May Sinclair

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

One bad symptom is disappearing. Towards dawn it has almost gone. He really does seem stronger.

[5 a.m.]

He has had no return of pain or restlessness. But he was to have a morphia piqûre at five o’clock, and they have given it to him to make sure.

[8 a.m.]

The night has not been so terrible, after all. It has gone like an hour and I have left him sleeping.

I am not in the least bit tired; I never felt drowsy once, and my cough has nearly gone.

········

Antwerp has fallen.

Taube over Ghent in the night.

Six doctors have seen Mr. ——. They all say he is ever so much better. They even say he may live—that he has a good chance.

Dr. Wilson is taking Mr. Foster to England this morning.

Went back to the Hôtel Cecil to sleep for an hour or two. An enormous oval table-top is leaning flat against the wall; but by no possibility can it be set up. Still, the landlord said he would find a table, and he has found one.

Went back to the “Flandria” for lunch. In the mess-room Janet tells me that Mr. ——’s case has been taken out of my hands. I am not to try to do any more nursing.

Little Janet looks as if she were trying to soften a blow. But it isn’t a blow. Far from it. It is the end of an intolerable responsibility.

The Commandant and the Chaplain started about nine or ten this morning for Melle, and are not back yet.

We expect that we may have to clear out of Ghent before to-morrow.

Mr. Riley, Mrs. Lambert and Janet have gone in the second car to Melle.

I waited in all afternoon on the chance of being taken when the Commandant comes and goes out again.

[4.45.]

He is not back yet. I am very anxious. The Germans may be in Melle by now.

One of the old officials in peaked caps has called on me solemnly this afternoon. He is the most mysterious of them all, an old man with a white moustache, who never seems to do anything but hang about. He is certainly not an infirmier. He called ostensibly to ask some question and remained to talk. I think he thought he would pump me. He began by asking if we women enjoyed going out with the Field Ambulance; he supposed we felt very daring and looked on the whole thing as an adventure. I detected some sinister intention, and replied that that was not exactly the idea; that our women went out to help to save the lives of the wounded soldiers, and that they had succeeded in this object over and over again; and that I didn’t imagine they thought of anything much except their duty. We certainly were not out for amusement.

Then he took another line. He told me that the reason why our Ambulance is to be put under the charge of the British General here (we had heard that the whole of the Belgian Army was shortly to be under the control of the British, and the whole of the Belgian Red Cross with it)—the reason is that its behaviour in going into the firing-line has been criticized. And when I ask him on what grounds, it turns out that somebody thinks there is a risk of our Ambulance drawing down the fire on the lines it serves. I told him that in all the time I had been with the Ambulance it had never placed itself in any position that could possibly have drawn down fire on the Belgians, and that I had never heard of any single instance of this danger; and I made him confess that there was no proof or even rumour of any single instance when it had occurred. I further told the old gentleman very plainly that these things ought not to be said or repeated, and that every man and woman in the English Ambulance would rather lose their own life than risk that of one Belgian soldier.

The old gentleman was somewhat flattened out before he left me; having “parfaitement compris.”

It is a delicious idea that Kitchener and Joffre should be reorganizing the Allied Armies because of the behaviour of our Ambulance.

There are Gordon Highlanders in Ghent.

········

Went over to the Couvent de Saint Pierre, where Miss Ashley-Smith is with her British wounded. I had to warn her that the Germans may come in to-night. I had told the Commandant about her yesterday, and arranged with him that we should take her and her British away in our Ambulance if we have to go. I had to find out how many there would be to take.

The Convent is a little way beyond the Place on the boulevard. I knew it by the Red Cross hanging from the upper windows. Everything is as happy and peaceful here as if Ghent were not on the eve of an invasion. The nuns took me to Miss Ashley-Smith in her ward. I hardly knew her, for she had changed the uniform of the British Field Hospital for the white linen of the Belgian Red Cross. I found her in charge of the ward. Absolutely unperturbed by the news, she went on superintending the disposal of a table of surgical instruments. She would not consent to come with us at first. But the nuns persuaded her that she would do no good by remaining.

I am to come again and tell her what time to be ready with her wounded, when we know whether we are going and when.

