It is nearly two o’clock. Downstairs, in the great silent hall two British wounded are waiting for some ambulance to take them to the Station. They are sitting bolt upright on chairs near the doorway, their heads nodding with drowsiness. One or two Belgian Red Cross men wait beside them. Opposite them, on three other chairs, the three doctors, Dr. Haynes, Dr. Bird and Dr. —— sit waiting for our own ambulance to take them. They have been up all night and are utterly exhausted. They sit, fast asleep, with their heads bowed on their breasts.
Outside, the darkness has mist and a raw cold sting in it.
A wretched ambulance wagon drawn by two horses is driven up to the door. It had a hood once, but the hood has disappeared and only the naked hoops remain. The British wounded from two [?] other hospitals are packed in it in two rows. They sit bolt upright under the hoops, exposed to mist and to the raw cold sting of the night; some of them wear their blankets like shawls over their shoulders as they were taken from their beds. The shawls and the head bandages give these British a strange, foreign look, infinitely helpless, infinitely pitiful.
Nobody seems to be out there but Mrs. Torrence and one or two Belgian Red Cross men. She and I help to get our two men taken gently out of the hall and stowed away in the ambulance wagon. There are not enough blankets. We try to find some.
At the last minute two bearers come forward, carrying a third. He is tall and thin; he is wrapped in a coat flung loosely over his sleeping-jacket; he wears a turban of bandages; his long bare feet stick out as he is carried along. It is Cameron, my poor Highlander, who was shot through the brain.
They lift him, very gently, into the wagon.
Then, very gently, they lift him out again.
This attempt to save him is desperate. He is dying.
They carry him up the steps and stand him there with his naked feet on the stone. It is anguish to see those thin white feet on the stone; I take off my coat and put it under them.
It is all I can do for him.
Presently they carry him back into the Hospital.
They can’t find any blankets. I run over to the Hôtel Cecil for my thick, warm travelling-rug to wrap round the knees of the wounded, shivering in the wagon.
It is all I can do for them.
And presently the wagon is turned round, slowly, almost solemnly, and driven off into the darkness and the cold mist, with its load of weird and piteous figures, wrapped in blankets like shawls. Their bandages show blurred white spots in the mist, and they are gone.
It is horrible.
I am reminded that I have not packed yet, nor dressed for the journey. I go over and pack and dress. I leave behind what I don’t need and it takes seven minutes. There is something sad and terrible about the little hotel, and its proprietors and their daughter, who has waited on me. They have so much the air of waiting, of being on the eve. They hang about doing nothing. They sit mournfully in a corner of the half-darkened restaurant. As I come and go they smile at me with the patient Belgian smile that says, “C’est triste, n’est-ce pas?” and no more.
The landlord puts on his soft brown felt hat and carries my luggage over to the “Flandria.” He stays there, hanging about the porch, fascinated by these preparations for departure. There is the same terrible half-darkness here, the same expectant stillness. Now and then the servants of the hospital look at each other and there are whisperings, mutterings. They sound sinister somehow and inimical. Or perhaps I imagine this because I do not take kindly to retreating. Anyhow I am only aware of them afterwards. For now it is time to go and fetch Miss Ashley-Smith and her three wounded men from the Convent.
Tom has come up with his first ambulance car. He is waiting for orders in the porch. His enormous motor goggles are pushed up over the peak of his cap. They make it look like some formidable helmet. They give an air of mastership to Tom’s face. At this last hour it wears its expression of righteous protest, of volcanic patience, of exasperated discipline.
The Commandant is nowhere to be seen. And every minute of his delay increases Tom’s sense of tortured integrity.
I tell Tom that he is to drive me at once to the Couvent de Saint Pierre. He wants to know what for.
I tell him it is to fetch Miss Ashley-Smith and three British wounded.
He shrugs his shoulders. He knows nothing about the Couvent de Saint Pierre and Miss Ashley-Smith and three British wounded, and his shrug implies that he cares less.
And he says he has no orders to go and fetch them.
