May Sinclair

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

It really isn’t safe for the Commandant to go out with Ursula Dearmer. For her luck in the matter of bombardments continues. (He might just as well be with Mrs. Torrence.) They have been at Termonde. What is more, it was Ursula Dearmer who got them through, in spite of the medical military officer whose vigorous efforts stopped them at the barrier. He seems at one point to have shown weakness and given them leave to go on a little way up the road; and the little way seems to have carried them out of his sight and onward till they encountered the Colonel (or it may have been a General) in command. The Colonel (or the General) seems to have broken down very badly, for the car and Ursula Dearmer and the Commandant went on towards Termonde. Young Haynes was with them this time, and on the way they had picked up Mr. G. L——, War Correspondent to the Daily Mail and Westminster. They left the car behind somewhere in a safe place where the fire from the machine-guns couldn’t reach it. There is a street or a road—I can’t make out whether it is inside or outside the town; it leads straight to the bridge over the river, which is about as wide there as the Thames at Westminster. The bridge is the key to the position; it has been blown up and built again several times in the course of the War, and the Germans are now entrenched beyond it. The road had been raked by their mitrailleuses the day before.

It seems to have struck the four simultaneously that it would be quite a good thing to walk down this road on the off-chance of the machine-guns opening fire again. The tale told by the Commandant evokes an awful vision of them walking down it, four abreast, the Commandant and Mr. G. L—— on the outside, fairly under shelter, and Ursula Dearmer and young Haynes a little in front of them down the middle, where the fire comes, when it does come. This spectacle seems to have shaken the Commandant in his view of bombarded towns as suitable places of amusement for young girls. Young Haynes ought to have known better. You tell him that as long as the world endures young Haynes will be young Haynes, and if there is danger in the middle of the road, it is there that he will walk by preference. And as no young woman of modern times is going to let herself be outdone by young Haynes, you must expect to find Ursula Dearmer in the middle of the road too. You cannot suppress this competitive heroism of young people. The roots strike too deep down in human nature. In the modern young man and woman competitive heroism has completely forgotten its origin and is now an end in itself.

And if it comes to that—how about Alost?

At the mention of Alost the Commandant’s face becomes childlike again in its utter simplicity and innocence and candour. Alost was a very different thing. Looking for shells at Alost, you understand, was like looking for shells on the seashore. At Alost Ursula Dearmer was in no sort of danger. For at Alost she was under the Commandant’s wing (young Haynes hasn’t got any wings, only legs to walk into the line of fire on). He explains very carefully that he took her under his wing because she is a young girl and he feels responsible for her to her mother.

(Which, oddly enough, is just how I feel!)

As for young Haynes, I suppose he would plead that when he and Ursula Dearmer walked down the middle of the road there was no firing.

That seems to have been young Haynes’s particular good fortune. I have now a perfect obsession of responsibility. I see, in one dreadful vision after another, the things that must happen to Ursula Dearmer under the Commandant’s wing, and to young Haynes and the Commandant under Ursula Dearmer’s.

No wounded were found, this time, at Termonde.

This little contretemps with the Commandant has made me forget to record a far more notable event. Mrs. Torrence brought young Lieutenant G—— in to luncheon. He is the hero of the Belgian Motor Cyclist Corps. He is said to have accounted for nine Germans with his own rifle in one morning. The Corps has already intimated that this is the first well-defined specimen of a man it has yet seen in Belgium. His dark-green uniform fits him exceedingly well. He is tall and handsome. Drenched in the glamour of the greatest possible danger, he gives it off like a subtle essence. As he was led in he had rather the air, the slightly awkward, puzzled and embarrassed air, of being on show as a fine specimen of a man. But it very soon wore off. In the absence of the Commandant he sat in the Commandant’s place, so magnificent a figure that our mess, with gaps at every table, looked like a banquet given in his honour, a banquet whose guests had been decimated by some catastrophe.

Suddenly—whether it was the presence of the Lieutenant or the absence of the Commandant, or merely reaction from the strain of inactivity, I don’t know, but suddenly madness came upon our mess. The mess-room was no longer a mess-room in a Military Hospital, but a British school-room. Mrs. Torrence had changed her woollen cap for a grey felt wide-awake. She was no longer an Arctic explorer, but the wild-western cowboy of British melodrama. She was the first to go mad. One moment she was seated decorously at the Lieutenant’s right hand; the next she was strolling round the tables with an air of innocent abstraction, having armed herself in secret with the little hard round rolls supplied by order of the Commandant. Each little roll became a deadly obus in her hand. She turned. Her innocent abstraction was intense as she poised herself to aim.