Came back to the “Flandria” and finished entries in my Day-Book.

[Evening.]

The Commandant has come back from Melle; but he is going there again almost directly. He has been to the British lines, and heard for certain that the Germans will be in Ghent before morning. We have orders to clear out before two in the morning. I am to have all his things packed by midnight.

The British Consul has left Ghent.

The news spread through the “Flandria.”

Max has gone about all day with a scared, white face. They say he is suffering from cold feet. But I will not believe it. He has just appeared in the mess-room and summoned me mysteriously. He takes me along the corridor to that room of his which he is so proud of. There is a brand-new uniform lying on the bed, the uniform of a French soldier of the line. Max handles it with love and holy adoration, as a priest handles his sacred vestments. He takes it in his arms, he spreads before me the grey-blue coat, the grey-blue trousers, and his queer eyes are in their solemnity large and quiet as dark moons.

Max is going to rejoin his regiment.

It is sheer nervous excitement that gave him that wild, white face.

Max is confident that we shall meet again; and I have a horrid vision of Max carried on a bloody stretcher, a brutally wounded Max.

He has given me his address in Brussels, which will not find him there for long enough: if ever.

Jean also is to rejoin his regiment.

Marie, the bonne, stands at the door of the service room and watches us with frightened eyes. She follows me into the mess-room and shuts the door. The poor thing has been seized with panic, and her one idea is to get away from Ghent. Can I find a place for her on one of our ambulance cars? She will squeeze in anywhere, she will stand outside on the step. Will I take her back to England? She will do any sort of work, no matter what, and she won’t ask for wages if only I will take her there. I tell her we are not going to England. We are going to Bruges. We have to follow the Belgian Army wherever it is sent.

Then will I take her to Bruges? She has a mother there.

It is ghastly. I have to tell her that it is impossible; that there will be no place for her in the ambulance cars, that they will be crammed with wounded, that we will have to stand on the steps ourselves, that I do not know how many we shall have to take from the Convent, or how many from the hospitals; that I can do nothing without the Commandant’s orders, and that the Commandant is not here. And she pleads and implores. She cannot believe that we can be so cruel, and I find my voice growing hard and stern with sheer, wrenching pity. At last I tell her that if there is room I will see what can be done, but that I am afraid that there will not be room. She stays, she clings, trying to extort through pity a more certain promise, and I have to tell her to go. She goes, looking at me with the dull resentment of a helpless creature whom I have hurt. The fact that she has left me sick with pity will not do her any good. Nothing can do her any good but that place on the ambulance which I have no power to give her.

For Marie is not the only one.

I see all the servants in the “Flandria” coming to me before the night is over, and clinging and pleading for a place in the ambulance cars.

And this is only the beginning. After Marie comes Janet McNeil. She, poor child, has surrendered to the overpowering assault on her feelings and has pledged herself to smuggle the four young children of Madame —— into the ambulance somehow. I don’t see how it was possible for her to endure the agony of refusing this request. But what we are to do with four young children in cars packed with wounded soldiers, through all the stages of the Belgian Army’s retreat—!

The next problem that faced me was the Commandant’s packing—how to get all the things he had brought with him into one small Gladstone bag and a sleeping-sack. There was a blue serge suit, two sleeping-suits, a large Burberry, a great many pocket-handkerchiefs, socks and stockings, an assortment of neckties, a quantity of small miscellaneous objects whose fugitive tendencies he proposed to frustrate by confinement in a large tin biscuit-box; there was the biscuit-box itself, a tobacco tin, a packet of Gillette razors, a pipe, a leather case containing some electric apparatus, and a fat scarlet volume: Freud’s “Psychopathology of Everyday Life.” All these things he had pointed out to me as they lay flung on the bed or strewn about the room. He had impressed on me the absolute necessity of packing every one of them, and by the pathetic grouping around the Gladstone bag of the biscuit-box, the tobacco-tin, the case of instruments and Freud, I gathered that he believed that they would all enter the bag placably and be contained in it with ease.

The night is still young.

I pack the Gladstone bag. By alternate coaxing and coercion Freud and the tobacco-tin and the biscuit-box occupy it amicably enough; but the case of instruments offers an unconquerable resistance.

