same rays of the window lamp sufficed to light up the features of the sole occupant of the car:—high cheek-bones, thin cheeks, and pale face, tall form.
"There he is," said Dr. McDonnell, enthusiastically; "there's our new member."
With a stride of power, the green-clad warrior entered the cafe, and saluted Dr. McDonnell.
"Ready for work," he said.
"I see you are," answered Dr. McDonnell. "Will you sit down and join us?"
"Gladly—in a moment. But I must first go across the square and see a Gendarme."
"Your car is built for speed," put in Mrs. Bracher.
"One hundred and twenty kilometres, the hour," answered the new-comer. "Let me see, in your language that will be seventy miles an hour. Swift, is it not?"
"Why the double tires?" she asked.
"You have a quick eye," he answered. "I like always the extra tires, you never know in war where the break-down will come. It is well to be ready."
He flashed a smile at her, saluted the Doctor and left the cafe.
"What a man!" exclaimed Dr. McDonnell.
"That's what I say," agreed Mrs. Bracher. "What a man!"
"Look at him," continued the Doctor.
"I did, hard," answered Mrs. Bracher.
* * * * *
Mrs. Bracher, Hilda, and Scotch, were the extreme advance guard of Doctor McDonnell's Motor Ambulance Corps. The rest of the Corps lived in the Convent hospital in Furnes. It was here that the newcomer and his speed-car were made welcome. He was a success from the moment of his arrival. He was easily the leading member of the Corps. He had a careless way with him. Being tall and handsome, he could be indifferent and yet hold the interest. To women that arrogance even added to his interest. His costume was very splendid—a dark green cloth which set off his straight form; the leather jacket, which made him look like some craftsman; the jaunty cap, which emphasized the high cheek-bones in the lean face. Both his face and his figure being spare, he promised energy. He had the knack of making a sensation whenever he appeared. Only a few among mortals are gifted that way. Most of us have to get our own slippers and light our own cigars. But he was able to convey the idea that it was a privilege to serve him. The busy superintendent of the hospital, a charming Italian woman, cooked special meals for him, and served them in his room, so that he would not be contaminated by contact with the Ambulance Corps, a noisy, breezy group. A boy scout pulled his boots off and on for him, oiled his machine, and cranked his motor. The lean cheeks filled out, the restless, audacious, roving eyes tamed down. A sleekness settled over his whole person. It was like discovering a hungry, prowling night cat, homeless and winning its meat by combat, and bringing that cat to the fireside and supplying it with copious cream, and watching it fill out and stretch itself in comfort.
There was a song just then that had a lilting chorus. It told of 'Rollo, the Apollo, the King of the Swells.' So the Corps named their new member Rollo. How wonderful he was with his pride of bearing, and the insolent way of him. He moved like an Olympian through the herd of shabby little scrambling folk.
"Is it ever hot out your way?" queried Rollo during one of Mrs. Bracher's flying visits to Furnes.
"I could hardly call it hot," replied the nurse. "The walls of our house, that is, the fragments of them left standing, are full of shrapnel. The road outside our door is dented with shell holes. Every house in the village is shot full of metal. There's a battery of seven Belgian guns spitting away in our back-yard. But we don't call it hot, because we hate to exaggerate."
"I'll have to come out and see you," he said, with a smile.
He became a frequent visitor at Pervyse.
"Rollo is wonderful," exclaimed Hilda.
"How wonderful?" asked Mrs. Bracher.
"Only to-day," explained Hilda, "he showed me his field-glasses, which he had taken from the body of a German officer whom he killed at Alost."
"That's true," corroborated Scotch, "and once in his room at the hospital he showed me a sable helmet. Scarlet cloth and gold braid, and the hussar fur all over it. It's a beauty. I wish he'd give it to me."
"How did he get it?" asked Mrs. Bracher.
"He shot an officer in the skirmish at Zele."
"He must have been a busy man with his rifle," commented Mrs. Bracher.
"He was. He was," said Hilda. "Why, he's shot fifty-one men, since the war began."
"Does he keep notches on his rifle?" queried Mrs. Bracher.
"I think it's a privilege to have a man as brave as he is going out with us," replied Hilda. "We must bore him frightfully."
