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Chapter XXXII. The Queen of the Belgians

On the third of August, 1914, the German Army crossed the frontier into Belgium. And on the following day, the fourth, King Albert made his now famous speech to the joint meeting of the Belgian Chamber and Senate. Come what might, the Belgian people would maintain the freedom that was their birthright.

"I have faith in our destinies," King Albert concluded. "A country which defends itself wins respect and cannot perish."

With these simple and dignified words Belgium took up the struggle. She was beaten before she began, and she knew it. No matter what the ultimate out-come of the war, she must lose. The havoc would be hers. The old battleground of Europe knew what war meant; no country in the world knew better. And, knowing, Belgium took up the burden.

To-day, Belgium is prostrate. That she lives, that she will rise again, no Belgian doubts. It may be after months--even after years; but never for a moment can there be any doubt of the national integrity. The Germans are in Belgium, but not of it. Belgium is still Belgium--not a part of the German Empire. Until the Germans are driven out she is waiting.

As I write this, one corner of her territory remains to her, a wedge-shaped piece, ten miles or so in width at the coast, narrowing to nothing at a point less than thirty miles inland. And in that tragic fragment there remains hardly an undestroyed town. Her revenues are gone, being collected as an indemnity, for God knows what, by the Germans. King Albert himself has been injured. The Queen of the Belgians has pawned her jewels. The royal children are refugees in England. Two-thirds of the army is gone. And, of even that tiny remaining corner, much is covered by the salt floods of the sea.

The King of the Belgians is often heard of. We hear of him at the head of his army, consulting his staff, reviewing his weary and decimated troops. We know his calibre now, both as man and soldier. He stands out as one of the truly heroic figures of the war.

But what of the Bavarian-born Queen of the Belgians? What of this royal woman who has lost the land of her nativity through the same war that has cost her the country of her adoption; who must see her husband go each day to the battle line; who must herself live under the shadow of hostile aeroplanes, within earshot of the enemy's guns? What was she thinking of during those fateful hours when, all night long, King Albert and his Ministers debated the course of Belgium--a shameful immunity, or a war? What does she think now, when, before the windows of her villa at La Panne, the ragged and weary remnant of the brave Belgian Army lines up for review? What does she hope for and pray for--this Queen without a country?

What she thinks we cannot know. What she hopes for we may guess--the end of war; the return of her faithful people to their homes; the reunion of families; that the guns will cease firing, so the long lines of ambulances will no longer fill the roads; that the wounded will recover; and that those that grieve may be comforted.

She has pawned her jewels. When I saw her she wore a thin gold chain round her neck, and on it a tiny gold heart. I believe she has sacrificed everything else. Royal jewels have been pawned before this--to support extravagant mistresses or to bolster a crumbling throne; but Elisabeth of Belgium has pawned her jewels to buy supplies for wounded soldiers. Battle-scarred old Belgium has not always had a clean slate; but certainly this act of a generous and devoted queen should mark off many scores.

The Queen is living at La Panne, a tiny fishing village and resort on the coast--an ugly village, robbed of quaintness by its rows of villas owned by summer visitors. The villas are red and yellow brick, built chateau fashion and set at random on the sand. Efforts at lawns have proved abortive. The encroaching dunes gradually cover the grass. Here and there are streets; and there is one main thoroughfare, along which is a tramway that formerly connected the town with other villages.

On one side the sea; on the other the dunes, with little shade and no beauty--such is the location of the new capital of Belgium. And here, in one of the six small villas that house the court, the King and Queen of Belgium, with the Crown Prince, are living. They live very quietly, walking together along the sands at those times when King Albert is not with his troops, faring simply, waiting always--as all Belgium is waiting to-day. Waiting for the end of this terrible time.

I asked a member of the royal household what they did during those long winter evenings, when the only sounds in the little village were the wash of the sea and the continual rumble of the artillery at Nieuport.

"What can we do?" he replied. "My wife and children are in Brussels. It is not possible to read, and it is not wise to think too much. We wait."

But waiting does not imply inaction. The members of His Majesty's household are all officers in the army. I saw only one gentleman in civilian dress, and he was the King's secretary, M. Ingenbleek. The King heads this activity, and the Queen of the Belgians is never idle. The Ocean Ambulance, the great Belgian base hospital, is under her active supervision, and its location near the royal villa makes it possible for her to visit it daily. She knows the wounded soldiers, who adore her. Indeed, she is frankly beloved by the army. Her appearance is always the signal for a demonstration; and again and again I saw copies of her photograph nailed up in sentry huts, in soldiers' billets, in battered buildings that were temporary headquarters for divisions of the army.