The night is not quite so young as it has been, and I think I must have left off packing to run over to the Hôtel Cecil and pay my bill; for I remember going out into the Place and seeing a crowd drawn up in the middle of it before the “Flandria.” An official was addressing this crowd, ordering them to give up their revolvers and any arms they had on them.

The fate of Ghent depends on absolute obedience to this order.

When I get back I find Mrs. Torrence downstairs in the hall of the “Flandria.” I ask her what we had better do about our refugee children. She says we can do nothing. There must be no refugee children. How can there be in an ambulance packed with wounded men? When I tell her that the children will certainly be there if somebody doesn’t do something to stop them, she goes off to do it. I do not envy her her job. She is not enjoying it herself. First of all she has got to break it to Janet. And Janet will have to break it to the mother.

As to poor Marie, she is out of the question. I shall have to break it to Marie.

The night goes on. I sit with Mr. —— for a little while. I have still to finish the Commandant’s packing; I have not yet begun my own, and it is time that I should go round to the Convent to tell Miss Ashley-Smith to be ready with her British before two o’clock.

I sit with him for what seems a very long time. It is appalling to me that the time should seem long. For it is really such a little while, and when it is over there will be nothing more that I shall ever do for him. This thought is not prominent and vivid; it is barely discernible; but it is there, a dull background of pain under my anxiety for the safety of the English over there in the Couvent de Saint Pierre. It is more than time that I should go and tell them to be ready.

He holds out his hands to be sponged “if I don’t mind.” I sponge them over and over again with iced water and eau de Cologne, gently and very slowly. I am afraid lest he should be aware that there is any hurry. The time goes on, and my anxiety becomes acuter every minute, till with each slow, lingering turn of my hand I think, “If I don’t go soon it will be too late.”

I hear that the children will be all right. Somebody has had a crise de nerfs, and Janet was the victim.

It is past midnight, and very dark. The Place and the boulevards are deserted. I cannot see the Red Cross flag hanging from the window of the Convent. The boulevards look all the same in the blackness, and I turn up the one to the left. I run on and on very fast, but I cannot see the white flag with the red cross anywhere; I run back, thinking I must have passed it, turn and go on again.

There is nobody in sight. No sound anywhere but the sound of my own feet running faster and faster up the wrong boulevard.

At last I know I have gone too far, the houses are entirely strange. I run back to the Place to get my bearings, and start again. I run faster than ever. I pass a solitary civilian coming down the boulevard. The place is so empty and so still that he and I seem to be the only things alive and awake in this quarter of the town. As I pass he turns to look after me, wondering at the solitary lady running so fast at this hour of the morning. I see the Red Cross flag in the distance, and I come to a door that looks like the door of the Convent. It is the door of the Convent.

I ring the bell. I ring it many times. Nobody comes.

I ring a little louder. A tired lay sister puts her head out of an upper window and asks me what I want. I tell her. She is rather cross and says I’ve come to the wrong door. I must go to the second door; and she puts her head in and shuts the window with a clang that expresses her just resentment.

I go to the second door, and ring many times again. And another lay sister puts her head out of an upper window.

She is gentle but sleepy and very slow. She cannot take it in all at once. She says they are all asleep in the Convent, and she does not like to wake them. She says this several times, so that I may understand.

I am exasperated.

“Mais, Madame—de grâce! C’est peut-être la vie ou la mort!”

The minute I’ve said it it sounds to me melodramatic and absurd. I am melodramatic and absurd, with my running feet, and my small figure and earnest, upturned face, standing under a Convent wall at midnight, and talking about la vie et la mort. It is too improbable. I am too improbable. I feel that I am making a fuss out of all proportion to the occasion. And I am sorry for frightening the poor lay sister all for nothing.

Very soon, down the south-east road, the Germans will be marching upon Ghent.

And I cannot realize it. The whole thing is too improbable.

But the lay sister has understood this time. She will go and wake the porteress. She is not at all frightened.

I wait a little longer, and presently the porteress opens the door. When she hears my message she goes away, and returns after a little while with one of the nuns.

