A Journal of Impressions in Belgium Part 19

I shall always be grateful to that righteous man. He gave Mrs. Torrence and Janet leave to go, and he gave me leave to go with them; he gave us the military ambulance to go in and a Belgian soldier with a rifle to protect us. And he didn't waste a second over it. He just looked at us, and smiled, and let us go.

Mrs. Torrence got on to the ambulance beside the driver, Janet jumped on to one step and I on to the other, while the Commandant came up, trying to look stern, and told me to get down.

I hung on all the tighter.

And then----

What happened then was so ignominious, so sickening, that, if I were not sworn to the utmost possible realism in this record, I should suppress it in the interests of human dignity.

Mrs. Torrence, having the advantage of me in weight, height, muscle and position, got up and tried to push me off the step. As she did this she said: "You can't come. You'll take up the place of a wounded man."

And I found myself standing in the village street, while the car rushed out of it, with Janet clinging on to the hood, like a little sailor to his shrouds. She was on the side next the German guns.

It was the most revolting thing that had happened to me yet, in a life filled with incidents that I have no desire to repeat. And it made me turn on the Commandant in a way that I do not like to think of. I believe I asked him how he could bear to let that kid go into the German lines, which was exactly what the poor man hadn't done.[25]

Then we waited, Mrs. Lambert and I in Tom's car; and the Commandant in the car with Ursula Dearmer and the Chaplain on the other side of the street.

We were dreadfully silent now. We stared at objects that had no earthly interest for us as if our lives depended on mastering their detail. We were thus aware of a beautiful little Belgian house standing back from the village street down a short turning, a cream-coloured house with green shutters and a roof of rose-red tiles, and a very small poplar tree mounting guard beside it. This house and its tree were vivid and very still. They stood back in an atmosphere of their own, an atmosphere of perfect but utterly unreal peace. And as long as our memories endure, that house which we never saw before, and shall probably never see again, is bound up with the fate of Mrs. Torrence and Janet McNeil.

We thought we should have an hour to wait before they came back, if they ever did come. We waited for them during a whole dreadful lifetime.

In something less than half an hour the military ambulance came swinging round the turn of the road, with Mrs. Torrence and the Kid, and the two German wounded with them on the stretchers.

Those Germans never thought that they were going to be saved. They couldn't get over it--that two Englishwomen should have gone through their fire, for them! As they were being carried through the fire they said: "We shall never forget what you've done for us. G.o.d will bless you for it."

Mrs. Torrence asked them, "What will you do for us if we are taken prisoner?"

And they said: "We will do all we can to save you."

Antwerp is said to have fallen.

Antwerp is said to be holding its own well.[26]

All evening the watching Taube has been hanging over Ghent.

Mrs. Torrence and Janet have gone back with the ambulance to Melle.

[_Night._]

Sat up all night with Mr. ----.

There is one night nurse for all the wards on this floor, and she has a serious case to watch in another room. But I can call her if I want help. And there is the chemist who sleeps in the room next door, who will come if I go in and wake him up. And there are our own four doctors upstairs. And the _infirmiers_. It ought to be all right.

As a matter of fact it was the most terrible night I have ever spent in my life; and I have lived through a good many terrible nights in sick-rooms. But no amount of amateur nursing can take the place of training or of the self-confidence of knowing you are trained. And even if you _are_ trained, no amount of medical nursing will prepare you for a bad surgical case. To begin with, I had never nursed a patient so tall and heavy that I couldn't lift him by sheer strength and a sort of amateur knack.

And though in theory it was rea.s.suring to know that you could call the night nurse and the chemist and the four doctors and the _infirmiers_, in practice it didn't work out quite so easily as it sounded. When the night nurse came she couldn't lift any more than I could; and she had a greater command of discouraging criticism than of useful, practical suggestion. And the chemist knew no more about lifting than the night nurse. (Luckily none of us pretended for an instant that we knew!) When I had called up two of our hard-worked surgeons each once out of his bed, I had some scruples about waking them again. And it took four Belgian _infirmiers_ to do in five minutes what one surgeon could do in as many seconds. And when the chemist went to look for the _infirmiers_ he was gone for ages--he must have had to round them up from every floor in the Hospital. Whenever any of them went to look for anything, it took them ages. It was as if for every article needed in the wards of that Hospital there was a separate and inaccessible central depot.[27]

At one moment a small pillow had to be placed in the hollow of my patient's back if he was to be kept in that position on which I had been told his life depended. When I sent the night nurse to look for something that would serve, she was gone a quarter of an hour, in which I realized that my case was not the only case in the Hospital. For a quarter of an hour I had to kneel by his bed with my two arms thrust together under the hollow of his back, supporting it. I had nothing at hand that was small enough or firm enough but my arms.