"He's peaceful enough now, isn't he," observed Mrs. Bracher, "trotting around with a Red Cross Ambulance Corps. I should think he'd miss the old days."
* * * * *
Hilda and Mrs. Bracher were having an early morning stroll.
"It's a little too hot up by the trenches," said the nurse; "we'll take the Furnes road."
"It was a wet night, last night," commented she, after they had trudged along for a few minutes.
"Are you going to walk me to Furnes?" asked Hilda.
"You're losing your prairie zip," retorted Mrs. Bracher. "You ought to be glad of the air, after that smelly straw."
"The air is better than the mud," returned Hilda, holding up a boot, which had gathered part of the roadway to itself.
"We'll be there in a minute," said the nurse.
"Where's there?" asked Hilda.
"Right here," answered Mrs. Bracher.
They had come to the deserted farm-house where she had once met with her delay and where she had knocked in vain.
"See here," she exclaimed.
"Wheel marks," said Hilda.
"Motor-car tracks," corrected Mrs. Bracher.
The soggy turf that led from the road into the door-yard of the farm-house was deeply and freshly indented.
"Perhaps some one's here now," suggested Hilda.
"Never fear," answered the nurse. "It's night work."
"Up to two weeks ago," she went on, "this farm was shot at, every day, from over the Yser. Since then, it hasn't been shelled at all."
"What of it?" asked Hilda.
"We'll see," said Mrs. Bracher. "It always pays to get up early, doesn't it, my dear?"
"I don't know," returned the girl, dubiously. She was footsore with Mrs. Bracher's speed.
"Well, that's enough for one morning," concluded the nurse, with one last look about the farm.
"I should think it was," agreed Hilda.
They returned to their dressing-station.
* * * * *
It was early evening, and the nurses had finished their frugal supper. With the dishes cleared away, they were sitting for a cosy chat about the table. Overhead hung a lamp, with a base so broad that it cast a heavy shadow on the table under it. There was a fire of coals in the little corner stove, and through the open door of the stove a friendly glow spread out into the room. As they sat there resting and talking, a tap-tap came at the window.
"Ah, the Commandant is back," said Hilda. The women brightened up. The door opened and their good friend, Commandant Jost, entered. He was a man tall and slender and closely-knit, with a rich vein of sentiment, like all good soldiers. He was perhaps fifty-two or three years of age. His eyebrows slanted down and his moustache slanted up. His eyes were level and keen in their beam of light, and they puckered into genial lines when he smiled. His nose was bent in just at the bridge, where a bullet once ploughed past. This mishap had turned up the end of a large and formerly straight feature. It was good to have him back again after his fortnight away. The evening broke pleasantly with talk of common friends in the trenches.
There came a ring at the door. A knob at the outer door pulled a string that ran to their room and released a tiny tinkle. Victor, the orderly, answered the ring. He had a message for the Commandant. Jost held it high up to read it by the lamp. Hilda brought a lighted candle, and placed it on the table. He sat down, wrote his answer, and gave it to the waiting soldier. He returned, closed the door, and looked straight into the face of each of his friends.
"You have to go?" asked Hilda.
"We expect an attack," he answered. It was then 9:30.
"What time?" asked Hilda.
"The Dixmude and Ramskappele attacks were just before dawn. When the mists begin to rise, and the enemy can see even dimly, then they attack. I think they will attack to-night, just so."
"How does that concern you?" asked Hilda. "What do you have to do?"
"I have just asked my Colonel that I take thirty of my men and guard the section in front of the railroad tracks. That is where they will come through."
"What is the situation in the trenches, to-night?" asked Hilda.
"We have only a handful. Not more than fifty men."
"Not more than fifty!" cried Mrs. Bracher. "How many mitrailleuse have you at the railroad?"
"Six, two in the second story of the house, and four in the station opposite."
"Six ought to be enough to rake the road."
"Yes, but they won't come down the road," explained Jost; "they will come across the flooded field on rafts, with machine guns on the rafts. They can come down on both sides of the trench, and rake the trench. What can fifty men do against four or five machine guns? They will have to run like hares, or else be shot down to a man. They can rake the trenches for two miles on each side."
