May Sinclair

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

We have been here a hundred years.

Car No. 1 went out at eight-thirty this morning, with the Commandant and Dr. Bird and Ursula Dearmer and Mr. Grierson and a Belgian Red Cross guide. With Tom, the chauffeur, that makes six. Tom’s face, as he sees this party swarming on his car, is expressive of tumultuous passions. Disgust predominates.

Their clothes seem stranger than ever by contrast with the severe military khaki of the car. Dr. Bird has added to his civilian costume a Belgian forage cap with a red tassel that hangs over his forehead. It was given to him yesterday by way of homage to his courage and his personal charm. But it makes him horribly vulnerable. The Chaplain, standing out from the rest of the Corps in complete khaki, is an even more inevitable mark for bullets. Tom stares at everybody with eyes of violent inquiry. He still evidently wants to know whether we call ourselves a field ambulance. He starts his car with movements of exasperation and despair. We are to judge what his sense of discipline must be since he consents to drive the thing at all.

The Commandant affects not to see Tom. Perhaps he really doesn’t see him.

It is just as well that he can’t see Mrs. Torrence, or Janet McNeil or Mr. Riley or Dr. Haynes. They are overpowered by this tragedy of being left behind. Under it the discipline of the —— Hospital breaks down. The eighteen-year-old child is threatening to commit suicide or else go home. She regards the two acts as equivalent. Mr. Riley’s gloom is now so awful that he will not speak when he is spoken to. He looks at me with dumb hostility, as if he thought that I had something to do with it. Dr. Haynes’s melancholy is even more heart-rending, because it is gentle and unexpressed.

I try to console them. I point out that it is a question of arithmetic. There are only two cars and there are fourteen of us. Fourteen into two won’t go, even if you don’t count the wounded. And, after all, we haven’t been here two days. But it is no good. We have been here a hundred years, and we have done nothing. There isn’t anything to do. There are not enough wounded to go round. We turn our eyes with longing towards Antwerp, so soon to be battered by the siege-guns from Namur.

And Bert, poor Bert! he has crawled into Ambulance Car No. 2 where it stands outside in the hospital yard, and he has hidden himself under the hood.

Mrs. Lambert is a little sad, too. But we are none of us very sorry for Mrs. Lambert. We have gathered that her husband is a journalist, and that he is special correspondent at the front for some American paper. He has a motor-car which we assume rashly to be the property of his paper. He is always dashing off to the firing-line in it, and Mrs. Lambert is always at liberty to go with him. She is mistaken if she thinks that her sorrow is in any way comparable with ours.

But if there are not enough wounded to go round in Ghent, there are more refugees than Ghent can deal with. They are pouring in by all the roads from Alost and Termonde. Every train disgorges multitudes of them into the Place.

This morning I went to the Matron, Madame F., and told her I wasn’t much good, but I’d be glad if she could give me some work. I said I supposed there was some to be done among the refugees.

Work? Among the refugees? They could employ whole armies of us. There are thousands of refugees at the Palais des Fêtes. I had better go there and see what is being done. Madame will give me an introduction to her sister-in-law, Madame F., the Présidente of the Comité des Dames, and to her niece, Mademoiselle F., who will take me to the Palais.

And Madame adds that there will soon be work for all of us in the Hospital. Yes: even for the untrained.

Life is once more bearable.

But the others won’t believe it. They say there are three hundred nurses in the hospital.

And the fact remains that we have two young surgeons cooling their heels in the corridors, and a fully-trained nurse tearing her hair out, while the young girl, Ursula Dearmer, takes the field.

And I think of the poor little dreamy, guileless Commandant in his conspicuous car, and I smile at her in secret, thanking Heaven that it’s Ursula Dearmer and not Mrs. Torrence who is at his side.

The ambulance has come back from Alost with two or three wounded and some refugees. The Commandant is visibly elated, elated out of all proportion to the work actually done. Ursula Dearmer is not elated in the very least, but she is wide-awake. Her docility has vanished with her torpor. She and the Commandant both look as if something extremely agreeable had happened to them at Alost. But they are reticent. We gather that Ursula Dearmer has been working with the nuns in the Convent at Alost, where the wounded were taken before the ambulance cars removed them to Ghent. It sounded very safe.

