May Sinclair

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

No Germans in Ghent. No Germans reported near Ghent.

Madame F. and her daughter smile at the idea of the Germans coming into Ghent. They will never come, and if they do come they will only take a little food and go out again. They will never do any harm to Ghent. Namur and Liége and Brussels, if you like, and Malines, and Louvain, and Termonde and Antwerp (perhaps); but Ghent—why should they? It is Antwerp they are making for, not Ghent.

And Madame represents the mind of the average Gantois. It is placid, incredulous, stolidly at ease, superbly inhospitable to disagreeable ideas. No Gantois can conceive that what has been done to the citizens of Termonde would be done to him. C’est triste—what has been done to the citizens of Termonde, but it doesn’t shake his belief in the immunity of Ghent.

Which makes M. ——’s behaviour all the more mysterious. Why did he try to scare us so? Five theories are tenable:

(1.) M. —— did honestly believe that ten thousand Germans would come in the morning and take our ambulance prisoner. That is to say, he believed what nobody else believed.

(2.) M. —— was scared himself. He had no desire to be taken quite so near the firing-line as the English Ambulance seemed likely to take him; so that the departure of the English Ambulance would not be wholly disagreeable to M. ——. (This theory is too far-fetched.)

(3.) M. —— was the agent of the Military Power, commissioned to test the nerve of the English Ambulance. (“Stood fire, have they? Give ’em a real scare, and see how they behave.”)

(4.) M. —— is a psychologist and made this little experiment on the English Ambulance himself.

(5.) He is a humorist and was simply “pulling its leg.”

The three last theories are plausible, but all five collapse before the inscrutability of Monsieur’s face.

Germans or no Germans, one ambulance car started at five in the morning for Quatrecht, somewhere between Ghent and Brussels, to fetch wounded and refugees. The other went, later, to Zele. I am not very clear as to who has gone with them, but Mrs. Torrence, Mrs. Lambert, Janet McNeil and Dr. Haynes and Mr. Riley have been left behind.

It is their third day of inactivity, and three months of it could not have devastated them more. They have touched the very bottom of suicidal gloom. Three months hence their state of mind will no doubt appear in all its absurdity, but at the moment it is too piteous for words. When you think what they were yesterday and the day before, there is no language to express the crescendo of their despair. I came upon Mr. Riley this morning, standing by the window of the mess-room, and contemplating the façade of the railway station. (It is making a pattern on our brains.) I tried to soothe him. I said it was hard lines—beastly hard lines—and told him to cheer up—there’d be heaps for him to do presently. And he turned from me like a man who has just buried his first-born.

Janet McNeil is even more heart-rending, sunk in a chair with her hands stuck into the immense pockets of her overcoat, her flawless and impassive face tilted forward as her head droops forlornly to her breast. She is such a child that she can see nothing beyond to-day, and yesterday and the day before that. She is going back to-morrow. Her valour and energy are frustrated and she is wounded in her honour. She is conscious of the rottenness of putting on a khaki tunic, and winding khaki putties round and round her legs to hang about the Hospital doing nothing. And she had to sell her motor bicycle in order to come out. Not that that matters in the least. What matters is that we are here, eating Belgian food and quartered in a Belgian Military Hospital, and “swanking” about with Belgian Red Cross brassards (stamped) on our sleeves, and doing nothing for the Belgians, doing nothing for anybody. We are not justifying our existence. We are frauds.

I tell the poor child that she cannot possibly feel as big a fraud as I do; that there was no earthly reason why I should have come, and none whatever why I should remain.

And then, to my amazement, I learn that I am envied. It’s all right for me. My job is clearly defined, and nobody can take it from me. I haven’t got to wind khaki putties round my legs for nothing.

I should have thought that the child was making jokes at my expense but for the extreme purity and candour of her gaze. Incredible that there should exist an abasement profounder than my own. I have hidden my tunic and breeches in my hold-all. I dare not own to having brought them.

