A Journal of Impressions in Belgium Part 24

And somewhere, as if they were far off in some blessed place on the other side of this nightmare, I was aware of the merciful and pitiful faces of Mrs. Lambert and Janet McNeil.

Then, close beside me, there was a sudden heaving of the Chaplain's broad shoulders as he faced the room.

And I heard him saying, in the same voice in which he had declared that he was going to hold Matins, that it wasn't my fault at all--that it was _he_ who had persuaded Miss Ashley-Smith to go back to Ghent.[36]

The Chaplain has a moral nerve that never fails him.

Then Mrs. Torrence says that she is going back to protect Miss Ashley-Smith, and Ursula Dearmer says that she is going back to protect Mrs. Torrence, and somebody down in the blankets remarks that the thing was settled last night, and that all this going back is simply rotten.

I can only repeat that it is all my fault, and that therefore, if Mrs.

Torrence goes back, n.o.body is going back with her but me.

And there can be no doubt that three motor ambulances, with possibly the entire Corps inside them, certainly with the five women and the Chaplain and the Commandant, would presently have been seen tearing along the road to Ghent, one in violent pursuit of the other, if we had not telephoned and received news of Miss Ashley-Smith's safe arrival at the "Flandria," and orders that no more women were to return to Ghent.

Among all the variously a.s.sorted anguish of that halt at Ecloo the figures and the behaviour of Mrs. E. and her husband and their children are beautiful to remember--their courtesy, their serenity, their gentle and absolving wonder that anybody should see anything in the least frightful or distressing, or even disconcerting and unusual, in the situation; the little girl who sat beside me, showing me her picture-book of animals, accepting gravely and earnestly all that you had to tell her about the ways of squirrels, of kangaroos and opossums, while we waited for the ambulance cars to take us to Bruges; the boy who ran after us as we went, and stood looking after us and waving to us in the lane; the aspect of that Flemish house and garden as we left them--there is no word that embraces all these things but beauty.

We stopped in the village to take up our wounded from the Convent. The nuns brought us through a long pa.s.sage and across a little court to the refectory, which had been turned into a ward. Bowls steaming with the morning meal for the patients stood on narrow tables between the two rows of beds. Each bed was hung round and littered with haversacks, boots, rifles, bandoliers and uniforms b.l.o.o.d.y and begrimed. Except for the figures of the nuns and the aspect of its white-washed walls and its atmosphere of incorruptible peace, the place might have been a barracks or the dormitory in a night lodging, rather than a convent ward.

When we had found and dressed our men, we led them out as we had come.

As we went we saw, framed through some open doorway, sunlight and vivid green, and the high walls and clipped alleys of the Convent garden.

Of all our sad contacts and separations, these leave-takings at the convents were the saddest. And it was not only that this place had the same poignant and unbearable beauty as the place we had just left, but its beauty was unique. You felt that if the friends you had just left were turned out of their house and garden to-morrow, they might still return some day. But here you saw a carefully guarded and fragile loveliness on the very eve of its dissolution. The place was fairly saturated with holiness, and the beauty of holiness was in the faces and in every gesture of the nuns. And you felt that they and their faces and their gestures were impermanent, that this highly specialized form of holiness had continued with difficulty until now, that it hung by a single thread to a world that had departed very far from it.

Yet, for the moment while you looked at it, it maintained itself in perfection.

We shall never know all that the War has annihilated. But for that moment of time while it lasted, the Convent at Ecloo annihilated the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, every century between now and the fifteenth. What you saw was a piece of life cut straight out of the Middle Ages. What you felt was the guarded and hidden beauty of the Middle Ages, the beauty of obedience, simplicity and chast.i.ty, of souls set apart and dedicated, the whole insoluble secret charm of the cloistered life. The very horror of the invasion that threatened it at this hour of the twentieth century was a horror of the Middle Ages.

But these devoted women did not seem aware of it. The little high-bred English nun who conducted us talked politely and placidly of England and of English things as of things remembered with a certain mortal affection but left behind without regret. It was as if she contemplated the eternal continuance of the Convent at Ecloo with no break in its divine tranquillity. One sister went so far as to express the hope that their Convent would be spared. It was as if she were uttering some merely perfunctory piety. The rest, without ceasing from their ministrations, looked up at us and smiled.

On the way up to Bruges we pa.s.sed whole regiments of the Belgian Army in retreat. They trooped along in straggling disorder, their rifles at trail; behind them the standard-bearers trudged, carrying the standard furled and covered with black. The speed of our cars as we overtook them was more insufferable than ever.

[_Bruges._]

We thought that the Belgian Army would be quartered in Bruges, and that we should find a hospital there and serve the Army from that base.

We took our wounded to the Convent, and set out to find quarters for ourselves in the town. We had orders to meet at the Convent again at a certain hour.

Most of the Corps were being put up at the Convent. The rest of us had to look for rooms.

In the search I got separated from the Corps, and wandered about the streets of Bruges with much interest and a sense of great intimacy and leisure. By the time I had found a _pension_ in a narrow street behind the market-place, I felt it to be quite certain that we should stay in Bruges at least as long as we had stayed in Ghent, and what moments I could spare from the obsession of Ghent I spent in contemplating the Belfry. Very soon it was time to go back to the Convent. The way to the Convent was through many tortuous streets, but I was going in the right direction, accompanied by a kind Flamand and her husband, when at the turn by the ca.n.a.l bridge I was nearly run over by one of our own ambulance cars. It was Bert's car, and he was driving with fury and perturbation away from the Convent and towards the town. Janet McNeil was with him. They stopped to tell me that we had orders to clear out of Bruges. The Germans had taken Ghent and were coming on to Bruges. We had orders to go on to Ostend.

