May Sinclair

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

When we compared notes the next morning we found that we had all gone soundly to sleep, too tired to take the Taube seriously, all except our two chauffeurs, who were downright annoyed because no bomb had entered their bedroom. Then we all went out and looked at the little hole in the roof of the fish market, and the big hole in the hotel garden, and thought of bombs as curious natural phenomena that never had and never would have any intimate connection with us.

And for five weeks, ever since I knew that I must certainly go out with this expedition, I had been living in black funk; in shameful and appalling terror. Every night before I went to sleep I saw an interminable spectacle of horrors: trunks without heads, heads without trunks, limbs tangled in intestines, corpses by every roadside, murders, mutilations, my friends shot dead before my eyes. Nothing I shall ever see will be more ghastly than the things I have seen. And yet, before a possibly-to-be-bombarded Ostend this strange visualizing process ceases, and I see nothing and feel nothing. Absolutely nothing; until suddenly the Commandant announces that he is going into the town, by himself, to buy a hat, and I get my first experience of real terror.

For the hats that the Commandant buys when he is by himself—there are no words for them.

This morning the Corps begins to realize its need of discipline. First of all, our chauffeurs have disappeared and can

nowhere be found. The motor ambulances languish in inactivity on Cockerill’s Wharf. We find one chauffeur and set him to keep guard over a tin of petrol. We know the ambulances can’t start till heaven knows when, and so, first Mrs. Lambert, our emergency nurse, then, I regret to say, our Secretary and Reporter make off and sneak into the Cathedral. We are only ten minutes, but still we are away, and Mrs. Torrence, our trained nurse, is ready for us when we come back. We are accused bitterly of sight-seeing. (We had betrayed the inherent levity of our nature the day before, on the boat, when we looked at the sunset.) Then the Secretary and Reporter, utterly intractable, wanders forth ostensibly to look for the Commandant, who has disappeared, but really to get a sight of the motor ambulances on Cockerill’s Wharf. And Mrs. Torrence is ready again for the Secretary, convicted now of sight-seeing. And I have seen no Commandant, and no motor ambulances and no wharf. (Unbearable thought, that I may never, absolutely never, see Cockerill’s Wharf!) It is really awful this time, because the President of the Belgian Red Cross is waiting to get the thirteen of us to the Town Hall to have our passports visés. And the Commandant is rounding up his Corps, and Ursula Dearmer is heaven knows where, and Mrs. Lambert only somewhere in the middle distance, and Mrs. Torrence’s beautiful eyes are blazing at the slip-sloppiness of it all. Things were very different at the —— Hospital, where she was trained.

Only the President remains imperturbable.

For, after all this fuming and fretting, the President isn’t quite ready himself, or perhaps the Town Hall isn’t ready, and we all stroll about the streets of Ostend for half an hour. And the Commandant goes off by himself, to buy that hat.

It is a terrible half-hour. But after all, he comes back without it, judging it better to bear the ills he has.

Very leisurely, and with an immense consumption of time, we stroll and get photographed for our passports. Then on to the Town Hall, and then to the Military Depôt for our Laissez-passer, and then to the Hôtel Terminus for lunch. And at one-thirty we are off.

Whatever happens, whatever we see and suffer, nothing can take from us that run from Ostend to Ghent.

We go along a straight, flat highway of grey stones, through flat, green fields and between thin lines of trees—tall and slender and delicate trees. There are no hedges. Only here and there a row of poplars or pollard willows is flung out as a screen against the open sky. This country is formed for the very expression of peace. The straight flat roads, the straight flat fields and straight tall trees stand still in an immense quiet and serenity. We pass low Flemish houses with white walls and red roofs. Their green doors and shutters are tall and slender like the trees, the colours vivid as if the paint had been laid on yesterday. It is all unspeakably beautiful and it comes to me with the natural, inevitable shock and ecstasy of beauty. I am going straight into the horror of war. For all I know it may be anywhere, here, behind this sentry; or there, beyond that line of willows. I don’t know. I don’t care. I cannot realize it. All that I can see or feel at the moment is this beauty. I look and look, so that I may remember it.

Is it possible that I am enjoying myself?

I dare not tell Mrs. Torrence. I dare not tell any of the others. They seem to me inspired with an austere sense of duty, a terrible integrity. They know what they are here for. To me it is incredible that I should be here.

I am in Car 1., sitting beside Tom, the chauffeur; Mrs. Torrence is on the other side of me. Tom disapproves of these Flemish roads. He cannot see that they are beautiful. They will play the devil with his tyres.