With a shout of laughter Dr. Bird ducked behind the cover of his table-napkin.

I had a sudden memory of Mrs. Torrence in command of the party at Ostend, a figure of austere duty, of inexorable propriety, rigid with the discipline of the —— Hospital, restraining the criminal levity of the Red Cross volunteer who would look or dream of looking at Ostend Cathedral. Mrs. Torrence, like a seven-year-old child meditating mischief, like a baby panther at play, like a very young and very engaging demon let loose, is looking at Dr. Bird. He is not a Cathedral, but he suffered bombardment all the same. She got his range with a roll. She landed her shell in the very centre of his waistcoat.

Her madness entered into Dr. Bird. He replied with a spirited fire which fell wide of her and battered the mess-room door. The orderlies retreated for shelter into the vestibule beyond. Jean was the first to penetrate the line of fire. Max followed him.

Madness entered into Max. He ceased to be a hospital orderly. He became Prosper Panne again, the very young collégien, as he put down his dishes and glided unobtrusively into the affair.

And then the young Belgian Lieutenant went mad. But he gave way by degrees. At first he sat up straight and stiff with polite astonishment before the spectacle of a British “rag.” He paid the dubious tribute of a weak giggle to the bombardment of Dr. Bird. He was convulsed at the first performance of Prosper Panne. In his final collapse he was rocking to and fro and crowing with helpless, hysterical laughter.

For with the entrance of Prosper Panne the mess-room became a scene at the Folies Bergères. There was Mrs. Torrence, première comédienne, in the costume of a wild-western cowboy; there was the young Lieutenant himself, looking like a stage-lieutenant in the dark-green uniform of the Belgian Motor Cyclist Corps; and there was Prosper Panne. He began by picking up Mrs. Torrence’s brown leather motor glove with its huge gauntlet, and examining it with the deliciously foolish bewilderment of the accomplished clown. After one or two failures, brilliantly improvised, he fixed it firmly on his head. The huge gauntlet, with its limp five fingers dangling over his left ear, became a rakish képi with a five-pointed flap. Max—I mean Prosper Panne—wore it with an “air impayable.” Out of his round, soft, putty-coloured face he made fifteen other faces in rapid succession, all incomparably absurd. He lit a cigarette and held it between his lower lip and his chin. The effect was of a miraculous transformation of those features, in which his upper lip disappeared altogether, his lower lip took on its functions, while his chin ceased to be a chin and became a lower lip. With this achievement Prosper Panne had his audience in the hollow of his hands. He could do what he liked with it. He did. He caused his motor-glove cap to fall from his head as if by some mysterious movement of its own. Then he went round the stalls and gravely and earnestly removed all our hats. With an air more and more “impayable” he wore each one of them in turn—the grey felt wide-awake of the wild-western cowboy, the knitted Jaeger head-gear of the little Arctic explorer, the dark-blue military cap with the red tassel assumed by Dr. Bird, even the green cap with the winged symbol of the young Belgian officer. By this time the young Belgian officer was so entirely the thrall of Prosper Panne that he didn’t turn a hair.

Flushed with success, Max rose to his top-notch. Moving slowly towards the open door (centre) with his back to his audience and his head turned towards it over his left shoulder, by some extraordinary dislocation of his hip-joints, he achieved the immemorial salutation of the Folies Bergères—the last faint survival of the Old Athenian Comedy.

Up till now Jean had affected to ignore the performance of his colleague. But under this supreme provocation he yielded to the Aristophanic impulse, and—exit Max in the approved manner of the Folies Bergères.

········

It is all over. The young Belgian officer has flown away on his motor cycle to pot Germans; Mrs. Torrence has gone off to the field with the Colonel on the quest of the greatest possible danger. The Ambulance has followed them there.

I am in the mess-room, sitting at the disordered table and gazing at the ruins of our mess. I hear again the wild laughter of the mess-mates; it mingles with the cry of the refugees in the Palais des Fêtes: “Une petite tranche de pain, s’il vous plaît, mademoiselle!”

C’est triste, n’est-ce pas?