In return for this devotion the young Queen regards the welfare of the troops as her especial charge. She visits them when they are wounded, and many tales are told of her keen memory for their troubles. One, a wounded Frenchman, had lost his pipe when he was injured. As he recovered he mourned his pipe. Other pipes were offered, but they were not the same. There had been something about the curve of the stem of the old one, or the shape of the bowl--whatever it was, he missed it. And it had been his sole possession.

At last the Queen of the Belgians had him describe the old pipe exactly. I believe he made a drawing--and she secured a duplicate of it for him. He told me the story himself.

The Queen had wished to go to the trenches to see the wretchedness of conditions at the front, and to discover what she could do to ameliorate them. One excursion she had been permitted at the time I saw her, to the great anxiety of those who knew of the trip. She was quite fearless, and went into one of the trenches at the railroad embankment of Pervyse. I saw that trench afterward. It was proudly decorated with a sign that said: Repose de la Reine. And above the board was the plaster head of a saint, from one of the churches. Both sign and head, needless to say, were carefully protected from German bullets.

Everywhere I went I found evidences of devotion to this girlish and tender-hearted Queen. I was told of her farewell to the leading officials of the army and of the court, when, having remained to the last possible moment, King Albert insisted on her departure from Brussels. I was told of her incognito excursions across the dangerous Channel to see her children in England. I was told of her single-hearted devotion to the King; her belief in him; her confidence that he can do no wrong.

So, when a great and bearded individual, much given to bowing, presented himself at the door of my room in the hotel at Dunkirk, and extended to me a notification that the Queen of the Belgians would receive me the next day at the royal villa at La Panne, I was keenly expectant.

I went over my wardrobe. It was exceedingly limited and more than a little worn. Furs would cover some of the deficiencies, but there was a difficulty about shoe buttons. Dunkirk apparently laces its shoes. After a period of desperation, two top buttons were removed and sewed on lower down, where they would do the most good. That and much brushing was all that was possible, my total war equipment comprising one small suitcase, two large notebooks and a fountain pen.

I had been invited to lunch at a town on my way to La Panne, but the luncheon was deferred. When I passed through my would-be entertainer was eating bully beef out of a tin, with a cracker or two; and shells were falling inhospitably. Suddenly I was not hungry. I did not care for food. I did not care to stop to talk about food. It was a very small town, and there were bricks and glass and plaster in the streets. There were almost no people, and those who were there were hastily preparing for flight.

It was a wonderful Sunday afternoon, brilliantly sunny. A German aeroplane hung overhead and called the bull's-eyes. From the plain near they were firing at it, but the shells burst below. One could see how far they fell short by the clouds of smoke that hung suspended beneath it, floating like shadowy balloons.

I felt that the aeroplane had its eyes on my car. They drop darts--do the aeroplanes--two hundred and more at a time; small pencil-shaped arrows of steel, six inches long, extremely sharp and weighted at the point end. I did not want to die by a dart. I did not want to die by a shell. As a matter of fact, I did not want to die at all.

So the car went on; and, luncheonless, I met the Queen of the Belgians.

The royal villa at La Panne faces the sea. It is at the end of the village and the encroaching dunes have ruined what was meant to be a small lawn. The long grass that grows out of the sand is the only vegetation about it; and outside, half-buried in the dune, is a marble seat. A sentry box or two, and sentries with carbines pacing along the sand; the constant swish of the sea wind through the dead winter grass; the half-buried garden seat--that is what the Queen of the Belgians sees as she looks from the window of her villa.

The villa itself is small and ugly. The furnishing is the furnishing of a summer seaside cottage. The windows fit badly and rattle in the gale. In the long drawing room--really a living room--in which I waited for the Queen, a heavy red curtain had been hung across the lower part of the long French windows that face the sea, to keep out the draft. With that and an open coal fire the room was fairly comfortable.

As I waited I looked about. Rather a long room this, which has seen so many momentous discussions, so much tragedy and real grief. A chaotic room too; for, in addition to its typical villa furnishing of chintz-covered chairs and a sofa or two, an ordinary pine table by a side window was littered with papers.

On a centre table were books--H.G. Wells' "The War in the Air"; two American books written by correspondents who had witnessed the invasion of Belgium; and several newspapers. A hideous marble bust on a pedestal occupied a corner, and along a wall was a very small cottage piano. On the white marble mantel were a clock and two candlesticks. Except for a great basket of heather on a stand--a gift to Her Majesty---the room was evidently just as its previous owners had left it. A screen just inside the door, a rather worn rug on the floor, and a small brocade settee by the fireplace completed the furnishing.

