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Chapter XXII. The Women at the Front

It was commencing to rain outside. The rain beat on the windows and made even the reluctant fire seem cosy. Some one had had a box of candy sent from home. It was brought out and presented with a flourish.

"It is frightful, this life in the trenches!" said the young officer who passed it about.

Shortly afterward the party was increased. An orderly came in and announced that an Englishwoman, whose automobile had broken down, was standing on the bridge over the canal and asked to be admitted. She did not know the password and the sentry refused to let her pass by.

One of the officers went out and returned in a few moments with a small lady much wrapped in veils and extremely wet. She stood blinking in the doorway in the accustomed light. She was recognised at once as a well-known English novelist who is conducting a soup kitchen at a railroad station three miles behind the Belgian front.

"A car was to have picked me up," she said, "but I have walked and walked and it has not come. And I am so cold. Is that tea? And may I come to the fire?"

So they settled her comfortably, with her feet thrust out to the blaze, and gave her hot tea and plenty of bread and butter.

"It is like the Mad Hatter's tea party in Alice in Wonderland," said one of the officers gaily. "When any fresh person drops in we just move up one place."

The novelist sipped her tea and told me about her soup kitchen.

"It is so very hard to get things to put into the soup," she said. "Of course I have no car, and now with the new law that no women are to be allowed in military cars I hardly know what to do."

"Will you tell me just what you do?" I asked. So she told me, and later I saw her soup kitchen.

"Men come in from the front," she explained, "injured and without food. Often they have had nothing to eat for a long time. We make soup of whatever meat we can find and any vegetables, and as the hospital trains come in we carry it out to the men. They are so very grateful for it."

That was to be an exceptional afternoon at the naval air-station. For hardly had the novelist been settled with her tea when two very attractive but strangely attired young women came into the room. They nodded to the officers, whom they knew, and went at once to the business which had brought them.

"Can you lend us a car?" they asked. "Ours has gone off the road into the mud, and it looks as though it would never move again."

That was the beginning of a very strange evening, almost an extraordinary evening. For while the novelist was on her way back to peace these young women were on their way home.

And home to them was one room of a shattered house directly on the firing line.

Much has been said about women at the front. As far as I know at that time there were only two women absolutely at the front. Nurses as a rule are kept miles behind the line. Here and there a soup kitchen, like that just spoken of, has held its courageous place three or four miles back along the lines of communication.

I have said that they were extraordinarily dressed. Rather they were most practically dressed. Under khaki-coloured leather coats these two young women wore khaki riding breeches with puttees and flannel shirts. They had worn nothing else for six months. They wore knitted caps on their heads, for the weather was extremely cold, and mittens.

The fire was blazing high and we urged them to take off their outer wraps. For a reason which we did not understand at the time they refused. They sat with their leather coats buttoned to the throat, and coloured violently when urged to remove them.

"But what are you doing here?" said one of the officers. "What brings you so far from P----"

They said they had had an errand, and went on drinking tea.

"What sort of an errand?" a young lieutenant demanded.

They exchanged glances.

"Shopping," they said, and took more tea.

"Shopping, for what?" He was smilingly impertinent.

They hesitated. Then: "For mutton," one of them replied. Both looked relieved. Evidently the mutton was an inspiration. "We have found some mutton." They turned to me. "It is a real festival. You have no idea how long it is since we've had anything of the sort."

"Mutton!" cried the novelist, with frankly greedy eyes. "It makes wonderful soup! Where can I get it?"

They told her, and she stood up, tied on her seven veils and departed, rejoicing, in a car that had come for her.

When she was gone Colonel M---- turned to one of the young women.

"Now," he said, "out with it. What brings you both so far from your thriving and prosperous little community?"

The irony of that was lost on me until later, when I discovered that the said community was a destroyed town with the advance line of trenches running through it, and that they lived in the only two whole rooms in the place.

"Out with it," said the colonel, and scowled ferociously.

Driven into a corner they were obliged to confess. For three hours that afternoon they had stood in a freezing wind on a desolate field, while King Albert of Belgium decorated for bravery various officers and--themselves. The jealously fastened coats were thrown open. Gleaming on the breast of each young woman was the star of the Order of Leopold!

