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Chapter VII. The Story with an End

In its way that hospital at La Panne epitomised the whole tragedy of the great war. Here were women and children, innocent victims when the peaceful nearby market town of Furnes was being shelled; here was a telegraph operator who had stuck to his post under furious bombardment until both his legs were crushed. He had been decorated by the king for his bravery. Here were Belgian aristocrats without extra clothing or any money whatever, and women whose whole lives had been shielded from pain or discomfort. One of them, a young woman whose father is among the largest landowners in Belgium, is in charge of the villa where the uniforms of wounded soldiers are cleaned and made fit for use again. Over her white uniform she wore, in the bitter wind, a thin tan raincoat. We walked together along the beach. I protested.

"You are so thinly clad," I said. "Surely you do not go about like that always!"

She shrugged her shoulders.

"It is all I have," she said philosophically. "And I have no money--none. None of us has."

A titled Belgian woman with her daughter had just escaped from Brussels. She was very sad, for she had lost her only boy. But she smiled a little as she told me of their having nothing but what they wore, and that the night before they had built a fire in their room, washed their linen, and gone to bed, leaving it until morning to dry.

Across the full width of the hospital stretched the great drawing-room of the hotel, now a recreation place for convalescent soldiers. Here all day the phonograph played, the nurses off duty came in to write letters, the surgeons stopped on their busy rounds to speak to the men or to watch for a few minutes the ever-changing panorama of the beach, with its background of patrolling gunboats, its engineers on rest playing football, its occasional aeroplanes, carrying each two men--a pilot and an observer.

The men sat about. There were boys with the stringy beards of their twenty years. There were empty sleeves, many crutches, and some who must be led past the chairs and tables--who will always have to be led.

They were all cheerful. But now and then, when the bombardment became more insistent, some of them would raise their heads and listen, with the strained faces of those who see a hideous picture.

The young woman who could not buy a heavy coat showed me the villa adjoining the hospital, where the clothing of wounded soldiers is cared for. It is placed first in a fumigating plant in the basement and thoroughly sterilised. After that it is brushed of its encrusted mud and blood stains are taken out by soaking in cold water. It is then dried and thoroughly sunned. Then it is ready for the second floor.

Here tailors are constantly at work mending garments apparently unmendable, pressing, steaming, patching, sewing on buttons. The ragged uniforms come out of that big bare room clean and whole, ready to be tied up in new burlap bags, tagged, and placed in racks of fresh white cedar. There is no odour in this room, although innumerable old garments are stored in it.

In an adjoining room the rifles and swords of the injured men stand in racks, the old and unserviceable rifles with which Belgium was forced to equip so many of her soldiers side by side with the new and scientific German guns. Along the wall are officers' swords, and above them, on shelves, the haversacks of the common soldiers, laden with the things that comprise their whole comfort.

I examined one. How few the things were and how worn! And yet the haversack was heavy. As he started for the trenches, this soldier who was carried back, he had on his shoulders this haversack of hide tanned with the hair on. In it he had two pairs of extra socks, worn and ragged, a tattered and dirty undershirt, a photograph of his wife, rags for cleaning his gun, a part of a loaf of dry bread, the remnant of what had been a pair of gloves, now fingerless and stiff with rain and mud, a rosary, a pair of shoes that the woman of the photograph would have wept and prayed over, some extra cartridges and a piece of leather. Perhaps he meant to try to mend the shoes.

And here again I wish I could finish the story. I wish I could tell whether he lived or died--whether he carried that knapsack back to battle, or whether he died and its pitiful contents were divided among those of his comrades who were even more needy than he had been. But the veil lifts for a moment and drops again.

Two incidents stand out with distinctness from those first days in La Panne, when, thrust with amazing rapidity into the midst of war, my mind was a chaos of interest, bewilderment and despair.

One is of an old abbe, talking earnestly to a young Belgian noblewoman who had recently escaped from Brussels with only the clothing she wore.

The abbe was round of face and benevolent. I had met him before, at Calais, where he had posed me in front of a statue and taken my picture. His enthusiasm over photography was contagious. He had made a dark room from a closet in an old convent, and he owned a little American camera. With this carefully placed on a tripod and covered with a black cloth, he posed me carefully, making numerous excursions under the cloth. In that cold courtyard, under the marble figure of Joan of Arc, he was a warm and human and most alive figure, in his flat black shoes, his long black soutane with its woollen sash, his woollen muffler and spectacles, with the eternal cigarette, that is part and parcel of every Belgian, dangling loosely from his lower lip.

The surgeons and nurses who were watching the operation looked on with affectionate smiles. They loved him, this old priest, with his boyishness, his enthusiasms, his tiny camera, his cigarette, his beautiful faith. He has promised me the photograph and what he promises he fulfils. But perhaps it was a failure. I hope not. He would be so disappointed--and so would I.

So I was glad to meet him again at La Panne--glad and surprised, for he was fifty miles north of where we had met before. But the abbe was changed. He was without the smile, without the cigarette. And he was speaking beseechingly to the smiling young refugee. This is what he was saying:

"I am glad, daughter, to help you in every way that I can. I have bought for you in Calais everything that you requested. But I implore you, daughter, do not ask me to purchase any more ladies' underlinen. It is most embarrassing."

"But, father--"

"No underlinen," he repeated firmly. But it hurt him to refuse. One could see that. One imagined, too, that in his life of service there were few refusals. I left them still debating. The abbe's eyes were desperate but his posture firm. One felt that there would be no surrender.

