May Sinclair

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

We get up at six.

We hang about till eight-thirty or nine. A fine rain begins to fall. An ominous rain. Car 1 and Car 2 are drawn up at the far end of the Hospital yard. The rain falls ominously over the yellow-brown, trodden clay of the yard. There is an ominous look of preparation about the cars. There is also an ominous light in the blue eyes of the chauffeur Tom.

The chauffeur Tom appears as one inspired by hatred of the whole human race. You would say that he was also hostile to the entire female sex. For Woman in her right place he may, he probably does, feel tenderness and reverence. Woman in a field ambulance he despises and abhors. I really think it was the sight of us that accounted for his depression at Ostend. I have gathered from Mrs. Torrence that the chauffeur Tom has none of the New Chivalry about him. He is the mean and brutal male, the crass obstructionist who grudges women their laurels in the equal field.

I know the dreadful, blasphemous and abominable things that Tom is probably thinking about me as I climb on to his car. He is visibly disgusted with his orders. That he, a Red Cross Field Ambulance chauffeur, should be told to drive four—or is it all five?—women to look at the massing of the French troops at Courtrai! He is not deceived by the specious pretext of the temporary hospital. Hospitals be blowed. It’s a bloomin’ joy-ride, with about as much Red Cross in it as there is in my hat. He is glad that it is raining.

Yes, I know what Tom is thinking. And all the time I have a sneaking sympathy with Tom. I want to go to Courtrai more than I ever wanted anything in my life, but I see the expedition plainly from Tom’s point of view. A field ambulance is a field ambulance and not a motor touring car.

And to-day Tom is justified. We have hardly got upon his car than we were told to get off it. We are not going to Courtrai. We are not going anywhere. From somewhere in those mysterious regions where it abides, the Military Power has come down.

Even as I get off the car and return to the Hospital-prison, in melancholy retreat over the yellow-brown clay of the yard, through the rain, I acknowledge the essential righteousness of the point of view. And, to the everlasting honour of the Old Chivalry, it should be stated that the chauffeur Tom repressed all open and visible expression of his joy.

The morning passes, as the other mornings passed, in unspeakable inactivity. Except that I make up the accounts and hand them over to Mr. Grierson. It seems incredible, but I have balanced them to the last franc.

I pack. Am surprised in packing by Max and Jean. They both want to know the reason why. This is the terrible part of the business—leaving Max and Jean.

I try to explain. Prosper Panne, who “writes for the Paris papers,” understands me. He can see that the Hôtel de la Poste may be a better base for an attack upon the London papers. But Max does not understand. He perceives that I have a scruple about occupying my room. And he takes me into his room to show me how nice it is—every bit as good as mine. The implication being that if the Hospital can afford to lodge one of its orderlies so well, it can perfectly well afford to lodge me. (This is one of the prettiest things that Max has done yet! As long as I live I shall see him standing in his room and showing me how nice it is.)

Still you can always appeal from Max to Prosper Panne. He understands these journalistic tempers and caprices. He knows on how thin a thread an article can hang. We have a brief discussion on the comparative difficulties of the roman and the conte, and he promises me to cherish and protect the hat I must leave behind me as if it were his bride.

But Jean—Jean does not understand at all. He thinks that I am not satisfied with the service of our incomparable mess; that I prefer the flesh-pots of the “Poste” and the manners of its waiters. He has no other thought but this, and it is abominable; it is the worst of all. The explanation thickens. I struggle gloriously with the French language; one moment it has me by the throat and I am strangled; the next I writhe forth triumphant. Strange gestures are given to me; I plunge into the darkest pits of memory for the words that have escaped me; I find them (or others just as good); it is really quite easy to say that I am coming back again in a week.

Interview with Madame F. and M. G., the President.

Interview with the Commandant. Final assault on the defences of the New Chivalry (the Commandant’s mind is an impregnable fortress).

And, by way of afterthought, I inquire whether, in the event of a sudden scoot before the Germans, a reporter quartered at the Hôtel de la Poste will be cut off from the base of communications and left to his or her ingenuity in flight?

The Commandant, vague and imperturbable, replies that in all probability it will be so.

And I (if possible more imperturbable than he) observe that the War Correspondents will make quite a nice flying-party.

In a little open carriage—the taxis have long ago all gone to the War—in an absurd little open carriage, exactly like a Cheltenham “rat,” I depart like a lady of Cheltenham, for the Hôtel de la Poste. The appearance and the odour of this little carriage give you an odd sense of security and peace. The Germans may be advancing on Ghent at this moment, but for all the taste of war there is in it, you might be that lady, going from one hotel to the other, down the Cheltenham Promenade.

The further you go from the Military Hospital and the Railway Station the more it is so. The War does not seem yet to have shaken the essential peace of the bourgeois city. The Hôtel de la Poste is in the old quarter of the town, where the Cathedrals are. Instead of the long, black railway lines and the red-brick façade of the Station and Post Office; instead of the wooded fields beyond and the white street that leads to the battle-places south and east; instead of the great Square with its mustering troops and swarms of refugees, you have the quiet Place d’Armes, shut in by trees, and all round it are the hotels and cafés where the officers and the War Correspondents come and go. Through all that coming and going you get the sense of the old foreign town that was dreaming yesterday. People are sitting outside the restaurants all round the Place, drinking coffee and liqueurs as if nothing had happened, as if Antwerp were far-off in another country, and as if it were still yesterday. Mosquitoes come up from the drowsy canal water and swarm into the hotels and bite you. I found any number of mosquitoes clinging drowsily to my bedroom walls.