"What will happen if the Germans get on top of the trenches?" asked Mrs. Bracher.
"The very first thing they will do—they will place a gun on top of the trench, and rake this whole town. They can rake the road that leads to Furnes. It would cut off your retreat to Furnes."
That meant the only escape for the women would be through the back-yard, and over fields knee-deep in mud, where dead horses lie loosely buried in hummock graves.
"What do you think we had better do?" asked Hilda. "To leave now seems like shirking our job."
"There'll be no job for you, if the enemy come through to-night," returned the Commandant; "they'll do the job. But listen, you'll have a little time. If you hear rifle fire or mitrailleuse fire on the trenches, then go, as fast as you can run. If you hear as few as only four soldiers running down this road, take to your heels after them. That will be your last chance."
The bell tinkled again. The orderly called the Commandant into the hall. Jost returned with a message. He read it, and pulled out a note-book from his pocket. He consulted it with care. He sat down at the table, wrote his reply, and gave it to the messenger. He returned, shrugged his shoulders, and went silent. All waited for him to speak. Finally he roused himself.
"The mitrailleuse have only 3500 rounds left to each gun," he said, "and there are no cartridges in the trenches."
"That means," prompted Hilda.
"Four hundred cartridges a minute, those guns fire," he said, "that means eight or nine minutes, and then the Germans."
A pounding came at the front door. A captain entered, throwing his long cape over his shoulder.
"We have no ammunition," he said—"the men have nothing. I've just come from the Colonel."
The Captain was excited, the Commandant silent.
"Shall we evacuate?" Hilda pressed her question with him.
"I cannot answer for you," the Captain said. "If the enemy attack, there's nothing to hold them. They'll come through. If they come, they'll take you women prisoners or kill you. You'll have to make your choice now. There will be no choice then."
"Furnes isn't so prosperous, you know," said Hilda, "even if we did run back there."
Only the day before, Furnes had received a long-distance bombardment that had killed thirty persons and wounded one hundred.
At a word from the Commandant, the orderly left the room. The women heard him drive their ambulance out from shelter, crank up the engine, and run it for five minutes to get it thoroughly heated. Then he turned the engine off, and put a blanket over the radiator, tucking it well in to preserve the heat.
"Let's put what we need into the car," suggested Mrs. Bracher.
They picked up their bags, and went toward the ambulance.
It was pleasant to do something active under that tension. They stepped out into a night of chill and blackness. They could not see ten feet in front of them. It was moon-time but no moon. Heavy clouds were in possession of the sky, weaving a thick texture of darkness.
"There they start," said the Commandant.
Shell fire was beginning from the north, from the direction of the sea.
"They are covering their advance," he went on.
"Those are 21 or 28 Point shells. They are falling short about 1800 yards, but they are coming straight in our direction."
They walked past their car and down the road. They looked across the fields into the black night. Straight down the road a lamp suddenly shone in the gloom. It moved to and fro, and up and down. There was regularity in its motion. A great shaft of answering white light shot up into the night from the north.
"They are signalling from inside our line here," said the Commandant, "over there to the enemy guns beyond Ramskappele. Some spy down here with a flash-lamp is telling them that we're out of ammunition."
"But can't we catch the spy?" urged Hilda. "That light doesn't look to be more than a few hundred yards away."
"That is further away than it looks," answered Jost; "that's all of a mile away. He's hidden somewhere in a field."
Mrs. Bracher seized Victor by the arm, and faced the Commandant.
"I know where he's hidden," she cried. "Let me show you."
The Commandant nodded assent.
"Messieurs, les Belges," she commanded in a sharp, high voice, "come with me and move quickly!"
She brought them back to the car.
"Send for four of your men," she said to Jost. They came.
"Wait in the house," she said to Hilda.
"Now we start," Mrs. Bracher ordered. "Victor, you take the wheel. Drive down the Furnes road."
They drove in silence for five minutes, till her quick eye picked a landmark out of the dimness.
"Drive the car slowly past, and on down the road," she ordered, "don't stop it. We six must dismount while it is moving. Surround the house quietly. The Commandant and I will enter by the front door."