I am reminded unpleasantly that our Daimler is not a touring car but a motor ambulance and that these roads will jolt the wounded most abominably.

There are straggling troops on the road now. At the nearest village all the inhabitants turn out to cheer us. They cry out “Les Anglais!” and laugh for joy. Perhaps they think that if the British Red Cross has come the British Army can’t be far behind. But when they hear that we are Belgian Red Cross they are gladder than ever. They press round us. It is wonderful to them that we should have come all the way from England “pour les Belges!” Somehow the beauty of the landscape dies before these crowding, pressing faces.

We pass through Bruges without seeing it. I have no recollection whatever of having seen the Belfry. We see nothing but the Canal (where we halt to take in petrol) and more villages, more faces. And more troops.

Half-way between Bruges and Ghent an embankment thrown up on each side of the road tells of possible patrols and casual shooting. It is the first visible intimation that the enemy may be anywhere.

A curious excitement comes to you. I suppose it is excitement, though it doesn’t feel like it. You have been drunk, very slightly drunk with the speed of the car. But now you are sober. Your heart beats quietly, steadily, but with a little creeping, mounting thrill in the beat. The sensation is distinctly pleasurable. You say to yourself, “It is coming. Now—or the next minute—perhaps at the end of the road.” You have one moment of regret. “After all, it would be a pity if it came too soon, before we’d even begun our job.” But the thrill, mounting steadily, overtakes the regret. It is only a little thrill, so far (for you don’t really believe that there is any danger), but you can imagine the thing growing, growing steadily, till it becomes ecstasy. Not that you imagine anything at the moment. At the moment you are no longer an observing, reflecting being; you have ceased to be aware of yourself; you exist only in that quiet, steady thrill that is so unlike any excitement that you have ever known. Presently you get used to it. “What a fool I should have been if I hadn’t come. I wouldn’t have missed this run for the world.”

I forget myself so far as to say this to Mrs. Torrence. My voice doesn’t sound at all like the stern voice of duty. It is the voice of somebody enjoying herself. I am behaving exactly as I behaved this morning at Ostend; and cannot possibly hope for any sympathy from Mrs. Torrence.

But Mrs. Torrence has unbent a little. She has in fact been unbending gradually ever since we left Ostend. There is a softer light in her beautiful eyes. For she is not only a trained nurse but an expert motorist; and a Daimler is a Daimler even when it’s an ambulance car. From time to time remarks of a severely technical nature are exchanged between her and Tom. Still, up till now, nothing has passed to indicate any flagging in the relentless spirit of the —— Hospital.

The next minute I hear that the desire of Mrs. Torrence’s heart is to get into the greatest possible danger—and to get out of it.

The greatest possible danger is to fall into the hands of the Uhlans. I feel that I should be very glad indeed to get out of it, but that I’m not by any means so keen on getting in. I say so. I confess frankly that I’m afraid of Uhlans, particularly when they’re drunk.

But Mrs. Torrence is not afraid of anything. There is no German living, drunk or sober, who could break her spirit. Nothing dims for her that shining vision of the greatest possible danger. She does not know what fear is.

I conceive an adoration for Mrs. Torrence, and a corresponding distaste for myself. For I do know what fear is. And in spite of the little steadily-mounting thrill, I remember distinctly those five weeks of frightful anticipation when I knew that I must go out to the War; the going to bed, night after night, drugged with horror, black horror that creeps like poison through your nerves; the falling asleep and forgetting it; the waking, morning after morning, with an energetic and lucid brain that throws out a dozen war pictures to the minute like a ghastly cinema show, till horror becomes terror; the hunger for breakfast; the queer, almost uncanny revival of courage that follows its satisfaction; the driving will that strengthens as the day goes on and slackens its hold at evening. I remember one evening very near the end; the Sunday evening when the Commandant dropped in, after he had come back from Belgium. We were stirring soup over the gas stove in the scullery—you couldn’t imagine a more peaceful scene—when he said, “They are bringing up the heavy siege guns from Namur, and there is going to be a terrific bombardment of Antwerp, and I think it will be very interesting for you to see it.” I remember replying with passionate sincerity that I would rather die than see it; that if I could nurse the wounded I would face any bombardment you please to name; but to go and look on and make copy out of the sufferings I cannot help—I couldn’t and I wouldn’t, and that was flat. And I wasn’t a journalist any more than I was a trained nurse.