Another picture, and I shall leave La Panne for a time.

I was preparing to go. A telephone message to General Melis, of the Belgian Army, had brought his car to take me to Dunkirk. I was about to leave the protection of the Belgian Red Cross and place myself in the care of the ministry of war. I did not know what the future would bring, and the few days at La Panne and the Ambulance Ocean had made friends for me there. Things move quickly in war time. The conventions with which we bind up our souls in ordinary life are cut away. La Panne was already familiar and friendly territory.

I went down the wide staircase. An ambulance had stopped and its burden was being carried in. The bearers rested the stretcher gently on the floor, and a nurse was immediately on her knees beside it.

"Shell!" she said.

The occupant was a boy of perhaps nineteen--a big boy. Some mother must have been very proud of him. He was fully conscious, and he looked up from his stained bandages with the same searching glance that now I have seen so often--the glance that would read its chances in the faces of those about. With his uninjured arm he threw back the blanket. His right arm was wounded, broken in two places, but not shattered.

"He'll do nicely," said the nurse. "A broken jaw and the arm."

His eyes were on me, so I bent over.

"The nurse says you will do nicely," I assured him. "It will take time, but you will be very comfortable here, and--"

The nurse had been making further investigation. Now she turned back the other end of the blanket His right leg had been torn off at the hip.

That story has an end; for that boy died.

The drive back to Dunkirk was a mad one. Afterward I learned to know that red-headed Flemish chauffeur, with his fiercely upcurled moustache and his contempt of death. Rather, perhaps, I learned to know his back. It was a reckless back. He wore a large army overcoat with a cape and a cap with a tassel. When he really got under way at anything from fifty miles an hour to the limit of the speedometer, which was ninety miles, the gilt tassel, which in the Belgian cap hangs over and touches the forehead, had a way of standing up; the cape overcoat blew out in the air, cutting off my vision and my last hope.

I regard that chauffeur as a menace on the high road. Certainly he is not a lady's chauffeur. He never will be. Once at night he took me--and the car--into an iron railroad gate, and bent the gate into a V. I was bent into the whole alphabet.

The car was a limousine. After that one cold ride from Calais to La Panne I was always in a limousine--always, of course, where a car could go at all. There may be other writers who have been equally fortunate, but most of the stories are of frightful hardships. I was not always comfortable. I was frequently in danger. But to and from the front I rode soft and warm and comfortable. Often I had a bottle of hot coffee and sandwiches. Except for the two carbines strapped to the speedometer, except for the soldier-chauffeur and the orderly who sat together outside, except for the eternal consulting of maps and showing of passes, I might have been making a pleasure tour of the towns of Northern France and Belgium. In fact, I have toured abroad during times of peace and have been less comfortable.

I do not speak Flemish, so I could not ask the chauffeur to desist, slow down, or let me out to walk. I could only sit tight as the machine flew round corners, elbowed transports, and threw a warning shriek to armoured cars. I wondered what would happen if we skidded into a wagon filled with high explosives. I tried to remember the conditions of my war insurance policy at Lloyd's. Also I recalled the unpleasant habit the sentries have of firing through the back of any car that passes them.

I need not have worried. Except that once we killed a brown chicken, and that another time we almost skidded into the canal, the journey was uneventful, almost calm. One thing cheered me--all the other machines were going as fast as mine. A car that eased up its pace would be rammed from behind probably. I am like the English--I prefer a charge to a rearguard engagement.

My pass took me into Dunkirk.

It was dusk by that time. I felt rather lost and alone. I figured out what time it was at home. I wished some one would speak English. And I hated being regarded as a spy every mile or so, and depending on a slip of paper as my testimonial of respectability. The people I knew were lunching about that time, or getting ready for bridge or the matinee. I wondered what would happen to me if the pass blew out of the orderly's hands and was lost in the canal.

The chauffeur had been instructed to take me to the Mairie a great dark building of stone halls and stairways, of sentries everywhere, of elaborate officers and much ceremony. But soon, in a great hall of the old building piled high with army supplies, I was talking to General Melis, and my troubles were over. A kindly and courteous gentleman, he put me at my ease at once. More than that, he spoke some English. He had received letters from England about me, and had telegraphed that he would meet me at Calais. He had, indeed, taken the time out of his busy day to go himself to Calais, thirty miles by motor, to meet me.

I was aghast. "The boat went to Boulogne," I explained. "I had no idea, of course, that you would be there."

"Now that you are here," he said, "it is all right. But--exactly what can I do for you?"

So I told him. He listened attentively. A very fine and gallant soldier he was, sitting in that great room in the imposing uniform of his rank; a busy man, taking a little time out of his crowded day to see an American woman who had come a long way alone to see this tragedy that had overtaken his country. Orderlies and officers came and went; the Mairie was a hive of seething activities. But he listened patiently.

"Where do you want to go?" he asked when I had finished.

"I should like to stay here, if I may. And from here, of course, I should like to get to the front."

"Where?"

"Can I get to Ypres?"

"It is not very safe."

I proclaimed instantly and loudly that I was as brave as a lion; that I did not know fear. He smiled. But when the interview was over it was arranged that I should have a permis de sejour to stay in Dunkirk, and that on the following day the general himself and one of his officers having an errand in that direction would take me to Ypres.

That night the town of Dunkirk was bombarded by some eighteen German aeroplanes.

Mary Roberts Rinehart