But the Commandant dashed into my room after luncheon. His face was radiant, almost ecstatic. He was like a child who has rushed in to tell you how ripping the pantomime was.

“We’ve been under fire!”

But I was very angry. Coldly and quietly angry. I felt like that when I was ten years old and piloting my mother through the thick of the traffic between Guildhall and the Bank, and she broke from me and was all but run over. I don’t quite know what I said to him, but I think I said he ought to be ashamed of himself. For it seems that Ursula Dearmer was with him.

I remembered how Ursula Dearmer’s mother had come to me in the committee-room and asked me how near we proposed to go to the firing-line, and whether her daughter would be in any danger, and how I said, first of all, that there wasn’t any use pretending that there wouldn’t be danger, and that the chances were—and how the Commandant had intervened at that moment to assure her that danger there would be none. With a finger on the map of France and Belgium he traced the probable, the inevitable, course of the campaign; and in light, casual tones which allayed all anxiety, he explained how, as the Germans advanced upon any point, we should retire upon our base. As for the actual field-work, with one gesture he swept the whole battle-line into the distance, and you saw it as an infinitely receding tide that left its wrack strewn on a place of peace where the ambulance wandered at its will, secure from danger. The whole thing was done with such compelling and convincing enthusiasm that Ursula Dearmer’s mother adopted more and more the humble attitude of a mere woman who has failed to grasp the conditions of modern warfare. Ursula Dearmer herself looked more docile than ever, though a little bored, and very sleepy.

And I remembered how when it was all over Ursula Dearmer’s mother implored me, if there was any danger, to see that Ursula Dearmer was sent home, and how I promised that whatever happened Ursula Dearmer would be safe, clinching it with a frightfully sacred inner vow, and saying to myself at the same time what a terrible nuisance this young girl is going to be. I saw myself at the moment of parting, standing on the hearthrug, stiff as a poker with resolution, and saying solemnly, “I’ll keep my word!”

And here was the Commandant informing me with glee that a shell had fallen and burst at Ursula Dearmer’s feet.

He was so pleased, and with such innocent and childlike pleasure, that I hadn’t the heart to tell him that there wasn’t much resemblance between those spaces of naked peace behind the receding battle-line and the narrow streets of a bombarded village. I only said that I should write to Ursula Dearmer’s mother and ask her to release me from my promise. He said I would do nothing of the kind. I said I would. And I did. And the poor Commandant left me, somewhat dashed, and not at all pleased with me.

It seems that the shell burst, not exactly at Ursula Dearmer’s feet, but ten yards away from her. It came romping down the street with immense impetus and determination; and it is not said of Ursula Dearmer that she was much less coy in the encounter. She took to shell-fire “like a duck to water.”

Dr. Bird told us this. Ursula Dearmer herself was modest, and claimed no sort of intimacy with the shell that waked her up. She was as nice as possible about it. But all the same, into the whole Corps (that part of it that had been left behind) there has crept a sneaking envy of her luck. I feel it myself. And if I feel it, what must Mrs. Torrence and Janet feel?

Mrs. Lambert, anyhow, has had nothing to complain of so far. Her husband took her to Alost in his motor-car; I mean the motor-car which is the property of his paper.

In the afternoon Mademoiselle F. called to take me to the Palais des Fêtes. We stopped at a shop on the way to buy the Belgian Red Cross uniform—the white linen overall and veil—which you must wear if you work among the refugees there.

Madame F. is very kind and very tired. She has been working here since early morning for weeks on end. They are short of volunteers for the service of the evening meals, and I am to work at the tables for three hours, from six to nine P.M. This is settled, and a young Red Cross volunteer takes me over the Palais. It is an immense building, rather like Olympia. It stands away from the town in open grounds like the Botanical Gardens, Regent’s Park. It is where the great Annual Shows were held and the vast civic entertainments given. Miles of country round Ghent are given up to market-gardening. There are whole fields of begonias out here, brilliant and vivid in the sun. They will never be sold, never gathered, never shown in the Palais des Fêtes. It is the peasants, the men and women who tilled these fields, and their children that are being shown here, in the splendid and wonderful place where they never set foot before.

