A Journal of Impressions in Belgium Part 21

The night goes on. I sit with Mr. ---- for a little while. I have still to finish the Commandant's packing; I have not yet begun my own, and it is time that I should go round to the Convent to tell Miss Ashley-Smith to be ready with her British before two o'clock.

I sit with him for what seems a very long time. It is appalling to me that the time should seem long. For it is really such a little while, and when it is over there will be nothing more that I shall ever do for him. This thought is not prominent and vivid; it is barely discernible; but it is there, a dull background of pain under my anxiety for the safety of the English over there in the Couvent de Saint Pierre. It is more than time that I should go and tell them to be ready.

He holds out his hands to be sponged "if I don't mind." I sponge them over and over again with iced water and eau de Cologne, gently and very slowly. I am afraid lest he should be aware that there is any hurry. The time goes on, and my anxiety becomes acuter every minute, till with each slow, lingering turn of my hand I think, "If I don't go soon it will be too late."

I hear that the children will be all right. Somebody has had a _crise de nerfs_, and Janet was the victim.

It is past midnight, and very dark. The _Place_ and the boulevards are deserted. I cannot see the Red Cross flag hanging from the window of the Convent. The boulevards look all the same in the blackness, and I turn up the one to the left. I run on and on very fast, but I cannot see the white flag with the red cross anywhere; I run back, thinking I must have pa.s.sed it, turn and go on again.

There is n.o.body in sight. No sound anywhere but the sound of my own feet running faster and faster up the wrong boulevard.

At last I know I have gone too far, the houses are entirely strange. I run back to the _Place_ to get my bearings, and start again. I run faster than ever. I pa.s.s a solitary civilian coming down the boulevard.

The place is so empty and so still that he and I seem to be the only things alive and awake in this quarter of the town. As I pa.s.s he turns to look after me, wondering at the solitary lady running so fast at this hour of the morning. I see the Red Cross flag in the distance, and I come to a door that looks like the door of the Convent. It _is_ the door of the Convent.

I ring the bell. I ring it many times. n.o.body comes.

I ring a little louder. A tired lay sister puts her head out of an upper window and asks me what I want. I tell her. She is rather cross and says I've come to the wrong door. I must go to the second door; and she puts her head in and shuts the window with a clang that expresses her just resentment.

I go to the second door, and ring many times again. And another lay sister puts her head out of an upper window.

She is gentle but sleepy and very slow. She cannot take it in all at once. She says they are all asleep in the Convent, and she does not like to wake them. She says this several times, so that I may understand.

I am exasperated.

"_Mais, Madame--de grace! C'est peut-etre la vie ou la mort!_"

The minute I've said it it sounds to me melodramatic and absurd. _I_ am melodramatic and absurd, with my running feet, and my small figure and earnest, upturned face, standing under a Convent wall at midnight, and talking about _la vie et la mort_. It is too improbable. _I_ am too improbable. I feel that I am making a fuss out of all proportion to the occasion. And I am sorry for frightening the poor lay sister all for nothing.

Very soon, down the south-east road, the Germans will be marching upon Ghent.

And I cannot realize it. The whole thing is too improbable.

But the lay sister has understood this time. She will go and wake the porteress. She is not at all frightened.

I wait a little longer, and presently the porteress opens the door. When she hears my message she goes away, and returns after a little while with one of the nuns.

They are very quiet, very kind, and absolutely unafraid. They say that Miss Ashley-Smith and her British wounded shall be ready before [?] two o'clock.

I go back to the "Flandria."

The Commandant, who went out to Melle in Tom's car, has not come back yet.

I think Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert have gone to bed. They are not taking the Germans very seriously.

There is n.o.body in the mess-room but the other three chauffeurs, Bert, Tom and Newlands. Newlands has just come back from Ostend. They have had no supper. We bustle about to find some.

We all know the Germans are coming into Ghent. But we do not speak of it. We are all very polite, almost supernaturally gentle, and very kind to each other. The beautiful manners of Newlands are conspicuous in this hour, the tragedy of which we are affecting to ignore. I behave as if there was nothing so important in the world as cutting bread for Newlands. Newlands behaves as if there were nothing so important as fetching a bottle of formamint, which he has with him, to cure my cough.

(It has burst out again worse than ever after the unnatural repression of last night.)

When the chauffeurs are provided with supper I go into the Commandant's room and finish his packing. The ties, the pocket-handkerchiefs and the collars are all safe in the Gladstone bag. Only the underclothing and the suits remain and there is any amount of room for them in the hold-all.