I perceive that in this supreme moment I am up against Tom’s superstition. He won’t move anywhere without orders. It is his one means of putting himself in the right and everybody else in the wrong.
And the worst of it is he is right.
I am also up against Tom’s sex prejudices. I remember that he is said to have sworn with an oath that he wasn’t going to take orders from any woman.
And the Commandant is nowhere to be seen.
Tom sticks to the ledge of the porch and stares at me defiantly. The servants of the Hospital come out and look at us. They are so many reinforcements to Tom’s position.
I tell him that the arrangement has been made with the Commandant’s consent, and I repeat firmly that he is to get into his car this minute and drive to the Couvent de Saint Pierre.
He says he does not know where the Convent is. It may be anywhere.
I tell him where it is, and he says again he hasn’t got orders.
I stand over him and with savage and violent determination I say: “You’ve got them now!”
And, actually, Tom obeys. He says, “All right, all right, all right,” very fast, and humps his shoulders and slouches off to his car. He cranks it up with less vehemence than I have yet known him bring to the starting of any car.
We get in. Then, and not till then, I am placable. I say: “You see, Tom, it wouldn’t do to leave that lady and three British wounded behind, would it?”
What he says about orders then is purely by way of apology.
Regardless of my instructions, he does what I did and dashes up the wrong boulevard as if the Germans were even now marching into the Place behind him. But he works round somehow and we arrive.
They are all there, ready and waiting. And the Mother Superior and two of her nuns are in the corridor. They bring out glasses of hot milk for everybody. They are so gentle and so kind that I recall with agony my impatience when I rang at their gate. Even familiar French words desert me in this crisis, and I implore Miss Ashley-Smith to convey my regrets for my rudeness. Their only answer is to smile and press hot milk on me. I am glad of it, for I have been so absorbed in the drama of preparation that I have entirely forgotten to eat anything since lunch.
The wounded are brought along the passage. We help them into the ambulance. Two, Williams and ——, are only slightly wounded; they can sit up all the way. But the third, Fisher, is wounded in the head. Sometimes he is delirious and must be looked after. A fourth man is dying and must be left behind.
Then we say good-bye to the nuns.
The other ambulance cars are drawn up in the Place before the “Flandria,” waiting. For the first time I hate the sight of them. This feeling is inexplicable but profound.
We arrange for the final disposal of the wounded in one of the new Daimlers, where they can all lie down. Mrs. Torrence comes out and helps us. The Commandant is not there yet. Dr. Haynes and Dr. Bird pack Dr. —— away well inside the car. They are very quiet and very firm and refuse to travel otherwise than together. Mrs. Torrence goes with the wounded.
I go into the Hospital and upstairs to our quarters to see if anything has been left behind. If I can find Marie we must take her. There is room, after all.
But Marie is nowhere to be seen.
Nobody is to be seen but the Belgian night nurses on duty, watching, one on each landing at the entrance to her corridor. They smile at me gravely and sadly as they say good-bye.
I have left many places, many houses, many people behind me, knowing that I shall never see them again. But of all leave-takings this seems to me the worst. For those others I have been something, done something that absolves me. But for these and for this place I have not done anything, and now there is not anything to be done.
I go slowly downstairs. Each flight is a more abominable descent. At each flight I stand still and pull myself together to face the next nurse on the next landing. At the second story I go past without looking. I know every stain on the floor of the corridor there as you turn to the right. The number of the door and the names on the card beside it have made a pattern on my brain.
It is quarter to three.
They are all ready now. The Commandant is there giving the final orders and stowing away the nine wounded he has brought from Melle. The hall of the Hospital is utterly deserted. So is the Place outside it. And in the stillness and desolation our going has an air of intolerable secrecy, of furtive avoidance of fate. This Field Ambulance of ours abhors retreat.
It is dark with the black darkness before dawn.
And the Belgian Red Cross guides have all gone. There is nobody to show us the roads.
At the last minute we find a Belgian soldier who will take us as far as Ecloo.
The Commandant has arranged to stay at Ecloo for a few hours. Some friends there have offered him their house. The wounded are to be put up at the Convent. Ecloo is about half-way between Ghent and Bruges.