They are very quiet, very kind, and absolutely unafraid. They say that Miss Ashley-Smith and her British wounded shall be ready before [?] two o’clock.

I go back to the “Flandria.”

The Commandant, who went out to Melle in Tom’s car, has not come back yet.

I think Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert have gone to bed. They are not taking the Germans very seriously.

There is nobody in the mess-room but the other three chauffeurs, Bert, Tom and Newlands. Newlands has just come back from Ostend. They have had no supper. We bustle about to find some.

We all know the Germans are coming into Ghent. But we do not speak of it. We are all very polite, almost supernaturally gentle, and very kind to each other. The beautiful manners of Newlands are conspicuous in this hour, the tragedy of which we are affecting to ignore. I behave as if there was nothing so important in the world as cutting bread for Newlands. Newlands behaves as if there were nothing so important as fetching a bottle of formamint, which he has with him, to cure my cough. (It has burst out again worse than ever after the unnatural repression of last night.)

When the chauffeurs are provided with supper I go into the Commandant’s room and finish his packing. The ties, the pocket-handkerchiefs and the collars are all safe in the Gladstone bag. Only the underclothing and the suits remain and there is any amount of room for them in the hold-all.

I roll up the blue serge coat, and the trousers, and the waistcoat very smooth and tight, also the underclothes. It seems very simple. I have only got to put them in the hold-all and then roll it up, smooth and tight, too—

It would have been simple, if the hold-all had been a simple hold-all and if it had been nothing more. But it was also a sleeping-bag and a field-tent. As sleeping-bag, it was provided with a thick blanket which took up most of the room inside, and a waterproof sheet which was part of itself. As field-tent, it had large protruding flanges, shaped like jib-sails, and a complicated system of ropes.

First of all I tucked in the jib-sails and ropes and laid them as flat as might be on the bottom of the sleeping-bag, with the blanket on the top of them. Then I packed the clothes on the top of the blanket and turned it over them to make all snug; I buttoned up the waterproof sheet over everything, rolled up the hold-all and secured it with its straps. This was only done by much stratagem and strength, by desperate tugging and pushing, and by lying flat on my waist on the rolled-up half to keep it quiet while I brought the loose half over. No sooner had I secured the hold-all by its straps than I realized that it was no more a hold-all than it was a sleeping-bag and a field tent, and that its contents were exposed to the weather down one side, where they bulged through the spaces that yawned between the buttons, strained almost to bursting.

I still believed in the genius that had devised this trinity. Clearly the jib-sails which made it a field-tent were intended to serve also as the pockets of the hold-all. I had done wrong to flatten them out and tuck them in, frustrating the fulfilment of their function. It was not acting fairly by the inventor.

I unpacked the hold-all, I mean the field-tent.

Then, with the Commandant’s clothes again lying round me on the floor, I grappled with the mystery of the jib-sails and their cords. The jib-sails and their cords were, so to speak, the heart of this infernal triple entity.

They were treacherous. They had all the appearance of pockets, but owing to the intricate and malign relations of their cords, it was impossible to deal faithfully with them on this footing. When the contents had been packed inside them, the field-tent asserted itself as against the hold-all and refused to roll up. And I am sure that if the field-tent had had to be set up in a field in a hurry, the hold-all and the sleeping-bag would have arisen and insisted on their consubstantial rights.

I unpacked the field-tent and packed it all over again exactly as I had packed it before, but more carefully, swearing gently and continuously, as I tugged with my arms and pushed with my knees, and pressed hard on it with my waist to keep it still. I cursed the day when I had first heard of it; I cursed myself for giving it to the Commandant; more than all I cursed the combined ingenuity and levity of its creator, who had indulged his fantasy at our expense, without a thought to the actual conditions of the retreat of armies and of ambulances.

And in the middle of it all Janet came in, and curled herself up in a corner, and forecast luridly and inconsolably the possible fate of her friends, the nurses in the “Flandria.” For the moment her coolness and her wise impassivity had gone. Her behaviour was lacerating.

This was the very worst moment we had come to yet.

And it seemed that Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert had gone to bed, regardless of the retreat from Ghent.

Somewhere in the small hours of the morning the Commandant came back from Melle.

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