"But why did you not tell us?" the officers demanded.

"Because," was the retort, "you have never approved of us; you have always wanted us sent back to England. The whole British Army has objected to our being where we are."

"Much good the objecting has done!" grumbled the officers. But in their hearts they were very proud.

Originally there had been three in this valiant little group of young aristocrats who have proved as true as their brothers to the traditions of their race. The third one was the daughter of an earl. She, too, had been decorated. But she had gone to a little town near by a day or two before.

"But what do you do?" I asked one of these young women. She was drawing on her mittens ready to start for their car.

"Sick and sorry work," she said briefly. "You know the sort of thing. I wish you would come out and have dinner with us. There is to be mutton."

I accepted promptly, but it was the situation and not the mutton that appealed to me. It was arranged that they should go ahead and set things in motion for the meal, and that I should follow later.

At the door one of them turned and smiled at me.

"They are shelling the village," she said. "You don't mind, do you?"

"Not at all," I replied. And I meant it. For I was no longer so gun-shy as I had been earlier in the winter. I had got over turning pale at the slamming of a door. I was as terrified, perhaps, but my pride had come to my aid.

It was the English officers who disapproved so thoroughly who told me about them when they had gone.

"Of course they have no business there," they said. "It's a frightful responsibility to place on the men at that part of the line. But there's no question about the value of what they are doing, and if they want to stay they deserve to be allowed to. They go right into the trenches, and they take care of the wounded until the ambulances can come up at night. Wait until you see their house and you will understand why they got those medals."

And when I had seen their house and spent an evening with them I understood very well indeed.

We gathered round the fire; conversation was desultory. Muddy and weary young officers, who had been at the front all day, came in and warmed themselves for a moment before going up to their cold rooms. The owner of the broken wind shield arrived and was placated. Continuous relays of tea were coming and going. Colonel ----, who had been in an observation balloon most of the day, spoke of balloon sickness.

"I have been in balloons of one sort and another for twenty years," he said. "I never overcome the nausea. Very few airmen do."

I spoke to him about a recent night attack by German aviators.

"It is remarkable work," he commented warmly, "hazardous in the extreme; and if anything goes wrong they cannot see where they are coming down. Even when they alight in their own lines, landing safely is difficult. They are apt to wreck their machines."

The mention of German aeroplanes reminded one of the officers of an experience he had had just behind the firing line.

"I had been to the front," he said, "and a mile or so behind the line a German aeroplane overtook the automobile. He flew low, with the evident intention of dropping a bomb on us. The chauffeur, becoming excited, stalled the engine. At that moment the aviator dropped the first bomb, killing a sow and a litter of young pigs beside the car and breaking all the glass. Cranking failed to start the car. It was necessary, while the machine manoeuvred to get overhead again, to lift the hood of the engine, examine a spark-plug and then crank the car. He dropped a second bomb which fell behind the car and made a hole in the road. Then at last the engine started, and it took us a very short time to get out of that neighbourhood."

The car he spoke of was the car in which I had come out to the station. I could testify that something had broken the glass!

One of the officers had just received what he said were official percentages of casualties in killed, wounded and missing among the Allies, to the first of February.

The Belgian percentage was 66 2-3, the English 33 1-3 and the French 7. I have no idea how accurate the figures were, or his authority for them. He spoke of them as official. From casualties to hospitals and nurses was but a step. I spoke warmly of the work the nurses near the front were doing. But one officer disagreed with me, although in the main his views were not held by the others.

"The nurses at the base hospitals should be changed every three months," he said. "They get the worst cases there, in incredible conditions. After a time it tells on them. I've seen it in a number of cases. They grow calloused to suffering. That's the time to bring up a new lot."

I think he is wrong. I have seen many hospitals, many nurses. If there is a change in the nurses after a time, it is that, like the soldiers in the field, they develop a philosophy which carries them through their terrible days. "What must be, must be," say the men in the trenches. "What must be, must be," say the nurses in the hospital. And both save themselves from madness.

Mary Roberts Rinehart