I can still see the form of the Commandant rising up on the other side of the scullery stove, and in his pained, uncomprehending gaze and in the words he utters I imagine a challenge. It is as if he said, “Of course, if you’re afraid”—(haven’t I told him that I am afraid?).

The gage is thrown down on the scullery floor. I pick it up. And that is why I am here on this singular adventure.

Thus, for the next three kilometres, I meditate on my cowardice. It is all over as if it had never been, but how can I tell that it won’t come back again? I can only hope that when the Uhlans appear I shall behave decently. And this place that we have come to is Ecloo. We are not very far from Ghent.

A church spire, a few roofs rising above trees. Then many roofs all together. Then the beautiful grey-white foreign city.

As we run through the streets we are followed by cyclists; cyclists issue from every side-street and pour into our road; cyclists rise up out of the ground to follow us. We don’t realize all at once that it is the ambulance they are following. Bowing low like racers over their handle-bars, they shoot past us; they slacken pace and keep alongside, they shoot ahead; the cyclists are most fearfully excited. It dawns on us that they are escorting us; that they are racing each other; that they are bringing the news of our arrival to the town. They behave as if we were the vanguard of the British Army.

We pass the old Military Hospital—Hôpital Militaire No. I.—and presently arrive at the Flandria Palace Hotel, which is Hôpital Militaire No. II. The cyclists wheel off, scatter and disappear. The crowd in the Place gathers round the porch of the hotel to look at the English Ambulance.

We enter. We are received by various officials and presented to Madame F., the head of the Red Cross nursing staff. There is some confusion, and Mrs. Torrence finds herself introduced as the Secretary of the English Committee. Successfully concealed behind the broadest back in the Corps, which belongs to Mr. Grierson, I have time to realize how funny we all are. Everybody in the hospital is in uniform, of course. The nurses of the Belgian Red Cross wear white linen overalls with the brassard on one sleeve, and the Red Cross on the breasts of their overalls, and over their foreheads on the front of their white linen veils. The men wear military or semi-military uniforms. We had never agreed as to our uniform, and some of us had had no time to get it, if we had agreed. Assembled in the vestibule, we look more like a party of refugees, or the cast of a Barrie play, than a field ambulance corps. Mr. Grierson, the Chaplain, alone wears complete khaki, in which he is indistinguishable from any Tommy. The Commandant, obeying some mysterious inspiration, has left his khaki suit behind. He wears a Norfolk jacket and one of his hats. Mr. Foster in plain clothes, with a satchel slung over his shoulders, has the air of an inquiring tourist. Mrs. Torrence and Janet McNeil in short khaki tunics, khaki putties, and round Jaeger caps, and very thick coats over all, strapped in with leather belts, look as if they were about to sail on an Arctic expedition; I was told to wear dark blue serge, and I wear it accordingly; Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert are in normal clothes. But the amiable officials and the angelic Belgian ladies behave as if there was nothing in the least odd about our appearance. They remember only that we are English and that it is now six o’clock and that we have had no tea. They conceive this to be the most deplorable fate that can overtake the English, and they hurry us into the great kitchen to a round table, loaded with cake and bread-and-butter and enormous bowls of tea. The angelic beings in white veils wait on us. We are hungry and we think (a pardonable error) that this meal is hospital supper; after which some work will surely be found for us to do.

We are shown to our quarters on the third floor. We expect two bare dormitories with rows of hard beds, which we are prepared to make ourselves, besides sweeping the dormitories, and we find a fine suite of rooms—a mess-room, bedrooms, dressing-rooms, bathrooms—and hospital orderlies for our valets de chambre.

We unpack, sit round the mess-room and wait for orders. Perhaps we may all be sent down into the kitchen to wash up. Personally, I hope we shall be, for washing up is a thing I can do both quickly and well. It is now seven o’clock.

At half-past we are sent down into the kitchen, not to wash up, but, if you will believe it, to dine. And more hospital orderlies wait on us at dinner.

The desire of our hearts is to do something, if it is only to black the boots of the angelic beings. But no, there is nothing for us to do. To-morrow, perhaps, the doctors and stretcher-bearers will be busy. We hear that only five wounded have been brought into the hospital to-day. They have no ambulance cars, and ours will be badly needed—to-morrow. But to-night, no.

We go out into the town, to the Hôtel de la Poste, and sit outside the café and drink black coffee in despair. We find our chauffeurs doing the same thing. Then we go back to our sumptuous hotel and so, dejectedly, to bed. Aeroplanes hover above us all night.

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