In the chair by the window Max lies back with his loose boyish legs extended limply in front of him; his round, close-cropped head droops to his shoulder, his round face (the face of a very young collégien) is white, the features are blurred and inert. Max is asleep with his dish-cloth in his hand, in the sudden, pathetic sleep of exhaustion. After his brief, funny madness, he is asleep. Jean comes and looks at him and shakes his head. You understand from Jean that Max goes mad like that now and then on purpose, so that he may forget in what manner his mother went mad.

We go quietly so as not to wake him a minute too soon, lest when he wakes he should remember.

There is a Taube hovering over Ghent.

Up there, in the clear blue sky it looks innocent, like an enormous greyish blond dragon-fly hovering over a pond. You stare at it, fascinated, as you stare at a hawk that hangs in mid-air, steadied by the vibration of its wings, watching its prey.

You are not in the least disturbed by the watching Taube. An aeroplane, dropping a few bombs, is nothing to what goes on down there where the ambulances are.

The ambulances have come back. I go out into the yard to look at them. They are not always nice to look at; the floors and steps would make you shudder if you were not past shuddering.

I have found something to do. Not much, but still something. I am to look after the linen for the ambulances, to take away the blood-stained pillow-slips and blankets, and deliver them at the laundry and get clean ones from the linen-room. It’s odd, but I’m almost foolishly elated at being allowed to do this. We are still more or less weighed down by the sense of our uselessness. Even the Chaplain, though his services as a stretcher-bearer have been definitely recognized—even the Chaplain continues to suffer in this way. He has just come to me to tell me with pride that he is making a good job of the stretchers he has got to mend.

Then, just as I am beginning to lift up my head, the blow falls. Not one member of the Field Ambulance Corps is to be allowed to work at the Palais des Fêtes, for fear of bringing fever into the Military Hospital. And here we are, exactly where we were at the beginning of the week, Mrs. Lambert, Janet McNeil and I, three women out of five, with nothing to do and two convalescent orderlies waiting on us. If I could please myself I would tuck Max up in bed and wait on him.

In spite of the ambulance linen, this is the worst day of all for the wretched Secretary and Reporter. Five days in Ghent and not a thing done; not a line written of those brilliant articles (from the Front) which were to bring in money for the Corps. To have nothing to do but hang about the Hospital on the off-chance of the Commandant coming back unexpectedly and wanting a letter written; to pass the man with the bullet wound in his mouth a dozen times a day (he is getting very slowly better; his poor face was a little more human this morning); to see the maimed and crippled men trailing and hobbling about the hall, and the wounded carried in on their stretchers—dripping stretchers, agonized bodies, limbs rolled in bandages, blood oozing through the bandages, heads bound with bandages, bandages glued tight to the bone with blood—to see all this and be utterly powerless to help; to endure, day after day, the blank, blond horror of the empty mess-room; to sit before a marble-topped table with a bad pen, never enough paper and hardly any ink, and nothing at all to write about, while all the time the names of places, places you have not seen and never will see—Termonde, Alost, Quatrecht and Courtrai—go on sounding in your brain with a maddening, luring reiteration; to sit in a hateful inactivity, and a disgusting, an intolerable safety, and to be haunted by a vision of two figures, intensely clear on a somewhat vague background—Mrs. Torrence following her star of the greatest possible danger, and Ursula Dearmer wandering in youth and innocence among the shells; to be obliged to think of Ursula Dearmer’s mother when you would much rather not think of her; to be profoundly and irrevocably angry with the guileless Commandant, whom at the moment you regard (it may be perversely) as the prime agent in this fatuous sacrifice of women’s lives; to want to stop it and to be unable to stop it, and at the same time to feel a brute because you want to stop it—when they are enjoying the adventure—I can only say of the experience that I hope there is no depth of futility deeper than this to come. You might as well be taken prisoner by the Germans—better, since that would, at least, give you something to write about afterwards.

What’s more, I’m bored.

When I told the Commandant all this he looked very straight at me and said, “Then you’d better come with us to Termonde.” So straight he looked that the suggestion struck me less as a bona fide offer than an ironic reference to my five weeks’ funk.