We start. Tom’s car goes first with the Belgian soldier in front. Ursula Dearmer, Mrs. Lambert, Miss Ashley-Smith and Mr. Riley and I are inside. The Commandant sits, silent, wrapped in meditation, on the step.
We are not going so very fast, not faster than the three cars behind us, and the slowest of the three (the Fiat with the hard tyres, carrying the baggage) sets the pace. We must keep within their sight or they may lose their way. But though we are not really going fast, the speed seems intolerable, especially the speed that swings us out of sight of the “Flandria.” You think that is the worst. But it isn’t. The speed with its steady acceleration grows more intolerable with every mile. Your sense of safety grows intolerable.
You never knew that safety could hurt like this.
Somewhere on this road the Belgian Army has gone before us. We have got to go with it. We have had our orders.
That thought consoles you, but not for long. You may call it following the Belgian Army. But the Belgian Army is retreating, and you are retreating with it. There is nothing else you can do; but that does not make it any better. And this speed of the motor over the flat roads, this speed that cuts the air, driving its furrow so fast that the wind rushes by you like strong water, this speed that so inspired and exalted you when it brought you into Flanders, when it took you to Antwerp and Baerlaere and Lokeren and Melle, this vehement and frightful and relentless speed is the thing that beats you down and tortures you. For several hours, ever since you had your orders to pack up and go, you have been working with no other purpose than this going; you have contemplated it many times with equanimity, with indifference; you knew all along that it was not possible to stay in Ghent for ever; and when you were helping to get the wounded into the ambulances you thought it would be the easiest thing in the world to get in yourself and go with them; when you had time to think about it you were even aware of looking forward with pleasure to the thrill of a clean run before the Germans. You never thought, and nobody could possibly have told you, that it would be like this.
I never thought, and nobody could possibly have told me, that I was going to behave as I did then.
The thing began with the first turn of the road that hid the “Flandria.” Up till that moment, whatever I may have felt about the people we had to leave behind us, as long as none of our field-women were left behind, I had not the smallest objection to being saved myself. And if it had occurred to me to stay behind for the sake of one man who couldn’t be moved and who had the best surgeon in the Hospital and the pick of the nursing-staff to look after him, I think I should have disposed of the idea as sheer sentimentalism. When I was with him to-night I could think of nothing but the wounded in the Couvent de Saint Pierre. And afterwards there had been so much to do.
And now that there was nothing more to do, I couldn’t think of anything but that one man.
The night before came back to me in a vision, or rather an obsession, infinitely more present, more visible and palpable than this night that we were living in. The light with the red shade hung just over my head on my right hand; the blond walls were round me; they shut me in alone with the wounded man who lay stretched before me on the bed. And the moments were measured by the rhythm of his breathing, and by the closing and opening of his eyes.
I thought, he will open his eyes to-night and look for me and I shall not be there. He will know that he has been left to the Belgians, who cannot understand him, whom he cannot understand. And he will think that I have betrayed him.
I felt as if I had betrayed him.
I am sitting between Mr. Riley and Miss Ashley-Smith. Mr. Riley is ill; he has got blood-poisoning through a cut in his hand. Every now and then I remember him, and draw the rug over his knees as it slips. Miss Ashley-Smith, tired with her night watching, has gone to sleep with her head on my shoulder, where it must be horribly jolted and shaken by my cough, which of course chooses this moment to break out again. I try to get into a position that will rest her better; and between her and Mr. Riley I forget for a second.
Then the obsession begins again, and I am shut in between the blond walls with the wounded man.
I feel his hand and arm lying heavily on my shoulder in the attempt to support me as I kneel by his bed with my arms stretched out together under the hollow of his back, as we wait for the pillow that never comes.
It is quite certain that I have betrayed him.
It seems to me then that nothing that could happen to me in Ghent could be more infernal than leaving it. And I think that when the ambulance stops to put down the Belgian soldier I will get out and walk back with him to Ghent.