Down in the vestibule I encounter Mrs. Torrence in khaki. Mrs. Torrence yearning for her wounded. Mrs. Torrence determined to get to her wounded at any cost. She is not abased or dejected, but exalted, rather. She is ready to go to the President or to the Military Power itself, and demand her wounded from them. Her beautiful eyes demand them from Heaven itself.

I cannot say there are not enough wounded to go round, but I point out for the fifteenth time that the trouble is there are not enough ambulance cars to go round.

But it is no use. It does not explain why Heaven should have chosen Ursula Dearmer and caused shells to bound in her direction, and have rejected Mrs. Torrence. The Military Power that should have ordered these things has abandoned us to the caprice of Heaven.

Of course if Mrs. Torrence was a saint she would fold her hands and bow her superb little head before the decrees of Heaven; but she is only a mortal woman, born with the genius of succour and trained to the last point of efficiency; so she rages. The tigress, robbed of her young, is not more furiously inconsolable than Mrs. Torrence.

It is not Ursula Dearmer’s fault. She is innocent of supplanting Mrs. Torrence. The thing simply happened. More docile than determined, unhurrying and uneager, and only half-awake, she seems to have rolled into Car No. 1 with Heaven’s impetus behind her. Like the shell at Alost, it is her luck.

And on the rest of us our futility and frustration weigh like lead. The good Belgian food has become bitter in our mouths. When we took our miserable walk through Ghent this morning we felt that l’Ambulance Anglaise must be a mark for public hatred and derision because of us. I declare I hardly dare go into the shops with the Red Cross brassard on my arm. I imagine sardonic raillery in the eyes of every Belgian that I meet. We do not think the authorities will stand it much longer; they will fire us out of the Hôpital Militaire No. II.

But no, the authorities do not fire us out. Impassive in wisdom and foreknowledge, they smile benignly on our agitation. They compliment the English Ambulance on the work it has done already. They convey the impression that but for the English Ambulance the Belgian Army would be in a bad way. Mademoiselle F. insists that the Hospital will soon be overflowing with the wounded from Antwerp and that she can find work even for me. It is untrue that there are three hundred nurses in the Hospital. There are only three hundred nurses in all Belgium. They pile it on so that we are more depressed than ever.

Janet McNeil is convinced that they think we are no good and that they are just being angels to us because they are sorry for us.

I break it to them very gently that I’ve volunteered to serve at the tables at the Palais des Fêtes. I feel as if I had sneaked into a remunerative job while my comrades are starving.

The Commandant is not quite as pleased as I thought he would be to hear of my engagement at the Palais des Fêtes. He says, “It is not your work.” I insist that my work is to do anything I can do; and that if I cannot dress wounds I can at least hand round bread and pour out coffee and wash up dishes. It is true that I am Secretary and Reporter and (for the time being) Treasurer to the Ambulance, and that I carry its funds in a leather purse belt round my body. Because I am the smallest and weakest member of the Corps that is the most unlikely place for the funds to be. It was imprudent, to say the least of it, for the Chaplain in his khaki, to carry them, as he did, into the firing-line. The belt, which fitted the Chaplain, hangs about half a yard below my waist and is extremely uncomfortable, but that is neither here nor there. Keeping the Corps’ accounts only takes two hours and a half, even with Belgian and English money mixed, and when I’ve added the same column of figures ten times up and ten times down, to make certain it’s all right (I am no good at accounts, but I know my weakness and guard against it, giving the Corps the benefit of every doubt and making good every deficit out of my private purse). Writing the Day-Book—perhaps half an hour. The Commandant’s correspondence, when he has any, and reporting to the British Red Cross Society, when there is anything to report, another half-hour at the outside; and there you have only three and a half hours employed out of the twenty-four, even if I balanced my accounts every day, and I don’t.