The door opened and the Queen entered without ceremony. I had not seen her before. In her simple blue dress, with its white lawn collar and cuffs, she looked even more girlish than I had anticipated. Like Queen Mary of England, she had suffered from the camera. She is indeed strikingly beautiful, with lovely colouring and hair, and with very direct wide eyes, set far apart. She is small and slender, and moves quickly. She speaks beautiful English, in that softly inflected voice of the Continent which is the envy of all American women.

I bowed as she entered; and she shook hands with me at once and asked me to sit down. She sat on the sofa by the fireplace. Like the Queen of England, like King Albert, her first words were of gratitude to America.

It is not my intention to record here anything but the substance of my conversation with Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. Much that was said was the free and unrestricted speech of two women, talking over together a situation which was tragic to them both; for Queen Elisabeth allowed me to forget, as I think she had ceased to remember, her own exalted rank, in her anxiety for her people.

A devoted churchwoman, she grieved over the treatment accorded by the invading German Army to the priests and nuns of Belgium. She referred to her own Bavarian birth, and to the confidence both King Albert and she had always felt in the friendliness of Germany.

"I am a Bavarian," she said. "I have always, from my childhood, heard this talk that Germany must grow, must get to the sea. I thought it was just talk--a pleasantry!"

She had seen many of the diaries of German soldiers, had read them in the very room where we were sitting. She went quite white over the recollection and closed her eyes.

"It is the women and children!" she said. "It is terrible! There must be killing. That is war. But not this other thing."

And later on she said, in reference to German criticism of King Albert's course during the early days of the war:

"Any one who knows the King knows that he cannot do a wrong thing. It is impossible for him. He cannot go any way but straight."

And Queen Elisabeth was right. Any one who knows King Albert of Belgium knows that "he cannot go any way but straight."

The conversation shifted to the wounded soldiers and to the Queen's anxiety for them. I spoke of her hospital as being a remarkable one--practically under fire, but moving as smoothly as a great American institution, thousands of miles from danger. She had looked very sad, but at the mention of the Ocean Ambulance her face brightened. She spoke of its equipment; of the difficulty in securing supplies; of the new surgery, which has saved so many limbs from amputation. They were installing new and larger sterilisers, she said.

"Things are in as good condition as can be expected now," she said. "The next problem will come when we get back into our own country. What are the people to do? So many of the towns are gone; so many farms are razed!"

The Queen spoke of Brand Whitlock and praised highly his work in Brussels. From that to the relief work was only a step. I spoke of the interest America was taking in the relief work, and of the desire of so many American women to help.

"We are grateful for anything," she said. "The army seems to be as comfortable as is possible under the circumstances; but the people, of course, need everything."

Inevitably the conversation turned again to the treatment of the Belgian people by the Germans; to the unnecessary and brutal murders of noncombatants; to the frightful rapine and pillage of the early months of the war. Her Majesty could not understand the scepticism of America on this point. I suggested that it was difficult to say what any army would do when it found itself in a prostrate and conquered land.

"The Belgian Army would never have behaved so," said Her Majesty. "Nor the English; nor the French. Never!"

And the Queen of the Belgians is a German! True, she has suffered much. Perhaps she is embittered; but there was no bitterness in her voice that afternoon in the little villa at La Panne--only sadness and great sorrow and, with it, deep conviction. What Queen Elisabeth of Belgium says, she believes; and who should know better? There, to that house on the sea front, in the fragment of Belgium that remains, go all the hideous details that are war. She knows them all. King Albert is not a figure-head; he is the actual fighting head of his army. The murder of Belgium has been done before his very eyes.

In those long evenings when he has returned from headquarters; when he and Queen Elisabeth sit by the fire in the room that overlooks the sea; when every blast that shakes the windows reminds them both of that little army, two-thirds gone, shivering in the trenches only a mile or two away, or of their people beyond the dead line, suffering both deprivation and terror--what pictures do they see in the glowing coals?

It is not hard to know. Queen Elisabeth sees her children, and the puzzled, boyish faces of those who are going down to the darkness of death that another nation may find a place in the sun.

What King Albert sees may not all be written; but this is certain: Both these royal exiles--this Soldier-King who has won and deserved the admiration of the world; this Queen who refuses to leave her husband and her wounded, though day after day hostile aeroplanes are overhead and the roar of German guns is in her ears--these royal exiles live in hope and in deep conviction. They will return to Belgium. Their country will be theirs again. Their houses will be restored; their fields will be sown and yield harvest--not for Germany, but for Belgium. Belgium, as Belgium, will live again!

Mary Roberts Rinehart