I have got something to do again—at last!
I am to help to look after Mr. ——. He has the pick of the Belgian Red Cross women to nurse him, and they are angelically kind and very skilful, but he is not very happy with them. He says: “These dear people are so good to me, but I can’t make out what they say. I can’t tell them what I want.” He is pathetically glad to have any English people with him. (Even I am a little better than a Belgian whom he cannot understand.)
I sat with him all morning. The French boy has gone and he is alone in his room now. It seems that the kind Chaplain sat up with him all last night after his hard day at Melle. (I wish now I had stood by the Chaplain with his Matins. He has never tried to have them again—given us up as an unholy crew, all except Mr. Foster, whom he clings to.)
The morning went like half an hour, while it was going; but when it was over I felt as if I had been nursing for weeks on end. There were so many little things to be done, and so much that you mustn’t do, and the anxiety was appalling. I don’t suppose there is a worse case in the Hospital. He is perhaps a shade better to-day, but none of the medical staff think that he can live.
Madame E—— and Dr. Bird have shown me what to do, and what not to do. I must keep him all the time in the same position. I must give him sips of iced broth, and little pieces of ice to suck every now and then. I must not let him try to raise himself in bed. I must not try to lift him myself. If we do lift him we must keep his body tilted at the same angle. I must not give him any hot drinks and not too much cold drink.
And he is six foot high, so tall that his feet come through the blankets at the bottom of the bed; and he keeps sinking down in it all the time and wanting to raise himself up again. And his fever makes him restless. And he is always thirsty and he longs for hot tea more than iced water, and for more iced water than is good for him. The iced broth that is his only nourishment he does not want at all.
And then he must be kept very quiet. I must not let him talk more than is necessary to tell me what he wants, or he will die of exhaustion. And what he wants is to talk every minute that he is awake.
He drops off to sleep, breathing in jerks and with a terrible rapidity. And I think it will be all right as long as he sleeps. But his sleep only lasts for a few minutes. I hear the rhythm of his breathing alter; it slackens and goes slow; then it jerks again, and I know that he is awake.
And then he begins. He says things that tear at your heart. He has looks and gestures that break it—the adorable, wilful smile of a child that knows that it is being watched when you find his hand groping too often for the glass of iced water that stands beside his bed; a still more adorable and utterly gentle submission when you take the glass from him; when you tell him not to say anything more just yet but to go to sleep again. You feel as if you were guilty of act after act of nameless and abominable cruelty.
He sticks to it that he has seen me before, that he has heard of me, that his people know me. And he wants to know what I do and where I live and where it was that he saw me. Once, when I thought he had gone to sleep, I heard him begin again: “Where did you say you lived?”
I tell him. And I tell him to go to sleep again.
He closes his eyes obediently and opens them the next instant.
“I say, may I come and call on you when we get back to England?”
You can only say: “Yes. Of course,” and tell him to go to sleep.
His voice is so strong and clear that I could almost believe that he will get back and that some day I shall look up and see him standing at my garden gate.
Mercifully, when I tell him to go to sleep again, he does go to sleep. And his voice is a little clearer and stronger every time he wakes.
And so the morning goes on. The only thing he wants you to do for him is to sponge his hands and face with iced water and to give him little bits of ice to suck. Over and over again I do these things. And over and over again he asks me, “Do you mind?”
He wears a little grey woollen cord round his neck. Something has gone from it. Whatever he has lost, they have left him his little woollen cord, as if some immense importance attached to it.
He has fallen into a long doze. And at the end of the morning I left him sleeping.
Some of the Corps have brought in trophies from the battle-field—a fine grey cloak with a scarlet collar, a spiked helmet, a cuff with three buttons cut from the coat of a dead German.
These things make me sick. I see the body under the cloak, the head under the helmet, and the dead hand under the cuff.
Saw Mr. Foster. He is to be sent back to England for an operation. Dr. Wilson is to take him. He asked me if I thought the Commandant would take him back again when he is better.
Saw the President about Mr. Foster. He will not hear of his going back to England. He wants him to stay in the Hospital and be operated on here. He promises the utmost care and attention. He is most distressed to think that he should go.
It doesn’t occur to him in his kindness that it would be much more distressing if the Germans came into Ghent and interrupted the operation.
