May Sinclair

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Mr. L. asked me to breakfast. He has told me more about the Corps in five minutes than the Corps has been able to tell me in as many days. He has seen it at Alost and Termonde. You gather that he has seen other heroic enterprises also and that he would perjure himself if he swore that they were indispensable. Every Correspondent is besieged by the leaders of heroic enterprises, and I imagine that Mr. L. has been “had” before now by amateurs of the Red Cross, and his heart must have sunk when he heard of an English Field Ambulance in Ghent. And he owns to positive terror when he saw it, with its girls in breeches, its Commandant in Norfolk jacket, grey knickerbockers, heather-mixture stockings and deer-stalker; its Chaplain in khaki, and its Surgeon a mark for bullets in his Belgian officer’s cap. I suggest that this absence of uniform only proves our passionate eagerness to be off and get to work. But it is right. Our ambulance is the real thing, and Mr. L. is going to be an angel and help it all he can. He will write about it in the Illustrated London News and the Westminster. When he hears that I came out here to write about the War and make a little money for the Field Ambulance, and that I haven’t seen anything of the War and that my invasion of his hotel is simply a last despairing effort to at least hear something, he is more angelic than ever. He causes a whole cinema of war-scenes to pass before my eyes. When I ask if there is anything left for me to “do,” he evokes a long procession of articles—pure, virgin copy on which no journalist has ever laid his hands—and assures me that it is mine, that the things that have been done are nothing to the things that are left to do. I tell him that I have no business on his pitch, and that I am horribly afraid of getting in the regular Correspondents’ way and spoiling their game; as I am likely to play it, there isn’t any pitch. Of course, I suppose, there is the “scoop,” but that’s another matter. It is the War Correspondent’s crown of cunning and of valour, and nobody can take from him that crown. But in the psychology of the thing, every Correspondent is his own pitch. He has told me very nearly all the things I want to know, among them what the Belgian General said to the Commandant when he saw Ursula Dearmer at Alost:

“What the devil is the lady doing there?”

I gather that Mr. L. shares the General’s wonder and my own anxiety. I am not far wrong in regarding Alost and Termonde as no fit place for Ursula Dearmer or any other woman.

Answered the Commandant’s letters for him. Wrote to Ezra Pound. Wrote out the report for the last three days’ ambulance work and sent it to the British Red Cross; also a letter to Mr. Rogers about a light scouting-car. The British Red Cross has written that it cannot spare any more motor ambulances, but it may possibly send out a small car. (The Commandant has cabled to Mr. Gould, of Gould Bros., Exeter, accepting his offer of his own car and services.)

Went down to the “Flandria” for news of the Ambulance. The car that was sent out yesterday evening got through all right to Antwerp and returned safely. It has brought very bad news. Two of the outer forts are said to have fallen. The position is critical, and grave anxiety is felt for the safety of the English in Antwerp. Mrs. St. Clair Stobart has asked us for one of our ambulances. But even if we could spare it we cannot give it up without an order from the military authority at Ghent. We hear that Dr. ——, one of Mrs. Stobart’s women, is to leave Antwerp and work at our hospital. She is engaged to be married to Dr. ——, and the poor boy is somewhat concerned for her safety. I’m very glad I have left the “Flandria,” for she can have my room.

I wish they would make Miss —— come away too.

Yes: Miss ——, that clever novelist, who passes for a woman of the world because she uses mundane appearances to hide herself from the world’s importunity—Miss —— is here. The War caught her. Some people were surprised. I wasn’t.

········

Walked through the town again—old quarter. Walked and walked and walked, thinking about Antwerp all the time. Through streets of grey-white and lavender-tinted houses, with very fragile balconies. Saw the two Cathedrals and the Town Hall—refugees swarming round it—and the Rab—I can’t remember its name: see Baedeker—with its turrets and its moat. Any amount of time to see cathedrals in and no Mrs. Torrence to protest. I wonder how much of all this will be left by next month, or even by next week? Two of the Antwerp forts have fallen. They say the occupation of Ghent will be peaceful; while of Antwerp I suppose they would say, “C’est triste, n’est-ce pas?” They say the Germans will just march into Ghent and march out again, commandeering a few things here and there. But nobody knows, and by the stolid faces of these civilians you might imagine that nobody cares. Certainly none of them think that the fate of Antwerp can be the fate of Ghent.

And the faces of the soldiers, of the men who know? They are the faces of important people, cheerful people, pleasantly preoccupied with the business in hand. Only here and there a grave face, a fixed, drawn face, a face twisted with the irritation of the strain.

Why, the very refugees have the look of a rather tired tourist-party, wandering about, seeing Ghent, seeing the Cathedral.

Only they aren’t looking at the Cathedral. They are looking straight ahead, across the Place, up the street; they do not see or hear the trams swinging down on them, or the tearing, snorting motors; they stroll abstractedly into the line of the motors and stand there; they start and scatter, wild-eyed, with a sudden recrudescence of the terror that has driven them here from their villages in the fields.

········

It seems incredible that I should be free to walk about like this. It is as if I had cut the rope that tied me to a soaring air-balloon and found myself, with firm feet, safe on the solid earth. Any bit of earth, even surrounded by Germans, seems safe compared with the asphyxiation of that ascent. And when the air-balloon wasn’t going up it was as if I had lain stifling under a soft feather-bed for more than a year. Now I’ve waked up suddenly and flung the feather-bed off with a vigorous kick.

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