True that The Daily Chronicle promised to take any articles that I might send them from the front, but I haven’t written any. You cannot write articles for The Daily Chronicle out of nothing; at least I can’t.

The Commandant finally yields to argument and entreaty.

········

I do not tell him that what I really want to do is to go out with the Field Ambulance, and get beyond the turn of that road.

I know I haven’t the ghost of a chance; I know that if I had—as things stand at present—not being a surgeon or a trained nurse, I wouldn’t take it, even to get there. And at the same time I know, with a superior certainty, that this unlikely thing will happen. This sense of certainty is not at all uncommon, but it is, or seems, unintelligible. You can only conceive it as a premonition of some unavoidable event. It is as if something had been looking for you, waiting for you, from all eternity out here; something that you have been looking for; and, when you are getting near, it begins calling to you; it draws your heart out to it all day long. You can give no account of it. All that you know about it is that it is unique. It has nothing to do with your ordinary curiosities and interests and loves; nothing to do with the thirst for experience, or for adventure, or for glory, or for the thrill. You can’t “get” anything out of it. It is something hidden and secret and supremely urgent. Its urgency, indeed, is so great that if you miss it you will have missed reality itself.

For me this uncanny anticipation is somehow connected with the turn of the south-east road. I do not see how I am ever going to get there or anywhere near there. But I am not uneasy or impatient any more. There is no hurry. The thing, whatever it is, will be irresistible, and if I don’t go out to find it, it will find me.

········

Mrs. Torrence has gone, Heaven knows where. She has not been with the others at the Palais des Fêtes. Janet McNeil and Mrs. Lambert have been working there for five hours, serving meals to the refugees. Ursula Dearmer with extreme docility has been working all the afternoon with the nurses.

It looks as if we were beginning to settle down.

Mrs. Torrence has come back. The red German pom-pom has gone from her cap and she wears the badge of the Belgian Motor Cyclist Corps, black wings on a white ground. Providence has rehabilitated himself. He has abased our trained nurse and expert motorist in order to exalt her. He fairly flung her in the path of the Colonel of (I think) the Belgian Motor Cyclist Corps at a moment when the Colonel found himself in a jibbing motor-car without a chauffeur. We gather that the Colonel was becoming hectic with blasphemy when she appeared and settled the little difficulty between him and his car. She seems to have followed it up by driving him then and there straight up to the firing-line to look for wounded.

End of the adventure—she volunteered her services as chauffeur to the Colonel and was accepted.

The Commandant has received the news with imperturbable optimism.

As for her, she is appeased. She will realize her valorous dream of “the greatest possible danger;” and she will get to her wounded.

The others have come back too. They have toiled for five hours among the refugees.

[5.30.]

It is my turn now at the Palais des Fêtes.

It took ages to get in. The dining-hall is narrower than the sleeping-hall, but it extends beyond it on one side where there is a large door opening on the garden. But this door is closed to the public. You can only reach the dining-hall by going through the straw among the sleepers. And at this point the Commandant’s optimism has broken down. He won’t let you go in through the straw, and the clerk who controls the entry won’t let you go in through the other door. You explain to the clerk that the English Ambulance being quartered in a Military Hospital, its rules are inviolable; it is not allowed to expose itself to the horrors of the straw. The clerk is not interested in the English Ambulance, he is not impressed by the fact that it has volunteered its priceless services to the Refugee Committee, and he is contemptuous of the orders of its Commandant. His business is to see that you go into the Palais through his door and not through any other door. And when you tell him that if he will not withdraw his regulations the Ambulance will be compelled to withdraw its services, he replies with delicious sarcasm, “Nous n’avons pas prévu ça.” In the end you are referred to the Secretary in his bureau. He grasps the situation and is urbanity itself. Provided with a special permit bearing his sacred signature, you are admitted by the other door.

Your passage to the Vestiaire takes you through the infants’ room and along the galleries past the wards. The crowd of refugees is so great that beds have been put up in the galleries. You take off your outer garments and put on the Belgian Red Cross uniform (you have realized by this time that your charming white overall and veil are sanitary precautions).