They had come to the deserted farm-house. It loomed dimly out of the vacant fields and against the background of travelling clouds. Victor stayed at the wheel. Mrs. Bracher, the Commandant, and the four soldiers, jumped off into the road. The six silently filed into the door-yard. The four soldiers melted into the night. Mrs. Bracher caught the handle of the door firmly and shoved. The door gave way. She and Jost stepped inside. The Commandant drew his pistol. He flashed his pocket light down the hall and up the stairs. There was nothing but vacancy. They passed into the room at their right hand. Jost's light searched its way around the room. In the corner, stood a tall soldier, dressed in green.
"Let me introduce Monsieur Rollo, the spy," said Mrs. Bracher. There was triumph in her voice. The Commandant put a whistle to his lips and blew. His four men came stamping in, pistols in hand.
"Clever device, this," said Mrs. Bracher. She had stooped and lifted out a large electric flash lamp from under a sweater.
"Clever woman, this," said the Commandant, saluting Mrs. Bracher. "How did you come to know the place?"
"Monsieur Rollo uses double tires on a wet soil," she explained.
"Monsieur Rollo will now bring his signal lamp outside the house," the Commandant said curtly. "He will signal the enemy that our reinforcements and ammunition have arrived, and that an attack to-night will be hopeless. He may choose to signal wrongly. In that case, you men will shoot him on the instant that firing begins at Pervyse."
The soldiers nodded. They marched Rollo to the field, and thrust his signal lamp into his hands.
"One moment," he said. He turned to Mrs. Bracher.
"Where is the American girl to-night?" he asked.
"At Pervyse, of course," replied the nurse, "where she always is. The very place where you wanted to bring your men through and kill us all."
"I had forgotten," he said. "If Mademoiselle Hilda is at Pervyse, then I signal, as you suggest"—he turned to the Commandant—"but not because you order it—you and your little pop-guns."
Mrs. Bracher sniffed scornfully.
"One last bluff of a bluffer, as Hilda would say," she muttered.
The soldiers stood in circle in the mud of the field, the tall green-clad figure in their midst.
Rollo turned on the blinding flash that stabbed through the night. He held it high above his head, and at that level moved it three times from left to right. Then he swung the light in full circles, till it became a pinwheel of flame. Four miles away by the sea to the north, a white light shot up into the sky, rose twice like a fountain, and was followed by a starlight that fed out a green radiance.
"The attack is postponed," he said.
THE BROTHERHOOD OF MAN
The German lay on a stretcher in the straw of the first dressing-station. His legs had been torn by shot. He was in pain. He looked into the faces of the men about him, the French doctors and dressers, the Belgian infantry. The lantern light was white and yellow on their faces. He drew out from the inner pocket of his mouse-colored coat a packet of letters, and from the packet the picture of a stout woman, who, like himself, was of middle-age. He handed it to the French doctor. "Meine Frau," he said.
At the outer rim of the group, a Belgian drew a knife, ran it lightly across his own throat, and pointed mockingly to the German on the stretcher.
THE PIANO OF PERVYSE
The Commandant stepped down from his watch tower by the railway tracks. This watch tower was a house that had been struck but not tumbled by the bombardment. It was black and gashed, and looked deserted. That was the merit of it, for every minute of the day and night, some watcher of the Belgians sat in the window, one flight up, by the two machine guns, gazing out over the flooded fields, and the thin white strip of road that led eastward to the enemy trenches. Once, fifteen mouse-colored uniforms had made a sortie down the road and toward the house, but the eye at the window had sighted them, and let them draw close till the aim was very sure. Since then, there had been no one coming down the road. But a watcher, turn by turn, was always waiting. The Commandant liked the post, for it was the key to the safety of Pervyse. He felt he was guarding the three women, when he sat there on the rear supports of a battered chair, and smoked and peered out into the east.
He came slowly down the road,—old wounds were throbbing in his members—and, as always, turned into the half-shattered dwelling where the nurses were making their home and tending their wounded.
"How is the sentry-box to-night?" asked Hilda.
"Draughty," said the Commandant, with a shiver; "it rocks in the wind."
"You must have some rag-time," prescribed Hilda, and seated herself at the piano.