But there are very few women among those crowds outside the restaurants. There are not many women except refugees in the streets, and fewer still in the shops.

I have blundered across a little café with an affectionately smiling and reassuringly fat proprietress, where they give you brioches and China tea, which, as it were in sheer affection, they call English. It is not as happy a find as you might think. It is not, in the circumstances, happy at all. In fact, if you have never known what melancholy is and would like to know it, I can recommend two courses. Go down the Grand Canal in Venice in the grey spring of the year, in a gondola, all by yourself. Or get mixed up with a field ambulance which is not only doing noble work but running thrilling risks, in neither of which you have a share, or the ghost of a chance of a share; cut yourself off from your comrades, if it is only for a week, and go into a Belgian café in war-time and try to eat briochesand drink English tea all by yourself. This is the more successful course. You may see hope beyond the gondola and the Grand Canal. But you will see no hope beyond the brioche and the English tea.

I walk about again till it is time to go back to the Hotel. So far, my emancipation has not been agreeable.

[Evening. Hôtel de la Poste.]

I dined in the crowded restaurant, avoiding the War Correspondents, choosing a table where I hoped I might be unobserved. Somewhere through a glass screen I caught a sight of Mr. L.’s head. I was careful to avoid the glass screen and Mr. L.’s head. He shall not say, if I can possibly help it, that I am an infernal nuisance. For I know I haven’t any business to be here, and if Belgium had a Kitchener I shouldn’t be here. However you look at me, I am here on false pretences. In the eyes of Mr. L. I would have no more right to be a War Correspondent (if I were one) than I have to be on a field ambulance. It is with the game of war as it was with the game of football I used to play with my big brothers in the garden. The women may play it if they’re fit enough, up to a certain point, very much as I played football in the garden. The big brothers let their little sister kick off; they let her run away with the ball; they stood back and let her make goal after goal; but when it came to the scrimmage they took hold of her and gently but firmly moved her to one side. If she persisted she became an infernal nuisance. And if those big brothers over there only knew what I was after they would make arrangements for my immediate removal from the seat of war.

The Commandant has turned up with Ursula Dearmer. He is drawn to these War Correspondents who appear to know more than he does. On the other hand, an ambulance that can get into the firing-line has an irresistible attraction for a War Correspondent. It may at any moment constitute his only means of getting there himself.

One of our cars has been sent out to Antwerp with dispatches and surgical appliances.

The sight of the Commandant reminds me that I have got all the funds of the Ambulance upstairs in my suit-case in that leather purse-belt—and if the Ambulance does fly from Ghent without me, and without that belt, it will find itself in considerable embarrassment before it has retreated very far.

It is quite certain that I shall have to take my chance. I have asked the Commandant again (either this evening or earlier) so that there may be no possible doubt about it: “If we do have to scoot from Ghent in a hurry I shall have nothing but my wits to trust to?”

And he says, “True for you.”

And he looks as if he meant it.

These remarkable words have a remarkable effect on the new War Correspondent. It is as if the coolness and the courage and the strength of a hundred War Correspondents and of fifty Red Cross Ambulances had been suddenly discharged into my soul. This absurd accession of power and valour is accompanied by a sudden immense lucidity. It is as if my soul had never really belonged to me until now, as if it had been either drugged or drunk and had never known what it was to be sober until now. The sensation is distinctly agreeable. And on the top of it all there is a peace which I distinctly recognize as the peace of God.

So, while the Commandant talks to the War Correspondents as if nothing had happened, I go upstairs and unlock my suit-case and take from it the leather purse-belt with the Ambulance funds in it, and I bring it to the Commandant and lay it before him and compel him to put it on. As I do this I feel considerable compunction, as if I were launching a three-year-old child in a cockle-shell on the perilous ocean of finance. I remind him that fifteen pounds of the money in the belt is his (he would be as likely as not to forget it). As for the accounts, they are so clear that a three-year-old child could understand them. I notice with a diabolical satisfaction which persists through the all-pervading peace by no means as incongruously as you might imagine—I notice particularly that the Commandant doesn’t like this part of it a bit. There is not anybody in the Corps who wants to be responsible for its funds or enjoys wearing that belt. But it is obvious that if the Ambulance can bear to be separated from its Treasurer-Secretary-Reporter, in the flight from Ghent, it cannot possibly bear to be separated from its funds.

I am alone with the Commandant while this happens, standing by one of the writing-tables in the lounge. Ursula Dearmer (she grows more mature every day) and the War Correspondents and a few Generals have melted somewhere into the background. The long, lithe pigskin belt lies between us on the table—between my friend and me—like a pale snake. It exerts some malign and poisonous influence. It makes me say things, things that I should not have thought it possible to say. And it is all about the shells at Alost.

He is astonished.

And I do not care.

I am sustained, exalted by that sense of righteousness you feel when you are insanely pounding somebody who thinks that in perfect sanity and integrity he has pounded you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s