There are four thousand of them lying on straw in the outer hall, in a space larger than Olympia. They are laid out in rows all round the four walls, and on every foot of ground between; men, women and children together, packed so tight that there is barely standing-room between any two of them. Here and there a family huddles up close, trying to put a few inches between it and the rest; some have hollowed out a place in the straw or piled a barrier of straw between themselves and their neighbours, in a piteous attempt at privacy; some have dragged their own bedding with them and are lodged in comparative comfort. But these are the very few. The most part are utterly destitute, and utterly abandoned to their destitution. They are broken with fatigue. They have stumbled and dropped no matter where, no matter beside whom. None turns from his neighbour; none scorns or hates or loathes his fellow. The rigidly righteous bourgeoise lies in the straw breast to breast with the harlot of the village slum, and her innocent daughter back to back with the parish drunkard. Nothing matters. Nothing will ever matter any more.

They tell you that when darkness comes down on all this there is hell. But you do not believe it. You can see nothing sordid and nothing ugly here. The scale is too vast. Your mind refuses this coupling of infamy with transcendent sorrow. It rejects all images but the one image of desolation which is final and supreme. It is as if these forms had no stability and no significance of their own; as if they were locked together in one immense body and stirred or slept as one.

Two or three figures mount guard over this litter of prostrate forms. They are old men and old women seated on chairs. They sit upright and immobile, with their hands folded on their knees. Some of them have fallen asleep where they sit. They are all rigid in an attitude of resignation. They have the dignity of figures that will endure, like that, for ever. They are Flamands.

This place is terribly still. There is hardly any rustling of the straw. Only here and there the cry of a child fretting for sleep or for its mother’s breast. These people do not speak to each other. Half of them are sound asleep, fixed in the posture they took when they dropped into the straw. The others are drowsed with weariness, stupefied with sorrow. On all these thousands of faces there is a mortal apathy. Their ruin is complete. They have been stripped bare of the means of life and of all likeness to living things. They do not speak. They do not think. They do not, for the moment, feel. In all the four thousand—except for the child crying yonder—there is not one tear.

And you who look at them cannot speak or think or feel either, and you have not one tear. A path has been cleared through the straw from door to door down the middle of the immense hall, a narrower track goes all round it in front of the litters that are ranged under the walls, and you are taken through and round the Show. You are to see it all. The dear little Belgian lady, your guide, will not let you miss anything. “Regardez, Mademoiselle, ces deux petites filles. Qu’elles sont jolies, les pauvres petites.” “Voici deux jeunes mariés, qui dorment. Regardez l’homme; il tient encore la main de sa femme.”

You look. Yes. They are asleep. He is really holding her hand. “Et ces quatre petits enfants qui ont perdu leur père et leur mère. C’est triste, n’est-ce pas, Mademoiselle?”

And you say, “Oui, Mademoiselle. C’est bien triste.”

But you don’t mean it. You don’t feel it. You don’t know whether it is “triste” or not. You are not sure that “triste” is the word for it. There are no words for it, because there are no ideas for it. It is a sorrow that transcends all sorrow that you have ever known. You have a sort of idea that perhaps, if you can ever feel again, this sight will be worse to remember than it is to see. You can’t believe what you see; you are stunned, stupefied, as if you yourself had been crushed and numbed in the same catastrophe. Only now and then a face upturned (a face that your guide hasn’t pointed out to you) surging out of this incredible welter of faces and forms, smites you with pity, and you feel as if you had received a lacerating wound in sleep.

Little things strike you, though. Already you are forgetting the faces of the two little girls and of the young husband and wife holding each other’s hands, and of the four little children who have lost their father and mother, but you notice the little dog, the yellow-brown mongrel terrier, that absurd little dog which belongs to all nations and all countries. He has obtained possession of the warm centre of a pile of straw and is curled up on it fast asleep. And the Flemish family who brought him, who carried him in turn for miles rather than leave him to the Germans, they cannot stretch themselves on the straw because of him. They have propped themselves up as best they may all round him, and they cannot sleep, they are too uncomfortable.