It was Pervyse's only piano, untouched by shell and shrapnel, and nightly it sounded the praise of things. The little group drew close about the American girl, as she led them in a "coon song."
"I say," said Hilda, looking up from the keys, "would any one believe it?"
"Believe what?" asked Mrs. Bracher.
"The lot of us here, exchanging favorites, with war just outside our window. I tell you," repeated Hilda, "no one would believe it."
"They don't have to," retorted Mrs. Bracher, sharply. She had grown weary of telling folks at home how matters stood, and then having them say, "Fancy now, really?"
The methodical guns had pounded the humanity out of Pervyse, and, with the living, had gone music and art. There was nowhere in the wasted area for the tired soldiers to find relief from their monotony. War is a dreary thing. With one fixed idea in the mind—to wait, to watch for some careless head over the mounded earth, and then to kill—war is drearier than slave labor, more nagging than an imperfect marriage, more dispiriting than unsuccessful sin. The pretty brass utensils of the dwellings had been pillaged. Canvas, which had once contained bright faces, was in shreds. The figures of Christ and his friends that had stood high in the niches of the church, had fallen forward on their faces. All the little devices of beauty, cherished by the villagers, had been shattered.
One perfect piano had been left unmarred by all the destruction that had robbed the place of its instruments of pleasure. With elation and laughter the soldiers had discovered it, when the early fierceness of the attack had ebbed. Straightway they carried it to the home of the women.
When the Commandant first saw it, soon after its arrival in their living-room, he beamed all over.
"The Broadwood," he said. "How that brings back the memories! When I was a young man once in Ostend, I was one of eight to play with Paderewski, that great musician. Yes, together we played through an afternoon. And the instrument on which I played was a Broadwood. I cannot now ever see it, without remembering that day in the Kursaal, and how he led us with that fingering, that vigor. Do you know how he lifts his hand high over the keys and then drops suddenly upon them?"
"Yes, I have seen it," said Hilda; "like the swoop of an eagle."
"I do not know that bird," returned the Commandant, "but that is it. It is swift and strong. He comes out of a stricken country, too; that is why he can play."
"I wonder, feeling that way, that you ever gave up your music," said Hilda. "Why didn't you go on with it?"
"I had thought of it. But there was always something in me that called, and I went into the army. For years we have known this thing was coming. A man could not do otherwise than hold himself ready for that. And now it is left to you young people to go on—always the new harmony, that sings in the ears, and never comes into the notes."
The Commandant, Commandant Jost, was perhaps the best of all their soldier friends. He was straight and sturdy, a pine-tree of a man in his early fifties. He was famous in Flanders for his picked command of 110, all of them brave as he was brave, ready to be wiped out because of their heart of courage. Often the strength of his fighting group was sapped, till one could count his men on the fingers of the hands. But always there were fresh fellows ready to go the road with him. He never ordered them into danger. He merely called for volunteers. When he went up against absurd odds, and was left for dead, his men returned for him, and brought him away for another day. His time hadn't come, he said. It was no use shooting him down, and clipping the bridge from his nose,—when his day came, he would be done for, but not ahead of that. This valiant Belgian soldier was a mystic of war.
In the trenches and at the hospitals, Hilda had met a race of prophets, men who carry about foreknowledge and premonitions. Sturdy bearded fellows who salute you as men about to die. They are perfectly cheery, as brave as the unthinking at their side, but they tramp firmly to a certain end. War lets loose the rich life of subconsciousness which most mortals keep bottled up in the sleepy secular days of humdrum. Peril and sudden death uncork those heady vapors, and sharpen the super-senses. This race of men with their presciences have no quarrel with death. They have made their peace with it. It is merely that they carry a foreknowledge of it—they are sure they will know when it is on the way.
No man of the troops was more smitten with second-sight, than this friend of the Pervyse women, this courageous Commandant. His eyes were level to command, but they grew distant and luminous when his mood was on him. This gift in him called out the like in other men, and his pockets were heavy with the keepsakes of young soldiers, a photograph of the beloved, a treasured coin, a good-bye letter, which he was commissioned to carry to the dear one, when the giver should fall. With little faith that he himself would execute the commissions, he had carefully labelled each memento with the name and address of its destination. For he knew that whatever was found on his body, the body of the fighting Commandant, the King's friend, would receive speedy forwarding to its appointed place.