Every half-mile I think that the ambulance will stop to put down the Belgian soldier.
But the ambulance does not stop. It goes on and on, and we have got to Ecloo before we seem to have put three miles between us and Ghent.
Still, though I’m dead tired when we get there, I can walk three miles easily. I do not feel at all insane with my obsession. On the contrary, these moments are moments of exceptional lucidity. While the Commandant goes to look for the Convent I get out and look for the Belgian soldier. Other Belgian soldiers have joined him in the village street.
I tell him I want to go back to Ghent. I ask him how far it is to walk, and if he will take me. And he says it is twenty kilometres. The other soldiers say, too, it is twenty kilometres. I had thought it couldn’t possibly be more than four or five at the outside. And I am just sane enough to know that I can’t walk as far as that if I’m to be any good when I get there.
We wait in the village while they find the Convent and take the wounded men there; we wait while the Commandant goes off in the dark to find his friend’s house.
The house stands in a garden somewhere beyond the railway station, up a rough village street and a stretch of country road. It is about four in the morning when we get there. A thin ooze of light is beginning to leak through the mist. The mist holds it as a dark cloth holds a fluid that bleaches it.
There is something queer about this light. There is something queer, something almost inimical, about the garden, as if it tried to protect itself by enchantment from the fifteen who are invading it. The mist stands straight up from the earth like a high wall drawn close about the house; it blocks with dense grey stuff every inch of space between the bushes and trees; they are thrust forward rank upon rank, closing in upon the house; they loom enormous and near. A few paces further back they appear as without substance in the dense grey stuff that invests them; their tops are tangled and lost in a web of grey. In this strange garden it is as if space itself had solidified in masses, and solid objects had become spaces between.
When your eyes get used to this curious inversion it is as if the mist was no longer a wall but a growth; the garden is the heart of a jungle bleached by enchantment and struck with stillness and cold; a tangle of grey; a muffled, huddled and stifled bower, all grey, and webbed and laced with grey.
The door of the house opens and the effect of queerness, of inimical magic disappears.
Mr. E., our kind Dutch host, and Mrs. E., our kind English hostess, have got up out of their beds to receive us. This hospitality of theirs is not a little thing when you think that their house is to be invaded by Germans, perhaps to-day.
They do not allow you to think of it. For all you are to see of the tragedy they and their house might be remaining at Ecloo in leisure and perfect hospitality and peace. Only, as they see us pouring in over their threshold a hovering twinkle in their kind eyes shows that they are not blind to the comic aspect of retreats.
They have only one spare bedroom, which they offer; but they have filled their drawing-room with blankets; piles and piles of white fleecy blankets on chairs and sofas and on the floor. And they have built up a roaring fire. It is as if they were succouring fifteen survivors of shipwreck or of earthquake, or the remnants of a forlorn hope. To be sure, we are flying from Ghent, but we have only flown twenty kilometres as yet.
However, most of the Corps have been up all night for several nights, and the mist outside is a clinging and a biting mist, and everybody is grateful.
I shall never forget the look of the E.s’ drawing-room, smothered in blankets and littered with the members of the Corps, who lay about it in every pathetic posture of fatigue. A group of seven or eight snuggled down among the blankets on the floor in front of the hearth like a camp before a campfire. Janet McNeil, curled up on one window-seat, and Ursula Dearmer, rolled in a blanket on the other, had the heart-rending beauty of furry animals under torpor. The chauffeurs Tom and Bert made themselves entirely lovable by going to sleep bolt upright on dining-room chairs on the outer ring of the camp. The E.s’ furniture came in where it could with fantastic and incongruous effect.
I don’t know how I got through the next three hours, for my obsession came back on me again and again, and as soon as I shut my eyes I saw the face and eyes of the wounded man. I remember sitting part of the time beside Miss Ashley-Smith, wide-awake, in a corner of the room behind Bert’s chair. I remember wandering about the E.s’ house. I must have got out of it, for I also remember finding myself in their garden, at sunrise.