I don’t tell him that that is precisely what I want to do. That his wretched Reporter nourishes an insane ambition—not to become a Special Correspondent; not to career under massive headlines in the columns of the Daily Mail; not to steal a march on other War Correspondents and secure the one glorious “scoop” of the campaign. Not any of these sickly and insignificant things. But—in defiance of Tom, the chauffeur—to go out with the Field Ambulance as an ambulancière, and hunt for wounded men, and in the intervals of hunting to observe the orbit of a shell and the manner of shrapnel in descending. To be left behind, every day, in an empty mess-room, with a bad pen, utterly deprived of copy or of any substitute for copy, and to have to construct war articles out of your inner consciousness, would be purgatory for a journalist. But to have a mad dream in your soul and a pair of breeches in your hold-all, and to see no possibility of “sporting” either, is the very refinement of hell. And your tortures will be unbearable if, at the same time, you have to hold your tongue about them and pretend that you are a genuine reporter and that all you want is copy and your utmost aim the business of the “scoop.”

After a week of it you will not be likely to look with crystal clarity on other people’s lapses from precaution.

But it would be absurd to tell him this. Ten to one he wouldn’t believe it. He thinks I am funking all the time.

········

I am still very angry with him. He must know that I am very angry. I think that somewhere inside him he is rather angry too.

·······

All the same he has come to me and asked me to give him my soap. He says Max has taken his.

I give him my soap, but—

These oppressions and obsessions, the deadly anxiety, the futile responsibility and the boredom are too much for me. I am thinking seriously of going home.

········

In the evening we—the Commandant and Janet McNeil and I—went down to the Hôtel de la Poste, to see the War Correspondents and hear the War news. Mr. G. L. and Mr. M. and Mr. P. were there. And there among them, to my astonishment, I found Mr. Davidson, the American sculptor.

The last time I saw Mr. Davidson it was in Mr. Joseph Simpson’s studio, the one under mine in Edwardes Square. He was making a bust of Rabindranath Tagore; and as the great mystic poet disconcerted him by continually lapsing into meditation under this process, thereby emptying his beautiful face of all expression whatever, I had been called down from my studio to talk to him, so as to lure him, if possible, from meditation and keep his features in play. Mr. Davidson made a very fine bust of Rabindranath Tagore. And here he is, imperfectly disguised by the shortest of short beards, drawing caricatures of G. L.—G. L. explaining the plan of campaign to the Belgian General Staff; G. L. very straight and tall, the Belgian General Staff looking up to him with innocent, deferential faces, earnestly anxious to be taught. I am not more surprised at seeing Mr. Davidson here than he is at seeing me. In the world that makes war we have both entirely forgotten the world where people make busts and pictures and books. But we accept each other’s presence. It is only a small part of the fantastic dislocation of war.

Nothing could be more different from the Flandria Palace Hotel, our Military Hospital, than the Hôtel de la Poste. It is packed with War Correspondents and Belgian officers. After the surgeons and the Red Cross nurses and their wounded, and the mysterious officials hanging about the porch and the hall, apparently doing nothing, after the English Ambulance and the melancholy inactivity of half its Corps, this place seems alive with a rich and virile life. It is full of live, exultant fighters, and of men who have their business not with the wounded and the dying but with live men and live things, and they have live words to tell about them. At least so it seems.

You listen with all your ears, and presently Termonde and Alost and Quatrecht and Courtrai cease to be mere names for you and become realities. It is as if you had been taken from your prison and had been let loose into the world again.

They are saying that there is no fighting at Saint Nicolas (the Commandant has been feeling about again for his visionary base hospital), but that the French troops are at Courtrai in great force. They have turned their left [?] wing round to the north-east and will probably sweep towards Brussels to cut off the German advance on Antwerp. The siege of Antwerp will then be raised. And a great battle will be fought outside Brussels, probably at Waterloo.

Waterloo!

Mr. L. looks at you as much as to say that is what he has had up his sleeve all the time. The word comes from him as casually as if he spoke of the London and South-Western terminus. But he is alive to the power of its evocation, to the unsurpassable thrill. So are you. It starts the current in that wireless system of vibrations that travel unperishing, undiminished, from the dead to the living. There are not many kilometres between Ghent and Waterloo; you are not only within the radius of the psychic shock, you are close to the central batteries, and ninety-nine years are no more than one pulse of their vibration. Through I don’t know how many kilometres and ninety-nine years it has tracked you down and found you in your one moment of response.

It has a sudden steadying effect. Your brain clears. The things that loomed so large, the “Flandria,” and the English Field Ambulance and its miseries, and the terrifying recklessness of its Commandant, are reduced suddenly to invisibility. You can see nothing but the second Waterloo. You forget that you have ever been a prisoner in an Hotel-Hospital. You understand the mystic fascination of the road under your windows, going south-east from Ghent to Brussels, somewhere towards Waterloo. You are reconciled to the incomprehensible lassitude of events. That is what we have all been waiting for—the second Waterloo. And we have only waited five days.