That night I would have given everything I possess, and everything I have ever done, to have been a trained nurse.

To make matters worse, I had an atrocious cough, acquired at the Hotel de la Poste. The chemist had made up some medicine for it, but the poor busy dispensary clerk had forgotten to send it to my room. I had to stop it by an expenditure of will when I wanted every atom of will to keep my patient quiet and send him to sleep, if possible, without his morphia _piqures_. He is only to have one if he is restless or in pain.

And to-night he wanted more than ever to talk when he woke. And his conversation in the night is even more lacerating than his conversation in the day. For all the time, often in pain, always in extreme discomfort, he is thinking of other people.

First of all he asked me if I had any books, and I thought that he wanted me to read to him. I told him I was afraid he mustn't be read to, he must go to sleep. And he said: "I mean for you to read yourself--to pa.s.s the time."

He is afraid that I shall be bored by sitting up with him, that I shall tire myself, that I shall make my cough worse. He asks me if I think he will ever be well enough to play games. That is what he has always wanted to do most.

And then he begins to tell me about his mother.

He tells me things that I have no right to put down here.

There is nothing that I can do for him but to will. And I will hard, or I pray--I don't know which it is; your acutest willing and your intensest prayer are indistinguishable. And it seems to work. I will--or I pray--that he shall lie still without morphia, and that he shall have no pain. And he lies still, without pain. I will--or I pray--that he shall sleep without morphia. And he sleeps (I think that in spite of his extreme discomfort, he must have slept the best part of the night). And because it seems to work, I will--or I pray--that he shall get well.

There are many things that obstruct this process as fast as it is begun: your sensation of sight and touch; the swarms and streams of images that your brain throws out; and the crushing obsession of your fear. This last is like a dead weight that you hold off you with your arms stretched out. Your arms sink and drop under it perpetually and have to be raised again. At last the weight goes. And the sensations go, and the swarms and streams of images go, and there is nothing before you and around you but a clear blank darkness where your will vibrates.

Only one avenue of sense is left open. You are lost to the very memories of touch and sight, but you are intensely conscious of every sound from the bed, every movement of the sleeper. And while one half of you only lives in that pure and effortless vibration, the other half is aware of the least change in the rhythm of his breathing.

It is by this rhythm that I can tell whether he is asleep or awake. This rhythm of his breathing, and the rhythm of his sleeping and his waking measure out the night for me. It goes like one hour.

And yet I have spent months of nights watching in this room. Its blond walls are as familiar to me as the walls of rooms where I have lived a long time; I know with a profound and intimate knowledge every crinkle in the red shade of the electric bulb that hangs on the inner wall between the two beds, the shape and position of every object on the night table in the little white-tiled dressing-room; I know every trick of the inner and outer doors leading to the corridor, and the long grey lane of the corridor, and the room that I must go through to find ice, and the face of the little ward-maid who sleeps there, who wants to get up and break the ice for me every time. I have known the little ward-maid all my life; I have known the night nurse all my life, with her white face and sharp black eyes, and all my life I have not cared for her. All my life I have known and cared only for the wounded man on the bed.

I have known every sound of his voice and every line of his face and hands (the face and hands that he asks me to wash, over and over again, if I don't mind), and the strong springing of his dark hair from his forehead and every little feathery tuft of beard on his chin. And I have known no other measure of time than the rhythm of his breathing, no mark or sign of time than the black crescent of his eyelashes when the lids are closed, and the curling blue of his eyes when they open. His eyes always smile as they open, as if he apologized for waking when he knows that I want him to sleep. And I have known these things so long that each one of them is already like a separate wound in my memory.[28] He sums up for me all the heroism and the agony and waste of the defence of Antwerp, all the heroism and agony and waste of war.

About midnight [?] he wakes and tells me he has had a jolly dream. He dreamed that he was running in a field in England, running in a big race, that he led the race and won it.

[_Sunday, 11th._]

One bad symptom is disappearing. Towards dawn it has almost gone. He really does seem stronger.

[_5 a.m._]

He has had no return of pain or restlessness. But he was to have a morphia _piqure_ at five o'clock, and they have given it to him to make sure.

[_8 a.m._]

The night has not been so terrible, after all. It has gone like an hour and I have left him sleeping.

I am not in the least bit tired; I never felt drowsy once, and my cough has nearly gone.

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