And I remember the garden, though I was not perfectly aware of it at the time. It had a divine beauty, a serenity that refused to enter into, to ally itself in any way with an experience tainted by the sadness of the retreat from Ghent.
But because of its supernatural detachment and tranquillity and its no less supernatural illumination I recalled it the more vividly afterwards.
It was full of tall bushes and little slender trees standing in a delicate light. The mist had cleared to the transparency of still water, so still that under it the bushes and the trees stood in a cold, quiet radiance without a shimmer. The light itself was intensely still. What you saw was not the approach of light, but its mysterious arrest. It was held suspended in crystalline vapour, in thin shafts of violet and gold, clear as panes; it was caught and lifted upwards by the high bushes and the slender trees; it was veiled in the silver-green masses of their tops. Every green leaf and every blade of grass was a vessel charged. It was not so much that the light revealed these things as that these things revealed the light. There was no kindling touch, no tremor of dawn in that garden. It was as if it had removed the walls and put off the lacing webs and the thick cloths of grey stuff by some mystic impulse of its own, as if it maintained itself in stillness by an inner flame. Only the very finest tissues yet clung to it, to show that it was the same garden that disclosed itself in this clarity and beauty.
The next thing I remember is the Chaplain coming to me and our going together into the E.s’ dining-room, and Miss Ashley-Smith’s joining us there. My malady was contagious and she had caught it, but with no damage to her self-control.
She says very simply and quietly that she is going back to Ghent. And the infection spreads to the Chaplain. He says that neither of us is going back to Ghent, but that he is going. The poor boy tries to arrange with us how he may best do it, in secrecy, without poisoning the Commandant and the whole Ambulance with the spirit of return. With difficulty we convince him that it would be useless for any man to go. He would be taken prisoner the minute he showed his nose in the “Flandria” and set to dig trenches till the end of the War.
Then he says, if only he had his cassock with him. They would respect that (which is open to doubt).
We are there a long time discussing which of us is going back to Ghent. Miss Ashley-Smith is fertile and ingenious in argument. She is a nurse, and I and the Chaplain are not. She has friends in Ghent who have not been warned, whom she must go back to. In any case, she says, it was a toss-up whether she went or stayed.
And while we are still arguing, we go out on the road that leads to the village, to find the ambulances and see if any of the chauffeurs will take us back to Ghent. I am not very hopeful about the means of transport. I do not think that Tom or any of the chauffeurs will move, this time, without orders from the Commandant. I do not think that the Commandant will let any of us go except himself.
And Miss Ashley-Smith says if only she had a horse.
If she had a horse she would be in Ghent in no time. Perhaps, if none of the chauffeurs will take her back, she can find a horse in the village.
She keeps on saying very quietly and simply that she is going, and explaining the reasons why she should go rather than anybody else. And I bring forward every reason I can think of why she should do nothing of the sort.
I abhor the possibility of her going back instead of me; but I am not yet afraid of it. I do not yet think seriously that she will do it. I do not see how she is going to, if the chauffeurs refuse to take her. (I do not see how, in this case, I am to go myself.) And I do not imagine for one moment that she will find a horse. Still, I am vaguely uneasy. And the Chaplain doesn’t make it any better by backing her up and declaring that as she will be more good than either of us when she gets there, her going is the best thing that in the circumstances can be done.
And in the end, with an extreme quietness and simplicity, she went.
We had not yet found the ambulance cars, and it seemed pretty certain that Miss Ashley-Smith would not get her horse any more than the Chaplain could get his cassock.
And then, just when we thought the difficulties of transport were insuperable, we came straight on the railway lines and the station, where a train had pulled up on its way to Ghent. Miss Ashley-Smith got on to the train. I got on too, to go with her, and the Chaplain, who is abominably strong, put his arms round my waist and pulled me off.
I have never ceased to wish that I had hung on to that train.
On our way back to the E.s’ house we met the Commandant and told him what had happened. I said I thought it was the worst thing that had happened yet. It wasn’t the smallest consolation when he said it was the most sensible solution.