I am certainly not going back to England.

The French troops are being massed at Courtrai.

Suddenly it strikes me that I have done an injustice to the Commandant. It is all very well to say that he brought me out here against my will. But did he? He said it would interest me to see the siege of Antwerp, and I said it wouldn’t. I said with the most perfect sincerity that I’d die rather than go anywhere near the siege of Antwerp, or of any other place. And now the siege-guns from Namur are battering the forts of Antwerp, and down there the armies are gathering towards the second Waterloo, and the Commandant was right. I am extremely interested. I would die rather than go back to England.

Is it possible that he knew me better than I knew myself?

When I think that it is possible I feel a slight revulsion of justice towards the Commandant. After all, he brought me here. We may disagree about the present state of Alost and Termonde, considered as health-resorts for English girls, but it is pretty certain that without him we would none of us have got here. Where, indeed, should we have been and how should we have got our motor ambulances, but for his intrepid handling of Providence and of the Belgian Red Cross and the Belgian Legation? There is genius in a man who can go out without one car, or the least little nut or cog of a châssis to his name, and impose himself upon a Government as the Commandant of a Motor Field Ambulance.

Still, though I am not going back to England as a protest, I am going to leave the Hospital Hotel for a little while. That bright idea has come to me just now while we are waiting for the Commandant to tear himself from the War Correspondents and come away. I shall get a room here in the Hôtel de la Poste for a week, and, while we wait for Waterloo, I shall write some articles. The War Correspondents will tell me what is being done, and what has been overdone and what remains to do. I shall at least hear things if I can’t see them. And I shall cut the obsession of responsibility. It’ll be worse than ever if there really is going to be a second Waterloo.

Waterloo with Ursula Dearmer and Janet in the thick of it, and Mrs. Torrence driving the Colonel’s scouting-car!

There are moments of bitterness and distortion when I see the Commandant as a curious psychic monster bringing up his women with him to the siege-guns because of some uncanny satisfaction he finds in their presence there. There are moods, only less perverted, when I see him pursuing his course because it is his course, through sheer Highland Celtic obstinacy; lucid flashes when he appears, blinded by the glamour of his dream, and innocently regardless of actuality. Is it uncanniness? Is it obstinacy? Is it dreamy innocence? Or is it some gorgeous streak of Feminism? Is it the New Chivalry, that refuses to keep women back, even from the firing-line? The New Romance, that gives them their share of divine danger? Or, since nothing can be more absurd than to suppose that any person acts at all times and in all circumstances on one ground, or necessarily on any grounds, is it a little bit of all these things? I am not sure that Feminism, or at any rate the New Chivalry, doesn’t presuppose them all.

The New Chivalry sees the point of its reporter’s retirement to the Hôtel de la Poste, since it has decided that journalism is my work, and journalism cannot flourish at the “Flandria.” So we interview the nice fat propriétaire, and the propriétaire’s nice fat wife, and between them they find a room for me, a back room on the fourth floor, the only one vacant in the hotel; it looks out on the white-tiled walls and the windows of the enclosing wings. The space shut in is deep and narrow as a well. The view from that room is more like a prison than any view from the “Flandria,” but I take it. I am not deceived by appearances, and I recognize that the peace of God is there.

It is a relief to think that poor Max will have one less to work for.

At the “Flandria” we find that the Military Power has put its foot down. The General—he cannot have a spark of the New Chivalry in his brutal breast—has ordered Mrs. Torrence off her chauffeur’s job. You see the grizzled Colonel as the image of protest and desolation, helpless in the hands of the implacable Power. You are sorry for Mrs. Torrence (she has seen practically no service with the ambulance as yet), but she, at any rate, has had her fling. No power can take from her the memory of those two days.

Still, something is going to be done to-morrow, and this time, even the miserable Reporter is to have a look in. The Commandant has another scheme for a temporary hospital or a dressing-station or something, and to-morrow he is going with Car 1 to Courtrai to reconnoitre for a position and incidentally to see the French troops. A God-sent opportunity for the Reporter; and Janet McNeil is going, too. We are to get up at six o’clock in the morning and start before seven.

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