A Journal of Impressions in Belgium Part 22

Presently they carry him back into the Hospital.

They can't find any blankets. I run over to the Hotel Cecil for my thick, warm travelling-rug to wrap round the knees of the wounded, shivering in the wagon.

It is all I can do for them.

And presently the wagon is turned round, slowly, almost solemnly, and driven off into the darkness and the cold mist, with its load of weird and piteous figures, wrapped in blankets like shawls. Their bandages show blurred white spots in the mist, and they are gone.

It is horrible.

I am reminded that I have not packed yet, nor dressed for the journey. I go over and pack and dress. I leave behind what I don't need and it takes seven minutes. There is something sad and terrible about the little hotel, and its proprietors and their daughter, who has waited on me. They have so much the air of waiting, of being on the eve. They hang about doing nothing. They sit mournfully in a corner of the half-darkened restaurant. As I come and go they smile at me with the patient Belgian smile that says, "_C'est triste, n'est-ce pas?_" and no more.

The landlord puts on his soft brown felt hat and carries my luggage over to the "Flandria." He stays there, hanging about the porch, fascinated by these preparations for departure. There is the same terrible half-darkness here, the same expectant stillness. Now and then the servants of the hospital look at each other and there are whisperings, mutterings. They sound sinister somehow and inimical. Or perhaps I imagine this because I do not take kindly to retreating. Anyhow I am only aware of them afterwards. For now it is time to go and fetch Miss Ashley-Smith and her three wounded men from the Convent.

Tom has come up with his first ambulance car. He is waiting for orders in the porch. His enormous motor goggles are pushed up over the peak of his cap. They make it look like some formidable helmet. They give an air of mastership to Tom's face. At this last hour it wears its expression of righteous protest, of volcanic patience, of exasperated discipline.

The Commandant is nowhere to be seen. And every minute of his delay increases Tom's sense of tortured integrity.

I tell Tom that he is to drive me at once to the Couvent de Saint Pierre. He wants to know what for.

I tell him it is to fetch Miss Ashley-Smith and three British wounded.

He shrugs his shoulders. He knows nothing about the Couvent de Saint Pierre and Miss Ashley-Smith and three British wounded, and his shrug implies that he cares less.

And he says he has no orders to go and fetch them.

I perceive that in this supreme moment I am up against Tom's superst.i.tion. He won't move anywhere without orders. It is his one means of putting himself in the right and everybody else in the wrong.

And the worst of it is he _is_ right.

I am also up against Tom's s.e.x prejudices. I remember that he is said to have sworn with an oath that he wasn't going to take orders from any woman.

And the Commandant is nowhere to be seen.

Tom sticks to the ledge of the porch and stares at me defiantly. The servants of the Hospital come out and look at us. They are so many reinforcements to Tom's position.

I tell him that the arrangement has been made with the Commandant's consent, and I repeat firmly that he is to get into his car this minute and drive to the Couvent de Saint Pierre.

He says he does not know where the Convent is. It may be anywhere.

I tell him where it is, and he says again he hasn't got orders.

I stand over him and with savage and violent determination I say: "You've got them _now_!"

And, actually, Tom obeys. He says, "_All_ right, all right, all right,"

very fast, and humps his shoulders and slouches off to his car. He cranks it up with less vehemence than I have yet known him bring to the starting of any car.

We get in. Then, and not till then, I am placable. I say: "You see, Tom, it wouldn't do to leave that lady and three British wounded behind, would it?"

What he says about orders then is purely by way of apology.

Regardless of my instructions, he does what I did and dashes up the wrong boulevard as if the Germans were even now marching into the _Place_ behind him. But he works round somehow and we arrive.

They are all there, ready and waiting. And the Mother Superior and two of her nuns are in the corridor. They bring out gla.s.ses of hot milk for everybody. They are so gentle and so kind that I recall with agony my impatience when I rang at their gate. Even familiar French words desert me in this crisis, and I implore Miss Ashley-Smith to convey my regrets for my rudeness. Their only answer is to smile and press hot milk on me.

I am glad of it, for I have been so absorbed in the drama of preparation that I have entirely forgotten to eat anything since lunch.

The wounded are brought along the pa.s.sage. We help them into the ambulance. Two, Williams and ----, are only slightly wounded; they can sit up all the way. But the third, Fisher, is wounded in the head.

Sometimes he is delirious and must be looked after. A fourth man is dying and must be left behind.

Then we say good-bye to the nuns.

The other ambulance cars are drawn up in the _Place_ before the "Flandria," waiting. For the first time I hate the sight of them. This feeling is inexplicable but profound.

We arrange for the final disposal of the wounded in one of the new Daimlers, where they can all lie down. Mrs. Torrence comes out and helps us. The Commandant is not there yet. Dr. Haynes and Dr. Bird pack Dr.

---- away well inside the car. They are very quiet and very firm and refuse to travel otherwise than together. Mrs. Torrence goes with the wounded.

I go into the Hospital and upstairs to our quarters to see if anything has been left behind. If I can find Marie we must take her. There is room, after all.

But Marie is nowhere to be seen.

n.o.body is to be seen but the Belgian night nurses on duty, watching, one on each landing at the entrance to her corridor. They smile at me gravely and sadly as they say good-bye.

I have left many places, many houses, many people behind me, knowing that I shall never see them again. But of all leave-takings this seems to me the worst. For those others I have been something, done something that absolves me. But for these and for this place I have not done anything, and now there is not anything to be done.

I go slowly downstairs. Each flight is a more abominable descent. At each flight I stand still and pull myself together to face the next nurse on the next landing. At the second story I go past without looking. I know every stain on the floor of the corridor there as you turn to the right. The number of the door and the names on the card beside it have made a pattern on my brain.

It is quarter to three.

They are all ready now. The Commandant is there giving the final orders and stowing away the nine wounded he has brought from Melle. The hall of the Hospital is utterly deserted. So is the _Place_ outside it. And in the stillness and desolation our going has an air of intolerable secrecy, of furtive avoidance of fate. This Field Ambulance of ours abhors retreat.

It is dark with the black darkness before dawn.

And the Belgian Red Cross guides have all gone. There is n.o.body to show us the roads.

At the last minute we find a Belgian soldier who will take us as far as Ecloo.

The Commandant has arranged to stay at Ecloo for a few hours. Some friends there have offered him their house. The wounded are to be put up at the Convent. Ecloo is about half-way between Ghent and Bruges.

We start. Tom's car goes first with the Belgian soldier in front. Ursula Dearmer, Mrs. Lambert, Miss Ashley-Smith and Mr. Riley and I are inside.

The Commandant sits, silent, wrapped in meditation, on the step.

We are not going so very fast, not faster than the three cars behind us, and the slowest of the three (the Fiat with the hard tyres, carrying the baggage) sets the pace. We must keep within their sight or they may lose their way. But though we are not really going fast, the speed seems intolerable, especially the speed that swings us out of sight of the "Flandria." You think that is the worst. But it isn't. The speed with its steady acceleration grows more intolerable with every mile. Your sense of safety grows intolerable.

You never knew that safety could hurt like this.

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