Cabled Miss F. about her Glasgow ambulance, asking her to pay her staff if her funds ran to it. Cabled British Red Cross to send Mr. Gould and his scouting-car here instead of to France. Cabled Mr. Gould to get the British Red Cross to send him here.
Somebody else is to look after Mr. —— this afternoon.
I have been given leave rather reluctantly to sit up with him at night.
The Commandant is going to take me in Tom’s Daimler (Car 1) to the British lines to look for a base for that temporary hospital which is still running in his head like a splendid dream. I do not see how, with the Germans at Melle, only four and a half miles off, any sort of hospital is to be established on this side of Ghent.
Tom, the chauffeur, does not look with favour on the expedition. I have had to point out to him that a Field Ambulance is not, as he would say, the House of Commons, and that there is a certain propriety binding even on a chauffeur and a limit to the freedom of the speech you may apply to your Commandant. This afternoon Tom has exceeded all the limits. The worst of Tom is that while his tongue rages on the confines of revolt, he himself is punctilious to excess on the point of orders. Either he has orders or he hasn’t them. If he has them he obeys them with a punctuality that puts everybody else in the wrong. If he hasn’t them, an earthquake wouldn’t make him move. Such is his devotion to orders that he will insist on any one order holding good for an unlimited time after it has been given.
So now, in defence of his manners, he urges that what with orders and counter-orders, the provocation is more than flesh and blood can stand. Tom himself is protest clothed in flesh and blood.
To-day at two o’clock Tom’s orders are that his car is to be ready at two-thirty. My orders are to be ready in twenty minutes. I am ready in twenty minutes. The Commandant thinks that he has transacted all his business and is ready in twenty minutes too. Tom and his car are nowhere to be seen. I go to look for Tom. Tom is reported as being last seen riding on a motor-lorry towards the British lines in the company of a detachment of British infantry.
The chauffeur Tom is considered to have disgraced himself everlastingly.
Punctually at two-thirty he appears with his car at the door of the “Flandria.”
The Commandant is nowhere to be seen. He has gone to look for Tom.
I reprove Tom for the sin of unpunctuality, and he has me.
His orders were to be ready at two-thirty and he is ready at two-thirty. And it is nobody’s business what he did with himself ten minutes before. He wants to know where the Commandant is.
I go to look for the Commandant.
The Commandant is reported to have been last seen going through the Hospital on his way to the garage. I go round to the garage through the Hospital; and the Commandant goes out of the garage by the street. He was last seen in the garage.
He appears suddenly from some quarter where you wouldn’t expect him in the least. He reproves Tom.
Tom with considerable violence declares his righteousness. He has gathered to himself a friend, a Belgian Red Cross man, whose language he does not understand. But they exchange winks that surpass all language.
Then the Commandant remembers that he has several cables to send off. He is seen disappearing in the direction of the Post and Telegraph Office.
Tom swallows words that would be curses if I were not there.
I keep my eyes fixed on the doors of the Post Office. Ages pass.
I go to the Post Office to look for the Commandant. He is not in the Telegraph Office. He is not in the Post Office. Tom keeps his eyes on the doors of both.
More ages pass. Finally, the Commandant appears from inside the Hospital, which he has not been seen to enter.
The chauffeur Tom dismounts and draws from his car’s mysterious being sounds that express the savage fury of his resentment.
You would think we were off now. But we only get as far as a street somewhere near the Hôtel de la Poste. Here we wait for apparently no reason in such tension that you can hear the ages pass.
The Commandant disappears.
Tom says something about there being no room for the wounded at this rate.
It seems his orders are to go first to the British lines at a place whose name I forget, and then on to Melle.
I remember Tom’s views on the subject of field-women. And suddenly I seem to understand them. Tom is very like Lord Kitchener. He knows nothing about the aims and wants of modern womanhood and he cares less. The modern woman does not ask to be protected, does not want to be protected, and Tom, like Lord Kitchener, will go on protecting. You cannot elevate men like Lord Kitchener and Tom above the primitive plane of chivalry. Tom in the danger zone with a woman by his side feels about as peaceful and comfortable as a woman in the danger zone with a two-year-old baby in her lap. A bomb in his bedroom is one thing and a band of drunken Uhlans making for his women is another. Tom’s nerves are racked with problems: How the dickens is he to steer his car and protect his women at the same time? And if it comes to a toss-up between his women and his wounded? You’ve got to stow the silly things somewhere, and every one of them takes up the place of a wounded man.