It was an evening of spring, but spring had come with little promise that way. Ashes of homes and the sour dead lay too thickly over those fields, for nature to make her great recovery in one season. The task was too heavy for even her vast renewals. Patience, she seemed to say, I come again.
The Commandant was sitting at ease enjoying his pipe.
"Mademoiselle Hilda," said he. Hilda was sitting at the piano, but no tunes were flowing. She was behaving badly that evening and she knew it. She fumbled with the sheaves of music, and chucked Scotch under the chin, and doctored the candles. She was manifesting all the younger elements in her twenty-two years.
"Mademoiselle Hilda," insisted the Commandant. He was sentimental, and full of old-world courtesies, but he was used to being obeyed. Hilda became rapt in contemplating a candlestick.
"Mademoiselle Hilda, a little music, if you please," he said with a finality.
"You play," said Hilda to Scotch, sliding off the soap-box which served to uphold the artist to her instrument.
"Hilda, you make me tired," chided Scotch. "The Commandant has given you his orders."
"Oh, all right," said Hilda.
She played pleasantly with feeling and technique. More of her hidden life came to an utterance with her music than at other times. She led her notes gently to a close.
"Mademoiselle Hilda," said the Commandant from his seat in the shadows on the sofa, "parlez-vous francais?"
This was his regular procedure. Why did he say it? They never could guess. He knew that the women, all three, understood French—Mrs. Bracher and Scotch speaking it fluently, Hilda, as became an American, haltingly. Did he not carry on most of his converse with them in French—always, when eloquent or sentimental? But unfailingly he used his formula, when he was highly pleased. They decided he must once have known some fair foreigner who could only faintly stammer in his native tongue, and that the habit of address had then become fixed upon him for moments of emotion.
He repeated his question.
"Oui," responded the girl. He kissed his fingers lightly to her, and waved the tribute in her direction, as if it could be wafted across the room.
"Chere artiste," said he, with a voice of conviction.
"And now the bacarolle," he pleaded.
"There are many bacarolles," she objected.
"I know, I know," he said, "and yet, after all, there is only one bacarolle."
"All right," she answered, obediently, and played on. The music died away, and the girl in her fought against the response that she knew was coming. She began turning over sheets of music on the rack. But the Commandant was not to be balked.
"Parlez-vous francais?" he inquired, "vous, Mademoiselle Hilda."
"Oui, mon Commandant," she answered.
"Chere artiste," he said; "chere artiste."
"Ah, those two voices," he went on with a sigh; "they go with you, wherever you are. It is music, that night of love and joy. And here we sit—"
"Yes, yes," interrupted Mrs. Bracher, who did not care to have an evening of gaiety sag to melancholy; "how about a little Cesar Franck?"
"Yes, surely," agreed the Commandant, cheerily; "our own composer, you know, though we never gave him his due."
Hilda ran through the opening of the D Minor.
"Now it is your turn," said she.
"My fingers are something stiff, with these cold nights by the window," replied the Commandant, "but certainly I will endeavor to play."
He seated himself at the instrument.
"Chere artiste," he murmured to the girl, who was retreating to the lounge.
The Commandant played well. He needed no notes, for he was stored with remembered bits. He often played to them of an evening, before he took his turn on watch. He played quietly along for a little. Out of the dark at their north window, there came the piping of a night bird. Birds were the only creatures seemingly untouched by the war. The fields were crowded thick with the bodies of faithful cavalry and artillery horses. Dogs and cats had wasted away in the seared area. Cattle had been mowed down by machine guns. Heavy sows and their tiny yelping litter, were shot as they trundled about, or, surviving the far-cast invisible death, were spitted for soldiers' rations. And with men, the church-yard and the fields, and even the running streams, were choked. Only birds of the air, of all the living, had remained free of their element, floating over the battling below them, as blithe as if men had not sown the lower spaces with slaughter.
And now in this night of spring, one was calling to its mate. The Commandant heard it, and struck its note on the upper keyboard.
"Every sound in nature has its key," he said; "the cry of the little bird has it, and the surf at Nieuport."
