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Chapter XX. Dunkirk: From My Journal

I wakened early this morning and went to church--a great empty place, very cold but with the red light of the sanctuary lamp burning before a shrine. There were perhaps a dozen people there when I went in. Before the Mater Dolorosa two women in black were praying with upturned eyes. At the foot of the Cross crouched the tragic figure of the Mother, with her dead Son in her arms. Before her were these other mothers, praying in the light of the thin burning candles. Far away, near the altar, seven women of the Society of the Holy Rosary were conducting a private service. They were market women, elderly, plain, raising to the altar faces full of faith and devotion, as they prayed for France and for their soldier-children.

Here and there was a soldier or a sailor on his knees on a low prie-dieu, his cap dangling loose in his hands. Unlike the women, the lips of these men seldom moved in prayer; they apparently gazed in wordless adoration at the shrine. Great and swelling thoughts were theirs, no doubt, kindled by that tiny red flame: thoughts too big for utterance or even for form. To go out and fight for France, to drive back the invaders, and, please God, to come back again--that was what their faces said.

Other people came in, mostly women, who gathered silently around the Mater Dolorosa. The great empty Cross; the woman and the dead Christ at the foot of it; the quiet, kneeling people before it; over all, as the services began, the silvery bell of the Mass; the bending backs of the priests before the altar; the sound of fresh, boyish voices singing in the choir--that is early morning service in the great Gothic church at Dunkirk.

Onto this drab and grey and grieving picture came the morning sunlight, through roof-high windows of red and yellow and of that warm violet that glows like a jewel. The candles paled in the growing light. A sailor near me gathered up his cap, which had fallen unheeded to the floor, and went softly out. The private service was over; the market women picked up their baskets and, bowing to the altar, followed the sailor. The great organ pleaded and cried out. I stole out. I was an intruder, gazing at the grief of a nation.

It was a transformed square that I walked through on my way back to the hotel. It was a market morning. All week long it had been crowded with motor ambulances, lorries, passing guns. Orderlies had held cavalry horses under the shadow of the statue in the centre. The fried-potato-seller's van had exuded an appetising odour of cooking, and had gathered round it crowds of marines in tam-o'-shanters with red woollen balls in the centre, Turcos in great bloomers, and the always-hungry French and Belgian troopers.

Now all was changed. The square had become a village filled with canvas houses, the striped red-and-white booths of the market people. War had given way to peace. For the clattering of accoutrements were substituted high pitched haggling, the cackling of geese in crates, the squawks of chickens tied by the leg. Little boys in pink-checked gingham aprons ran about or stood, feet apart, staring with frank curiosity at tall East Indians.

There were small and carefully cherished baskets of eggs and bundles of dead Belgian hares hung by the ears, but no other fresh meats. There was no fruit, no fancy bread. The vegetable sellers had only Brussels sprouts, turnips, beets and the small round potatoes of the country. For war has shorn the market of its gaiety. Food is scarce and high. The flower booths are offering country laces and finding no buyers. The fruit sellers have only shrivelled apples to sell.

Now, at a little after midday, the market is over. The canvas booths have been taken down, packed on small handcarts and trundled away; unsold merchandise is on its way back to the farm to wait for another week and another market. Already the market square has taken on its former martial appearance, and Dunkirk is at its midday meal of rabbit and Brussels sprouts.

Mary Roberts Rinehart