I get out of the car and tell the Commandant that I would rather not go than take up the place of a wounded man.
He orders me back to the car again. Tom seems inclined to regard me as a woman who has done her best.
We go on a little way and stop again. And there springs out of the pavement a curious figure that I have seen somewhere before in Ghent, I cannot remember when or where. The figure wears a check suit of extreme horsyness and carries a kodak in its hand. It is excited.
There is something about it that reminds me now of the eager little Englishman at Melle. These figures spring up everywhere in the track of a field ambulance.
When Tom sees it he groans in despair.
The Commandant gets out and appears to be offering it the hospitality of the car. I am introduced.
To my horror the figure skips round in front of the car, levels its kodak at my head and implores me to sit still.
I am very rude. I tell it sternly to take that beastly thing away and go away itself.
It goes, rather startled.
And we get off, somehow, without it, and arrive at the end of the street.
Here Tom has orders to stop at the first hat-shop he comes to.
The Commandant has lost his hat at Melle (he has been wearing little Janet’s Arctic cap, to the delight of everybody). He has just remembered that he wants a hat and he thinks that he will get it now.
At this point I break down. I hear myself say “Damn” five times, softly but distinctly. (This after reproving Tom for unfettered speech and potential insubordination.)
Tom stops at a hat-shop. The Commandant to his doom enters, and presently returns wearing a soft felt hat of a vivid green. He asks me what I think of it.
I tell him all I think of it, and he says that if I feel like that about it he’ll go in again and get another one.
I forget what I said then except that I wanted to get on to Melle. That Melle was the place of all places where I most wished to be.
Then, lest he might feel unhappy in his green hat, I said that if he would leave it out all night in the rain and then sit on it no doubt time and weather and God would do something for it.
This time we were off, and when I realized it I said “Hurray!”
Tom had not said anything for some considerable time.
We found the British lines in a little village just outside of Ghent. No place there for a base hospital.
We hung about here for twenty minutes, and the women and children came out to stare at us with innocent, pathetic faces.
Somebody had stowed away one of the trophies—the spiked German helmet—in the ambulance car, and the chauffeur Tom stuck it on a stick and held it up before the British lines. It was greeted with cheers and a great shout of laughter from the troops; and the villagers came running out of their houses to look; they uttered little sharp and guttural cries of satisfaction. The whole thing was a bit savage and barbaric and horribly impressive.
Finally we left the British lines and set out towards Melle by a cross-road.
We got through all right. A thousand accidents may delay his going, but once off, no barriers exist for the Commandant. Seated in the front of the car, utterly unperturbed by the chauffeur Tom’s sarcastic comments on men, things and women, wrapped (apparently) in a beautiful dream, he looks straight ahead with eyes whose vagueness veils a deadly simplicity of purpose. I marvel at the transfiguration of the Commandant. Before the War he was a fairly complex personality. Now he has ceased to exist as a separate individual. He is merged, vaguely and vastly, in his adventure. He is the Motor Ambulance Field Corps; he is the ambulance car; he is the electric spark and the continuous explosion that drives the thing along. It is useless to talk to him about anything that happened before the War or about anything that exists outside it. He would not admit that anything did exist outside it. He is capable of forgetting the day of the week and the precise number of female units in his company and the amount standing to his credit at his banker’s, but, once off, he is cock-sure of the shortest cut to the firing-line within a radius of fifty kilometres.
Some of us who have never seen a human phenomenon of this sort are ready to deny him an identity. They complain of his inveterate and deplorable lack of any sense of detail. This is absurd. You might as well insist on a faithful representation of the household furniture of the burgomaster of Zoetenaeg, which is the smallest village in Belgium, in drawing the map of Europe to scale. At the critical moment this more than continental vastness gathers to a wedge-like determination that goes home. He means to get through.
We ran into Melle about an hour before sunset.