And when Mrs. —— for fifteen consecutive seconds took the view that I had decoyed Miss Ashley-Smith out on to that accursed road in order to send her to Ghent, and deliberately persuaded her to go back to the “Flandria” instead of me, for fifteen consecutive seconds I believed that this diabolical thing was what I had actually done.
Mrs. ——’s indignation never blazes away for more than fifteen seconds; but while the conflagration lasts it is terrific. And on circumstantial evidence the case was black against me. When last seen, Miss Ashley-Smith was entirely willing to be saved. She goes out for a walk with me along a quiet country road, and the next thing you hear is that she has gone back to Ghent. And since, actually and really, it was my obsession that had passed into her, I felt that if I had taken Miss Ashley-Smith down that road and murdered her in a dyke my responsibility wouldn’t have been a bit worse, if as bad.
And it seemed to me that all the people scattered among the blankets in that strange room, those that still lay snuggling down amiably in the warmth, and those that had started to their feet in dismay, and those that sat on chairs upright and apart, were hostile with a just and righteous hostility, that they had an intimate knowledge of my crime, and had risen up in abhorrence of the thing I was.
And somewhere, as if they were far off in some blessed place on the other side of this nightmare, I was aware of the merciful and pitiful faces of Mrs. Lambert and Janet McNeil.
Then, close beside me, there was a sudden heaving of the Chaplain’s broad shoulders as he faced the room.
And I heard him saying, in the same voice in which he had declared that he was going to hold Matins, that it wasn’t my fault at all—that it was he who had persuaded Miss Ashley-Smith to go back to Ghent.
The Chaplain has a moral nerve that never fails him.
Then Mrs. Torrence says that she is going back to protect Miss Ashley-Smith, and Ursula Dearmer says that she is going back to protect Mrs. Torrence, and somebody down in the blankets remarks that the thing was settled last night, and that all this going back is simply rotten.
I can only repeat that it is all my fault, and that therefore, if Mrs. Torrence goes back, nobody is going back with her but me.
And there can be no doubt that three motor ambulances, with possibly the entire Corps inside them, certainly with the five women and the Chaplain and the Commandant, would presently have been seen tearing along the road to Ghent, one in violent pursuit of the other, if we had not telephoned and received news of Miss Ashley-Smith’s safe arrival at the “Flandria,” and orders that no more women were to return to Ghent.
Among all the variously assorted anguish of that halt at Ecloo the figures and the behaviour of Mrs. E. and her husband and their children are beautiful to remember—their courtesy, their serenity, their gentle and absolving wonder that anybody should see anything in the least frightful or distressing, or even disconcerting and unusual, in the situation; the little girl who sat beside me, showing me her picture-book of animals, accepting gravely and earnestly all that you had to tell her about the ways of squirrels, of kangaroos and opossums, while we waited for the ambulance cars to take us to Bruges; the boy who ran after us as we went, and stood looking after us and waving to us in the lane; the aspect of that Flemish house and garden as we left them—there is no word that embraces all these things but beauty.
We stopped in the village to take up our wounded from the Convent. The nuns brought us through a long passage and across a little court to the refectory, which had been turned into a ward. Bowls steaming with the morning meal for the patients stood on narrow tables between the two rows of beds. Each bed was hung round and littered with haversacks, boots, rifles, bandoliers and uniforms bloody and begrimed. Except for the figures of the nuns and the aspect of its white-washed walls and its atmosphere of incorruptible peace, the place might have been a barracks or the dormitory in a night lodging, rather than a convent ward.
When we had found and dressed our men, we led them out as we had come. As we went we saw, framed through some open doorway, sunlight and vivid green, and the high walls and clipped alleys of the Convent garden.
Of all our sad contacts and separations, these leave-takings at the convents were the saddest. And it was not only that this place had the same poignant and unbearable beauty as the place we had just left, but its beauty was unique. You felt that if the friends you had just left were turned out of their house and garden to-morrow, they might still return some day. But here you saw a carefully guarded and fragile loveliness on the very eve of its dissolution. The place was fairly saturated with holiness, and the beauty of holiness was in the faces and in every gesture of the nuns. And you felt that they and their faces and their gestures were impermanent, that this highly specialized form of holiness had continued with difficulty until now, that it hung by a single thread to a world that had departed very far from it.