"And the shells?" asked Hilda.
"Yes, the shells, they have it," he answered gravely; "each one of them, as it whistles in the air, is giving its note. You have heard it?"
"Yes," answered Hilda.
"Why, this," he said. He held his hands widely apart to indicate the keyboard—"this is only a little human dipping, like a bucket, into the ocean waves of sound. It can't give us back one little part of what is. Only a poor, stray sound out of the many can get itself registered. The rest drift away, lost birds on the wing. The notes in between, the splintered notes, they cannot sound on our little instruments."
A silence had fallen on the group. Out of the hushed night that covered them, a moaning grew, that they knew well. One second, two seconds of it, and then the thud fell somewhere up the line. As the shell was wailing in the air, a hidden string, inside the frame, quivered through its length, and gave out an under-hum. It was as if a far away call had rung it up. One gun alone, out of all the masked artillery, had found the key, and, from seven miles away, played the taut string.
"There is one that registers," said the Commandant; "the rest go past and no echo here."
Firmly he struck the note that had vibrated.
"That gun is calling for me," said he; "the others are lost in the night. But that gun will find me."
"You talk like a soothsayer," said Mrs. Bracher, with a sudden gesture of her hand and arm, as if she were brushing away a mist.
"It's all folly," she went on, "I don't believe it. Good heavens, what is that?" she added, as a footstep crunched in the hall-way. "You've got me all unstrung, you and your croaking."
An orderly entered and saluted the Commandant.
"They've got the range of the Station, mon Commandant," he reported; "they have just sent a shell into the tracks. It is dangerous in the look-out of the house. Do you wish Victor to remain?"
"I will relieve him," said the Commandant, and he left swiftly and silently, as was his wont.
Hilda returned to the piano, and began softly playing, with the hush-pedal on. The two women drew close around her. Suddenly she released the pedal, and lifted her hands from the keys, as if they burned her. One string was still faintly singing which she had not touched, the string of the key that the Commandant had struck.
"Mercy, child, what ails you?" exclaimed Mrs. Bracher. "You've all got the fidgets to-night."
"That string again," said the girl.
She rose from the piano, and went out into the night. They heard her footsteps on the road.
"Hilda, Hilda," called Scotch, loudly.
"Leave her alone, she is fey," said Mrs. Bracher. "I know her in these moods. You can't interfere. You must let her go."
"We can at least see where she goes," urged Scotch.
They followed her at a distance. She went swiftly up the road, and straight to the railway tracks. She entered the house, the dark, wrecked house, where from the second story window, a perpetual look-out was kept, like the watch of the Vestal Virgins. They came to the open door, and heard her ascend to the room of the vigil.
"You must come," they heard her say, "come at once."
"No, no," answered the voice of the Commandant, "I am on duty here. But you—what brings you here? You cannot stay. Go at once. I order you."
"I shall not go till you go," the girl replied in expressionless tones.
"I tell you to go," repeated the Commandant in angry but suppressed voice.
"You can shoot me," said the girl, "but I will not go without you. Come—" her voice turned to pleading—"Come, while there is time."
"My time has come," said the Commandant. "It is here—my end."
"Then for me, too," she said, "but I have come to take you from it."
There was a silence of a few seconds, then the sound of a chair scraping the floor, heavy boots on the boarding, and the two, Commandant and girl, descending the stairs. Unastonished, they stepped out and found the two women waiting.
"We must save the girl," said the Commandant. "Come, run for it, all of you, run!"
He pushed them forward with his hands, and back down the road they had come. He ran and they ran till they reached their dwelling, and entered, and stood at the north window, looking over toward the dim house from which they had escaped. Out from the still night of darkness, came a low thunder from beyond the Yser. In the tick of a pulse-beat, the moaning of a shell throbbed on the air and, with instant vibrancy, the singing string of the piano at their back answered the flight of the shell. And in the same breath, they heard a roar at the railroad, and the crash of timbers. Soft licking flames broke out in the house of the Belgian watchers. Slowly but powerfully, the flames gathered volume, and swept up their separate tongues into one bright blaze, till the house was a bonfire against the heavy sky.