There had been a great slaughter of Germans on the field outside the village where the Germans were still firing when the Corps left it. We found two of our cars drawn up by the side of the village street, close under the houses. The Chaplain, Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert were waiting in one of them, the new Daimler, with the chauffeur Newlands. Dr. Wilson was in Bert’s car with three wounded Germans. He was sitting in front with one of them beside him. They say that the enemy’s wounded sometimes fire on our surgeons and Red Cross men, and Dr. Wilson had a revolver about him when he went on the battle-field yesterday. He said he wasn’t taking any risks. The man he had got beside him to-day was only wounded in the foot, and had his hands entirely free to do what he liked with. He looked rather a low type, and at the first sight of him I thought I shouldn’t have cared to be alone with him anywhere on a dark night.
And then I saw the look on his face. He was purely pathetic. He didn’t look at you. He stared in front of him down the road towards Ghent, in a dull, helpless misery. These unhappy German Tommies are afraid of us. They are told that we shall treat them badly, and some of them believe it. I wanted Dr. Wilson to let me get up and go with the poor fellow, but he wouldn’t. He was sorry for him and very gentle. He is always sorry for people and very gentle. So I knew that the German would be all right with him. But I should have liked to have gone.
We found Mrs. Torrence and Janet with M. —— on the other side of the street, left behind by Dr. Wilson. They have been working all day yesterday and half the night and all this morning and afternoon on that hideous turnip-field. They have seen things and combinations of things that no forewarning imagination could have devised. Last night the car was fired on where it stood waiting for them in the village, and they had to race back to it under a shower of bullets.
They were as fresh as paint and very cheerful. Mrs. Torrence was wearing a large silver order on a broad blue ribbon pinned to her khaki overcoat. It was given to her to-day as the reward of valour by the Belgian General in command here. Somebody took it from the breast of a Prussian officer. She had covered it up with her khaki scarf so that she might not seem to swank.
Little Janet was with her. She always is with her. She looked younger than ever, more impassive than ever, more adorable than ever. I have got used to Mrs. Torrence and to Ursula Dearmer; but I cannot get used to Janet. It always seems appalling to me that she should be here, strolling about the seat of War with her hands in her pockets, as if a battle were a cricket-match at which you looked on between your innings. And yet there isn’t a man in the Corps who does his work better, and with more courage and endurance, than this eighteen-year-old child.
They told us that there were no French or Belgian wounded left, but that two wounded Germans were still lying over there among the turnips. They were waiting for our car to come out and take these men up. The car was now drawn up close under some building that looked like a town hall, on the other side of the street. We were in the middle of the village. The village itself was the extreme fringe of the danger zone. Where the houses ended, a stretch of white road ran up for about [?] a hundred yards to the turnip-field. Standing in the village street, we could see the turnip-field, but not all of it. The road goes straight up to the edge of it and turns there with a sweep to the left and runs alongside for about a mile and a half.
On the other side of the turnip-field were the German lines. The first that had raked the village street also raked the fields and the mile and a half of road alongside.
It was along that road that the car would have to go.
M. —— told our Ambulance that it might as well go back. There were no more wounded. Only two Germans lying in a turnip-field. The three of us—Mrs. Torrence and Janet and I—tried to bring pressure to bear on M. ——. We meant to go and get those Germans.
But M. —— was impervious to pressure. He refused either to go with the car himself or to let us go. He said we were too late and it was too far and there wouldn’t be light enough. He said that for two Belgians, or two French, or two British, it would be worth while taking risks. But for two Germans under German fire it wasn’t good enough.
But Mrs. Torrence and Janet and I didn’t agree with him. Wounded were wounded. We said we were going if he wasn’t.
Then the chauffeur Tom joined in. He refused to offer his car as a target for the enemy. Our firm Belgian was equally determined. The Commandant, as if roused from his beautiful dream to a sudden realization of the horrors of war, absolutely forbade the expedition.
It took place all the same.
Tom’s car, planted there on our side of the street, hugging the wall, with its hood over its eyes, preserved its attitude of obstinate immobility. Newlands’ car, hugging the wall on the other side of the street, stood discreetly apart from the discussion. But a Belgian military ambulance car ran up, smaller and more alert than ours. And a Belgian Army Medical Officer strolled up to see what was happening.
We three advanced on that Army Medical Officer, Mrs. Torrence and Janet on his left and I on his right.