Yet, for the moment while you looked at it, it maintained itself in perfection.
We shall never know all that the War has annihilated. But for that moment of time while it lasted, the Convent at Ecloo annihilated the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, every century between now and the fifteenth. What you saw was a piece of life cut straight out of the Middle Ages. What you felt was the guarded and hidden beauty of the Middle Ages, the beauty of obedience, simplicity and chastity, of souls set apart and dedicated, the whole insoluble secret charm of the cloistered life. The very horror of the invasion that threatened it at this hour of the twentieth century was a horror of the Middle Ages.
But these devoted women did not seem aware of it. The little high-bred English nun who conducted us talked politely and placidly of England and of English things as of things remembered with a certain mortal affection but left behind without regret. It was as if she contemplated the eternal continuance of the Convent at Ecloo with no break in its divine tranquillity. One sister went so far as to express the hope that their Convent would be spared. It was as if she were uttering some merely perfunctory piety. The rest, without ceasing from their ministrations, looked up at us and smiled.
On the way up to Bruges we passed whole regiments of the Belgian Army in retreat. They trooped along in straggling disorder, their rifles at trail; behind them the standard-bearers trudged, carrying the standard furled and covered with black. The speed of our cars as we overtook them was more insufferable than ever.
We thought that the Belgian Army would be quartered in Bruges, and that we should find a hospital there and serve the Army from that base.
We took our wounded to the Convent, and set out to find quarters for ourselves in the town. We had orders to meet at the Convent again at a certain hour.
Most of the Corps were being put up at the Convent. The rest of us had to look for rooms.
In the search I got separated from the Corps, and wandered about the streets of Bruges with much interest and a sense of great intimacy and leisure. By the time I had found a pension in a narrow street behind the market-place, I felt it to be quite certain that we should stay in Bruges at least as long as we had stayed in Ghent, and what moments I could spare from the obsession of Ghent I spent in contemplating the Belfry. Very soon it was time to go back to the Convent. The way to the Convent was through many tortuous streets, but I was going in the right direction, accompanied by a kind Flamand and her husband, when at the turn by the canal bridge I was nearly run over by one of our own ambulance cars. It was Bert’s car, and he was driving with fury and perturbation away from the Convent and towards the town. Janet McNeil was with him. They stopped to tell me that we had orders to clear out of Bruges. The Germans had taken Ghent and were coming on to Bruges. We had orders to go on to Ostend.
We found the rest of the cars drawn up in a street near the Convent. We had not been two hours in Bruges, and we left it, if anything, quicker than we had come in. The flat land fairly dropped away before our speed. I sat on the back step of the leading car, and I shall never forget the look of those ambulances, three in a line, as they came into sight scooting round the turns on the road to Ostend.
Besides the wounded we had brought from Ghent, we took with us three footsore Tommies whom we had picked up in Bruges. They had had a long march. The stoutest, biggest and most robust of these three fainted just as we drew up in the courtyard of the Kursaal at Ostend.
The Kursaal had been taken by some English and American women and turned into a Hospital. It was filled already to overflowing, but they found room for our wounded for the night. Ostend was to be evacuated in the morning. In fact, we were considered to be running things rather fine by staying here instead of going on straight to Dunkirk. It was supposed that if the Germans were not yet in Bruges they might be there any minute.
But we had had so many premature orders to clear out, and the Germans had always been hours behind time, and we judged it a safe risk. Besides, there were forty-seven Belgian wounded in Bruges, and three of our ambulance cars were going back to fetch them.
There was some agitation as to who would and who wouldn’t be allowed to go back to Bruges. The Commandant was at first inclined to reject his Secretary as unfit. But if you take him the right way he is fairly tractable, and I managed to convince him that nothing but going back to Bruges could make up for my failure to go back to Ghent. He earned my everlasting gratitude by giving me leave. As for Mrs. Torrence, she had no difficulty. She was obviously competent.