There were cities in Belgium of medieval loveliness, where the evening light lay in deep purple on canals seeping at foundations of castle and church, with the sacred towers tall in the sky, and a moon just over them, and a star or two beside.
That beauty has been torn out of a man's consciousness and spoiled to his love for ever, by moving up a howitzer and priming it with destruction. First, the rumble of the gun from far away, then the whistle of flying metal, sharpening its anger as it nears, then the thud and roar of explosion as it clutches and dissolves its mark. Now its seven-mile journey is ended. It has found its home and its home is a ruin. Over the peaceful earth and under a silent sky, bits of destruction are travelling, projections of the human will. Where lately there was a soft outline, rising from the soil as if the stones of the field had been called together by the same breath that spread the forest, now there is a heap of rock-dust. Man, infinite in faculty, has narrowed his devising to the uses of havoc. He has lifted his hand against the immortal part of himself. He has said—"The works I have wrought I will turn back to the dust out of which they came."
All the good labor of minds and hands which we cannot bring back is undone in an instant of time by a few pounds of chemical. That can be burned and broken in the passage of one cloud over the moon which not all the years of a century will restore. Seasons return, but not to us returns the light in the windows of Rheims.
There fell a day when the call came from Ypres to aid the English. A bitter hot engagement had been fought for seven days, with a hundred and twenty thousand men in action, and the woods and fields on the Hoogar road were strewn with the wounded. Dr. McDonnell, the head of the Ambulance Corps, rode over from Furnes to the shell-blackened house of the nurses in Pervyse. With him he brought Woffington, a young Englishman, to drive the ambulance. He asked Hilda to go with them to Ypres.
"Scotch, English and American, all on one seat," said Hilda with a smile.
They covered the thirty miles in one hour, and went racing through the city of Ypres, eastward toward the action. Half way out to the noise of artillery, their car was stopped by an English officer, handsome, courteous, but very firm.
"You cannot go out on this road," he said.
"We will be back before you know it," pleaded Hilda. "We will bring back your wounded. Let me show you."
"Report to me on your way back," he ordered. "My name is Fitzgerald, Captain Fitzgerald."
They rode on. All down the road, straggled wounded men, three miles of them limped, they held up a red hand, they carried a shattered arm in a sling. There was blood on their faces. They walked with bowed head, tired.
"These are the lucky ones," said Woffington, "they only got scotched."
That was the famous battle of Ypres. Of the dead there were more than the mothers of a countryside could replace in two generations. But death is war's best gift. War's other gifts are malicious—fever and plague, and the maiming of strength, and the fouling of beauty—shapely bodies tortured to strange forms, eager young faces torn away. Death is choicer than that, a release from the horror of life trampled like a filthy weed.
"Mons was a birthday party to this," said a Tommy to Hilda. "They're expecting too much of us. The whole thing is put on us to do, and it takes a lot of doing."
Dr. McDonnell and Woffington loaded the car with the severest of the cases, and returned to the white house of the Officer. He was waiting for them, grim, attentive.
Hilda flung up the hood:—two Tommies at length on the stretchers on one side of the car; opposite them, seven Tommies in a row with hand, arm, foot, leg, shoulder, neck and breast wounds. It was too good a piece of rescue work to be strangled with Red Tape. The Officer could not refrain from a smile of approval.
"You may work along this road," he said, "but look out for the other officers. They will probably stop you. But, remember, my permission holds good only for to-day. Then you must go back. This isn't according to regulations. Now, go on to the hospital."
Ten minutes more, and they swung inside the great iron gates of the Sisters of Mercy. Never had Hilda felt the war so keenly as now. She had been dealing with it bit by bit. But here it was spread out beyond all dealing with. She had to face it without solutions.
There, in the Convent, known now as Military Hospital Number One, was row after row of Khaki men in bed. They had overflowed to the stone floor down the long corridors, hundreds of yards of length, and every foot close packed, like fish in a tin, with helpless outstretched men. The grey stones and the drab suits on the bundles of straw,—what a backwash from the tides of slaughter. If a man stood on his feet, he had to reach for a cane. There were no whole men there, except the busy stretcher-bearers bringing in new tenants for the crowded smelly place.