I shall always be grateful to that righteous man. He gave Mrs. Torrence and Janet leave to go, and he gave me leave to go with them; he gave us the military ambulance to go in and a Belgian soldier with a rifle to protect us. And he didn’t waste a second over it. He just looked at us, and smiled, and let us go.
Mrs. Torrence got on to the ambulance beside the driver, Janet jumped on to one step and I on to the other, while the Commandant came up, trying to look stern, and told me to get down.
I hung on all the tighter.
What happened then was so ignominious, so sickening, that, if I were not sworn to the utmost possible realism in this record, I should suppress it in the interests of human dignity.
Mrs. Torrence, having the advantage of me in weight, height, muscle and position, got up and tried to push me off the step. As she did this she said: “You can’t come. You’ll take up the place of a wounded man.”
And I found myself standing in the village street, while the car rushed out of it, with Janet clinging on to the hood, like a little sailor to his shrouds. She was on the side next the German guns.
It was the most revolting thing that had happened to me yet, in a life filled with incidents that I have no desire to repeat. And it made me turn on the Commandant in a way that I do not like to think of. I believe I asked him how he could bear to let that kid go into the German lines, which was exactly what the poor man hadn’t done.
Then we waited, Mrs. Lambert and I in Tom’s car; and the Commandant in the car with Ursula Dearmer and the Chaplain on the other side of the street.
We were dreadfully silent now. We stared at objects that had no earthly interest for us as if our lives depended on mastering their detail. We were thus aware of a beautiful little Belgian house standing back from the village street down a short turning, a cream-coloured house with green shutters and a roof of rose-red tiles, and a very small poplar tree mounting guard beside it. This house and its tree were vivid and very still. They stood back in an atmosphere of their own, an atmosphere of perfect but utterly unreal peace. And as long as our memories endure, that house which we never saw before, and shall probably never see again, is bound up with the fate of Mrs. Torrence and Janet McNeil.
We thought we should have an hour to wait before they came back, if they ever did come. We waited for them during a whole dreadful lifetime.
In something less than half an hour the military ambulance came swinging round the turn of the road, with Mrs. Torrence and the Kid, and the two German wounded with them on the stretchers.
Those Germans never thought that they were going to be saved. They couldn’t get over it—that two Englishwomen should have gone through their fire, for them! As they were being carried through the fire they said: “We shall never forget what you’ve done for us. God will bless you for it.”
Mrs. Torrence asked them, “What will you do for us if we are taken prisoner?”
And they said: “We will do all we can to save you.”
Antwerp is said to have fallen.
All evening the watching Taube has been hanging over Ghent.
Mrs. Torrence and Janet have gone back with the ambulance to Melle.
Sat up all night with Mr. ——.
There is one night nurse for all the wards on this floor, and she has a serious case to watch in another room. But I can call her if I want help. And there is the chemist who sleeps in the room next door, who will come if I go in and wake him up. And there are our own four doctors upstairs. And the infirmiers. It ought to be all right.
As a matter of fact it was the most terrible night I have ever spent in my life; and I have lived through a good many terrible nights in sick-rooms. But no amount of amateur nursing can take the place of training or of the self-confidence of knowing you are trained. And even if you are trained, no amount of medical nursing will prepare you for a bad surgical case. To begin with, I had never nursed a patient so tall and heavy that I couldn’t lift him by sheer strength and a sort of amateur knack.
And though in theory it was reassuring to know that you could call the night nurse and the chemist and the four doctors and the infirmiers, in practice it didn’t work out quite so easily as it sounded. When the night nurse came she couldn’t lift any more than I could; and she had a greater command of discouraging criticism than of useful, practical suggestion. And the chemist knew no more about lifting than the night nurse. (Luckily none of us pretended for an instant that we knew!) When I had called up two of our hard-worked surgeons each once out of his bed, I had some scruples about waking them again. And it took four Belgian infirmiers to do in five minutes what one surgeon could do in as many seconds. And when the chemist went to look for the infirmiers he was gone for ages—he must have had to round them up from every floor in the Hospital. Whenever any of them went to look for anything, it took them ages. It was as if for every article needed in the wards of that Hospital there was a separate and inaccessible central depôt.