Then, just as I was congratulating myself that the shame of Ecloo was to be wiped out (to say nothing of that ignominious overthrow at Melle), there occurred a contretemps that made our ambulance conspicuous among the many ambulances in the courtyard of the Hospital.
We had reckoned without the mistimed chivalry of our chauffeurs.
They had all, even Tom, been quite pathetically kind and gentle during and ever since the flight from Ghent. (I remember poor Newlands coming up with his bottle of formamint just as we were preparing to leave Ecloo.) It never occurred to us that there was anything ominous in this mood.
Mrs. Torrence and I were just going to get into (I think) Newlands’ car, when we were aware of Newlands standing fixed on the steps of the Hospital, looking like Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in khaki, and flatly refusing to drive his car into Bruges, not only if we were in his car, but if one woman went with the expedition in any other car.
He stood there, very upright, on the steps of the Hospital, and rather pale, while the Commandant and Mrs. Torrence surged up to him in fury. The Commandant told him he would be sacked for insubordination, and Mrs. Torrence, in a wild flight of fancy, threatened to expose him “in the papers.”
But Newlands stood his ground. He was even more like Lord Kitchener than Tom. He simply could not get over the idea that women were to be protected. And to take the women into Bruges when the Germans were, for all we knew, in Bruges, was an impossibility to Newlands, as it would have been to Lord Kitchener. So he went on refusing to take his car into Bruges if one woman went with the expedition. In retort to a charge of cold feet, he intimated that he was ready to drive into any hell you pleased, provided he hadn’t got to take any women with him. He didn’t care if he was sacked. He didn’t care if Mrs. Torrence did report him in the papers. He wouldn’t drive his car into Bruges if one woman—
Here, in his utter disregard of all discipline, the likeness between Newlands and Lord Kitchener ends. Enough that he drove his car into Bruges on his own terms, and Mrs. Torrence and I were left behind.
The expedition to Bruges returned safely with the forty-seven Belgian wounded.
We found rooms in a large hotel on the Digue, overlooking the sea. Before evening I went round to the Hospital to see Miss Ashley-Smith’s three wounded men. The Kursaal is built in terraces and galleries going all round the front and side of it. I took the wrong turning round one of them and found myself in the doorway of an immense ward. From somewhere inside there came loud and lacerating screams, high-pitched but appallingly monotonous and without intervals. I thought it was a man in delirium; I even thought it might be poor Fisher, of whose attacks we had been warned. I went in.
I had barely got a yard inside the ward before a kind little rosy-faced English nurse ran up to me. I told her what I wanted.
She said, “You’d better go back. You won’t be able to stand it.”
Even then I didn’t take it in, and said I supposed the poor man was delirious.
She cried out, “No! No! He is having his leg taken off.”
They had run short of anæsthetics.
I don’t know what I must have looked like, but the little rosy-faced nurse grabbed me and said, “Come away. You’ll faint if you see it.”
And I went away. Somebody took me into the right ward, where I found Fisher and Williams and the other man. Fisher was none the worse for his journey, and Williams and the other man were very cheerful. Another English nurse, who must have had the tact of a heavenly angel, brought up a bowl of chicken broth and said I might feed Fisher if I liked. So I sat a little while there, feeding Fisher, and regretting for the hundredth time that I had not had the foresight to be trained as a nurse when I was young. Unfortunately, though I foresaw this war ten years ago, I had not foreseen it when I was young. I told the men I would come and see them early in the morning, and bring them some money, as I had promised Miss Ashley-Smith. I never saw them again.
Nothing happened quite as I had planned it.
To begin with, we had discovered as we lunched at Bruges that the funds remaining in the leather purse-belt were hardly enough to keep the Ambulance going for another week. And our hotel expenses at Ostend were reducing its term to a problematic three days. So it was more or less settled amongst us that somebody would have to go over to England the next day and return with funds, and that the supernumerary Secretary was, on the whole, the fittest person for the job.
I slept peaceably on this prospect of a usefulness that seemed to justify my existence at a moment when it most needed vindication.