Coming down the wide wooden stairways you have a full view of the Inner Hall. This enormous oblong space below the galleries is the heart, the fervid central foyer of the Palais des Fêtes. At either end of it is an immense auditorium, tier above tier of seats, rising towards the gallery floors. All down each side of it, standards with triumphal devices are tilted from the balustrade. Banners hang from the rafters.

And under them, down the whole length of the hall from auditorium to auditorium, the tables are set out. Bare wooden tables, one after another, more tables than you can count.

From the door of the sleeping-hall to each auditorium, and from each auditorium down the line of the tables a gangway is roped off for the passage of the refugees.

They say there are ten thousand five hundred here to-night. Beyond the rope-line, along the inner hall, more straw has been laid down to bed the overflow from the outer hall. They come on in relays to be fed. They are marshalled first into the seats of each auditorium, where they sit like the spectators of some monstrous festival and wait for their turn at the tables.

This, the long procession of people streaming in without haste, in perfect order and submission, is heart-rending if you like. The immensity of the crowd no longer overpowers you. The barriers make it a steady procession, a credible spectacle. You can take it in. It is the thin end of the wedge in your heart. They come on so slowly that you can count them as they come. They have sorted themselves out. The fathers and the mothers are together, they lead their little children by the hand or push them gently before them. There is no anticipation in their eyes; no eagerness and no impatience in their bearing. They do not hustle each other or scramble for their places. It is their silence and submission that you cannot stand.

For you have a moment of dreadful inactivity after the setting of the tables for the premier service. You have filled your bowls with black coffee; somebody else has laid the slices of white bread on the bare tables. You have nothing to do but stand still and see them file in to the banquet. On the banners and standards from the roof and balustrades the Lion of Flanders ramps over their heads. And somewhere in the back of your brain a song sings itself to a tune that something in your brain wakes up:

Ils ne vont pas dompter
Le vieux lion de Flandres,
Tant que le lion a des dents,
Tant que le lion peut griffer.

It is the song the Belgian soldiers sang as they marched to battle in the first week of August. It is only the end of September now.

And somebody standing beside you says: “C’est triste, n’est-ce pas?”

You cannot look any more.

At the canteen the men are pouring out coffee from enormous enamelled jugs into the small jugs that the waitresses bring. This wastes your time and cools the coffee. So you take a big jug from the men. It seems to you no heavier than an ordinary teapot. And you run with it. To carry the largest possible jug at the swiftest possible pace is your only chance of keeping sane. (It isn’t till it is all over that you hear the whisper of “Anglaise!” and realize how very far from sane you must have looked running round with your enormous jug.) You can fill up the coffee bowls again—the little bowls full, the big bowls only half full; there is more than enough coffee to go round. But there is no milk except for the babies. And when they ask you for more bread there is not enough to go twice round. The ration is now two slices of dry bread and a bowl of black coffee three times a day. Till yesterday there was an allowance of meat for soup at the mid-day meal; to-day the army has commandeered all the meat.

But you needn’t stand still any more. After the first service the bowls have to be cleared from the tables and washed and laid ready for the next. Round the great wooden tubs there is a frightful competition. It is who can wash and dry and carry back the quickest. You contend with brawny Flemish women for the first dip into the tub and the driest towel. Then you race round the tables with your pile of crockery, and then with your jug, and so on over and over again for three hours, till the last relay is fed and the tables are deserted. You wash up again and it is all over for you till six o’clock to-morrow evening.

You go back to your mess-room and a ten-o’clock supper of cold coffee and sandwiches and Belgian current loaf eaten with butter. And in a nightmare afterwards Belgian refugees gather round you and pluck at your sleeve and cry to you for more bread: “Une petite tranche de pain, s’il vous plaît, mademoiselle!”

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