At one moment a small pillow had to be placed in the hollow of my patient’s back if he was to be kept in that position on which I had been told his life depended. When I sent the night nurse to look for something that would serve, she was gone a quarter of an hour, in which I realized that my case was not the only case in the Hospital. For a quarter of an hour I had to kneel by his bed with my two arms thrust together under the hollow of his back, supporting it. I had nothing at hand that was small enough or firm enough but my arms.
That night I would have given everything I possess, and everything I have ever done, to have been a trained nurse.
To make matters worse, I had an atrocious cough, acquired at the Hôtel de la Poste. The chemist had made up some medicine for it, but the poor busy dispensary clerk had forgotten to send it to my room. I had to stop it by an expenditure of will when I wanted every atom of will to keep my patient quiet and send him to sleep, if possible, without his morphia piqûres. He is only to have one if he is restless or in pain.
And to-night he wanted more than ever to talk when he woke. And his conversation in the night is even more lacerating than his conversation in the day. For all the time, often in pain, always in extreme discomfort, he is thinking of other people.
First of all he asked me if I had any books, and I thought that he wanted me to read to him. I told him I was afraid he mustn’t be read to, he must go to sleep. And he said: “I mean for you to read yourself—to pass the time.”
He is afraid that I shall be bored by sitting up with him, that I shall tire myself, that I shall make my cough worse. He asks me if I think he will ever be well enough to play games. That is what he has always wanted to do most.
And then he begins to tell me about his mother.
He tells me things that I have no right to put down here.
There is nothing that I can do for him but to will. And I will hard, or I pray—I don’t know which it is; your acutest willing and your intensest prayer are indistinguishable. And it seems to work. I will—or I pray—that he shall lie still without morphia, and that he shall have no pain. And he lies still, without pain. I will—or I pray—that he shall sleep without morphia. And he sleeps (I think that in spite of his extreme discomfort, he must have slept the best part of the night). And because it seems to work, I will—or I pray—that he shall get well.
There are many things that obstruct this process as fast as it is begun: your sensation of sight and touch; the swarms and streams of images that your brain throws out; and the crushing obsession of your fear. This last is like a dead weight that you hold off you with your arms stretched out. Your arms sink and drop under it perpetually and have to be raised again. At last the weight goes. And the sensations go, and the swarms and streams of images go, and there is nothing before you and around you but a clear blank darkness where your will vibrates.
Only one avenue of sense is left open. You are lost to the very memories of touch and sight, but you are intensely conscious of every sound from the bed, every movement of the sleeper. And while one half of you only lives in that pure and effortless vibration, the other half is aware of the least change in the rhythm of his breathing.
It is by this rhythm that I can tell whether he is asleep or awake. This rhythm of his breathing, and the rhythm of his sleeping and his waking measure out the night for me. It goes like one hour.
And yet I have spent months of nights watching in this room. Its blond walls are as familiar to me as the walls of rooms where I have lived a long time; I know with a profound and intimate knowledge every crinkle in the red shade of the electric bulb that hangs on the inner wall between the two beds, the shape and position of every object on the night table in the little white-tiled dressing-room; I know every trick of the inner and outer doors leading to the corridor, and the long grey lane of the corridor, and the room that I must go through to find ice, and the face of the little ward-maid who sleeps there, who wants to get up and break the ice for me every time. I have known the little ward-maid all my life; I have known the night nurse all my life, with her white face and sharp black eyes, and all my life I have not cared for her. All my life I have known and cared only for the wounded man on the bed.
I have known every sound of his voice and every line of his face and hands (the face and hands that he asks me to wash, over and over again, if I don’t mind), and the strong springing of his dark hair from his forehead and every little feathery tuft of beard on his chin. And I have known no other measure of time than the rhythm of his breathing, no mark or sign of time than the black crescent of his eyelashes when the lids are closed, and the curling blue of his eyes when they open. His eyes always smile as they open, as if he apologized for waking when he knows that I want him to sleep. And I have known these things so long that each one of them is already like a separate wound in my memory. He sums up for me all the heroism and the agony and waste of the defence of Antwerp, all the heroism and agony and waste of war.
About midnight [?] he wakes and tells me he has had a jolly dream. He dreamed that he was running in a field in England, running in a big race, that he led the race and won it.