More thousands than there is room for in the straw are fed three times a day in the inner hall, leading out of this dreadful dormitory. All round the inner hall and on the upper story off the gallery are rooms for washing and dressing the children and for bandaging sore feet and attending to the wounded. For there are many wounded among the refugees. This part of the Palais is also a hospital, with separate wards for men, for women and children and for special cases.

Late in the evening M. P—— took the whole Corps to see the Palais des Fêtes, and I went again. By night I suppose it is even more “triste” than it was by day. In the darkness the gardens have taken on some malign mystery and have given it to the multitudes that move there, that turn in the winding paths among ghostly flowers and bushes, that approach and recede and approach in the darkness of the lawns. Blurred by the darkness and diminished to the barest indications of humanity, their forms are more piteous and forlorn than ever; their faces, thrown up by the darkness, more awful in their blankness and their pallor. The scene, drenched in darkness, is unearthly and unintelligible. You cannot account for it in saying to yourself that these are the refugees, and everybody knows what a refugee is; that there is War—and everybody knows what war is—in Belgium; and that these people have been shelled out of their homes and are here at the Palais des Fêtes, because there is no other place for them, and the kind citizens of Ghent have undertaken to house and feed them here. That doesn’t make it one bit more credible or bring you nearer to the secret of these forms. You who are compelled to move with them in the sinister darkness are more than ever under the spell that forbids you and them to feel. You are deadened now to the touch of the incarnate.

On the edge of the lawn, near the door of the Palais, some ghostly roses are growing on a ghostly tree. Your guide, M. P——, pauses to tell you their names and kind. It seems that they are rare.

Several hundred more refugees have come into the Palais since the afternoon. They have had to pack them a little closer in the straw. Eight thousand were fed this evening in the inner hall.

In the crush I get separated from M. P—— and from the Corps. I see some of them in the distance, the Commandant and Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert and M. P——. I do not feel as if I belonged to them any more. I belong so much to the stunned sleepers in the straw who cannot feel.

Nice Dr. Wilson comes across to me and we go round together, looking at the sleepers. He says that nothing he has seen of the War has moved him so much as this sight. He wishes that the Kaiser could be brought here to see what he has done. And I find myself clenching my hands tight till it hurts, not to suppress my feelings—for I feel nothing—but because I am afraid that kind Dr. Wilson is going to talk. At the same time, I would rather he didn’t leave me just yet. There is a sort of comfort and protection in being with somebody who isn’t callous, who can really feel.

But Dr. Wilson isn’t very fluent, and presently he leaves off talking, too.

Near the door we pass the family with the little yellow-brown dog. All day the little dog slept in their place. And now that they are trying to sleep he will not let them. The little dog is wide awake and walking all over them. And when you think what it must have cost to bring him—

C’est triste, n’est-ce pas?

As we left the gardens M. P—— gathered two ghostly roses, the last left on their tree, and gave one to Mrs. Lambert and one to me. I felt something rather like a pang then. Heaven knows why, for such a little thing.

Conference in our mess-room. M. ——, the Belgian Red Cross guide who goes out with our ambulances, is there. He is very serious and important. The Commandant calls us to come and hear what he has to say. It seems it had been arranged that one of our cars should be sent to-morrow morning to Termonde to bring back refugees. But M. —— does not think that car will ever start. He says that the Germans are now within a few miles of Ghent, and may be expected to occupy it to-morrow morning, and that instead of going to Termonde to-morrow we had very much better pack up and retreat to Bruges to-night. There are ten thousand Germans ready to march into Ghent.

M. —— is weighed down by the thought of his ten thousand Germans. But the Commandant is not weighed down a bit. On the contrary, a pleasant exaltation comes upon him. It comes upon the whole Corps, it comes even upon me. We refuse to believe in his ten thousand Germans. M. —— himself cannot swear to them. We refuse to pack up. We refuse to retreat to Bruges to-night. Time enough for agitation in the morning. We prefer to go to bed. M. —— shrugs his shoulders, as much as to say that he has done his duty and if we are all murdered in our beds it isn’t his fault.

Does M. —— really believe in the advance of the ten thousand? His face is inscrutable.

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