We found the rest of the cars drawn up in a street near the Convent. We had not been two hours in Bruges, and we left it, if anything, quicker than we had come in. The flat land fairly dropped away before our speed.

I sat on the back step of the leading car, and I shall never forget the look of those ambulances, three in a line, as they came into sight scooting round the turns on the road to Ostend.

Besides the wounded we had brought from Ghent, we took with us three footsore Tommies whom we had picked up in Bruges. They had had a long march. The stoutest, biggest and most robust of these three fainted just as we drew up in the courtyard of the _Kursaal_ at Ostend.

[_Ostend._]

The _Kursaal_ had been taken by some English and American women and turned into a Hospital. It was filled already to overflowing, but they found room for our wounded for the night. Ostend was to be evacuated in the morning. In fact, we were considered to be running things rather fine by staying here instead of going on straight to Dunkirk. It was supposed that if the Germans were not yet in Bruges they might be there any minute.

But we had had so many premature orders to clear out, and the Germans had always been hours behind time, and we judged it a safe risk.

Besides, there were forty-seven Belgian wounded in Bruges, and three of our ambulance cars were going back to fetch them.

There was some agitation as to who would and who wouldn't be allowed to go back to Bruges. The Commandant was at first inclined to reject his Secretary as unfit. But if you take him the right way he is fairly tractable, and I managed to convince him that nothing but going back to Bruges could make up for my failure to go back to Ghent. He earned my everlasting grat.i.tude by giving me leave. As for Mrs. Torrence, she had no difficulty. She was obviously competent.

Then, just as I was congratulating myself that the shame of Ecloo was to be wiped out (to say nothing of that ignominious overthrow at Melle), there occurred a _contretemps_ that made our ambulance conspicuous among the many ambulances in the courtyard of the Hospital.

We had reckoned without the mistimed chivalry of our chauffeurs.

They had all, even Tom, been quite pathetically kind and gentle during and ever since the flight from Ghent. (I remember poor Newlands coming up with his bottle of formamint just as we were preparing to leave Ecloo.) It never occurred to us that there was anything ominous in this mood.

Mrs. Torrence and I were just going to get into (I think) Newlands' car, when we were aware of Newlands standing fixed on the steps of the Hospital, looking like Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in khaki, and flatly refusing to drive his car into Bruges, not only if we were in his car, but if one woman went with the expedition in any other car.

He stood there, very upright, on the steps of the Hospital, and rather pale, while the Commandant and Mrs. Torrence surged up to him in fury.

The Commandant told him he would be sacked for insubordination, and Mrs.

Torrence, in a wild flight of fancy, threatened to expose him "in the papers."

But Newlands stood his ground. He was even more like Lord Kitchener than Tom. He simply could not get over the idea that women were to be protected. And to take the women into Bruges when the Germans were, for all we knew, _in_ Bruges, was an impossibility to Newlands, as it would have been to Lord Kitchener. So he went on refusing to take his car into Bruges if one woman went with the expedition. In retort to a charge of cold feet, he intimated that he was ready to drive into any h.e.l.l you pleased, provided he hadn't got to take any women with him. He didn't care if he _was_ sacked. He didn't care if Mrs. Torrence _did_ report him in the papers. He wouldn't drive his car into Bruges if one woman--

Here, in his utter disregard of all discipline, the likeness between Newlands and Lord Kitchener ends. Enough that he drove his car into Bruges on his own terms, and Mrs. Torrence and I were left behind.

The expedition to Bruges returned safely with the forty-seven Belgian wounded.

We found rooms in a large hotel on the Digue, overlooking the sea.

Before evening I went round to the Hospital to see Miss Ashley-Smith's three wounded men. The _Kursaal_ is built in terraces and galleries going all round the front and side of it. I took the wrong turning round one of them and found myself in the doorway of an immense ward. From somewhere inside there came loud and lacerating screams, high-pitched but appallingly monotonous and without intervals. I thought it was a man in delirium; I even thought it might be poor Fisher, of whose attacks we had been warned. I went in.

I had barely got a yard inside the ward before a kind little rosy-faced English nurse ran up to me. I told her what I wanted.

She said, "You'd better go back. You won't be able to stand it."

Even then I didn't take it in, and said I supposed the poor man was delirious.

She cried out, "No! No! He is having his leg taken off."

They had run short of anaesthetics.

I don't know what I must have looked like, but the little rosy-faced nurse grabbed me and said, "Come away. You'll faint if you see it."

And I went away. Somebody took me into the right ward, where I found Fisher and Williams and the other man. Fisher was none the worse for his journey, and Williams and the other man were very cheerful. Another English nurse, who must have had the tact of a heavenly angel, brought up a bowl of chicken broth and said I might feed Fisher if I liked. So I sat a little while there, feeding Fisher, and regretting for the hundredth time that I had not had the foresight to be trained as a nurse when I was young. Unfortunately, though I foresaw this war ten years ago, I had not foreseen it when I was young. I told the men I would come and see them early in the morning, and bring them some money, as I had promised Miss Ashley-Smith. I never saw them again.

Nothing happened quite as I had planned it.

To begin with, we had discovered as we lunched at Bruges that the funds remaining in the leather purse-belt were hardly enough to keep the Ambulance going for another week. And our hotel expenses at Ostend were reducing its term to a problematic three days. So it was more or less settled amongst us that somebody would have to go over to England the next day and return with funds, and that the supernumerary Secretary was, on the whole, the fittest person for the job.

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