I roll up the blue serge coat, and the trousers, and the waistcoat very smooth and tight, also the underclothes. It seems very simple. I have only got to put them in the hold-all and then roll it up, smooth and tight, too--

It would have been simple, if the hold-all had been a simple hold-all and if it had been nothing more. But it was also a sleeping-bag and a field-tent. As sleeping-bag, it was provided with a thick blanket which took up most of the room inside, and a waterproof sheet which was part of itself. As field-tent, it had large protruding f.l.a.n.g.es, shaped like jib-sails, and a complicated system of ropes.

First of all I tucked in the jib-sails and ropes and laid them as flat as might be on the bottom of the sleeping-bag, with the blanket on the top of them. Then I packed the clothes on the top of the blanket and turned it over them to make all snug; I b.u.t.toned up the waterproof sheet over everything, rolled up the hold-all and secured it with its straps.

This was only done by much stratagem and strength, by desperate tugging and pushing, and by lying flat on my waist on the rolled-up half to keep it quiet while I brought the loose half over. No sooner had I secured the hold-all by its straps than I realized that it was no more a hold-all than it was a sleeping-bag and a field tent, and that its contents were exposed to the weather down one side, where they bulged through the s.p.a.ces that yawned between the b.u.t.tons, strained almost to bursting.

I still believed in the genius that had devised this trinity. Clearly the jib-sails which made it a field-tent were intended to serve also as the pockets of the hold-all. I had done wrong to flatten them out and tuck them in, frustrating the fulfilment of their function. It was not acting fairly by the inventor.

I unpacked the hold-all, I mean the field-tent.

Then, with the Commandant's clothes again lying round me on the floor, I grappled with the mystery of the jib-sails and their cords. The jib-sails and their cords were, so to speak, the heart of this infernal triple ent.i.ty.

They were treacherous. They had all the appearance of pockets, but owing to the intricate and malign relations of their cords, it was impossible to deal faithfully with them on this footing. When the contents had been packed inside them, the field-tent a.s.serted itself as against the hold-all and refused to roll up. And I am sure that if the field-tent had had to be set up in a field in a hurry, the hold-all and the sleeping-bag would have arisen and insisted on their consubstantial rights.

I unpacked the field-tent and packed it all over again exactly as I had packed it before, but more carefully, swearing gently and continuously, as I tugged with my arms and pushed with my knees, and pressed hard on it with my waist to keep it still. I cursed the day when I had first heard of it; I cursed myself for giving it to the Commandant; more than all I cursed the combined ingenuity and levity of its creator, who had indulged his fantasy at our expense, without a thought to the actual conditions of the retreat of armies and of ambulances.

And in the middle of it all Janet came in, and curled herself up in a corner, and forecast luridly and inconsolably the possible fate of her friends, the nurses in the "Flandria." For the moment her coolness and her wise impa.s.sivity had gone. Her behaviour was lacerating.

This was the very worst moment we had come to yet.[31]

And it seemed that Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert had gone to bed, regardless of the retreat from Ghent.

Somewhere in the small hours of the morning the Commandant came back from Melle.[32]

It is nearly two o'clock. Downstairs, in the great silent hall two British wounded are waiting for some ambulance to take them to the Station. They are sitting bolt upright on chairs near the doorway, their heads nodding with drowsiness. One or two Belgian Red Cross men wait beside them. Opposite them, on three other chairs, the three doctors, Dr. Haynes, Dr. Bird and Dr. ---- sit waiting for our own ambulance to take them. They have been up all night and are utterly exhausted. They sit, fast asleep, with their heads bowed on their b.r.e.a.s.t.s.

Outside, the darkness has mist and a raw cold sting in it.

A wretched ambulance wagon drawn by two horses is driven up to the door.

It had a hood once, but the hood has disappeared and only the naked hoops remain. The British wounded from two [?] other hospitals are packed in it in two rows. They sit bolt upright under the hoops, exposed to mist and to the raw cold sting of the night; some of them wear their blankets like shawls over their shoulders as they were taken from their beds. The shawls and the head bandages give these British a strange, foreign look, infinitely helpless, infinitely pitiful.

n.o.body seems to be out there but Mrs. Torrence and one or two Belgian Red Cross men. She and I help to get our two men taken gently out of the hall and stowed away in the ambulance wagon. There are not enough blankets. We try to find some.

At the last minute two bearers come forward, carrying a third. He is tall and thin; he is wrapped in a coat flung loosely over his sleeping-jacket; he wears a turban of bandages; his long bare feet stick out as he is carried along. It is Cameron, my poor Highlander, who was shot through the brain.

They lift him, very gently, into the wagon.

Then, very gently, they lift him out again.

This attempt to save him is desperate. He is dying.

They carry him up the steps and stand him there with his naked feet on the stone. It is anguish to see those thin white feet on the stone; I take off my coat and put it under them.

It is all I can do for him.

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