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Chapter VIII. The Night Raid on Dunkirk

I found that a room had been engaged for me at the Hotel des Arcades. It was a very large room looking out over the public square and the statue of Jean Bart. It was really a princely room. No wonder they showed it to me proudly, and charged it to me royally. It was an upholstered room. Even the doors were upholstered. And because it was upholstered and expensive and regal, it enjoyed the isolation of greatness. The other people in the hotel slept above or underneath.

There were times when I longed for neighbours, when I yearned for some one to occupy the other royal apartment next door. But except for a Russian prince who stayed two days, and who snored in Russian and kept two valets de chambre up all night in the hall outside my door polishing his boots and cleaning his uniform, I was always alone in that part of the hotel.

At my London hotel I had been lodged on the top floor, and twice in the night the hall porter had telephoned me to say that German Zeppelins were on their way to London. So I took care to find that in the Hotel des Arcades there were two stories and two layers of Belgian and French officers overhead.

I felt very comfortable--until the air raid. The two stories seemed absurd, inadequate. I would not have felt safe in the subcellar of the Woolworth Building.

There were no women in the hotel at that time, with the exception of a hysterical lady manager, who sat in a boxlike office on the lower floor, and two chambermaids. A boy made my bed and brought me hot water. For several weeks at intervals he knocked at the door twice a day and said: "Et wat." I always thought it was Flemish for "May I come in?" At last I discovered that he considered this the English for "hot water." The waiters in the cafe were too old to be sent to war, but I think the cook had gone. There was no cook. Some one put the food on the fire, but he was not a cook.

Dunkirk had been bombarded several times, I learned.

"They come in the morning," said my informant. "Every one is ordered off the streets. But they do little damage. One or two machines come and drop a bomb or two. That is all. Very few are killed."

I protested. I felt rather bitter about it. I expected trouble along the lines, I explained. I knew I would be quite calm when I was actually at the front, and when I had my nervous system prepared for trouble. But in Dunkirk I expected to rest and relax. I needed sleep after La Panne. I thought something should be done about it.

My informant shrugged his shoulders. He was English, and entirely fair.

"Dunkirk is a fortified town," he explained. "It is quite legitimate. But you may sleep to-night. The raids are always daylight ones."

So I commenced dinner calmly. I do not remember anything about that dinner. The memory of it has gone. I do recall looking about the dining room, and feeling a little odd and lonely, being the only woman. Then a gun boomed somewhere outside, and an alarm bell commenced to ring rapidly almost overhead. Instantly the officers in the room were on their feet, and every light went out.

The maitre d'hotel, Emil, groped his way to my table and struck a match.

"Aeroplanes!" he said.

There was much laughing and talking as the officers moved to the door. The heavy velvet curtains were drawn. Some one near the door lighted a candle.

"Where shall I go?" I asked.

Emil, unlike the officers, was evidently nervous.

"Madame is as safe here as anywhere," he said. "But if she wishes to join the others in the cellar--"

I wanted to go to the cellar or to crawl into the office safe. But I felt that, as the only woman and the only American about, I held the reputation of America and of my sex in my hands. The waiters had gone to the cellar. The officers had flocked to the cafe on the ground floor underneath. The alarm bell was still ringing. Over the candle, stuck in a saucer, Emil's face looked white and drawn.

"I shall stay here," I said. "And I shall have coffee."

The coffee was not bravado. I needed something hot.

The gun, which had ceased, began to fire again. And then suddenly, not far away, a bomb exploded. Even through the closed and curtained windows the noise was terrific. Emil placed my coffee before me with shaking hands, and disappeared.

Another crash, and another, both very close!

There is nothing that I know of more hideous than an aerial bombardment. It requires an entire mental readjustment. The sky, which has always symbolised peace, suddenly spells death. Bombardment by the big guns of an advancing army is not unexpected. There is time for flight, a chance, too, for a reprisal. But against these raiders of the sky there is nothing. One sits and waits. And no town is safe. One moment there is a peaceful village with war twenty, fifty miles away. The next minute hell breaks loose. Houses are destroyed. Sleeping children die in their cradles. The streets echo and reecho with the din of destruction. The reply of the anti-aircraft guns is feeble, and at night futile. There is no bustle of escape. The streets are empty and dead, and in each house people, family groups, noncombatants, folk who ask only the right to work and love and live, sit and wait with blanched faces.

More explosions, nearer still. They were trying for the Mairie, which was round the corner.

In the corridor outside the dining room a candle was lighted, and the English officer who had reassured me earlier in the evening came in.

"You need not be alarmed," he said cheerfully. "It is really nothing. But out in the corridor it is quite safe and not so lonely."

I went out. Two or three Belgian officers were there, gathered round a table on which was a candle stuck in a glass. They were having their after-dinner liqueurs and talking of many things. No one spoke of what was happening outside. I was given a corner, as being out of the draft.

The explosion were incessant now. With each one the landlady downstairs screamed. As they came closer, cries and French adjectives came up the staircase beside me in a nerve-destroying staccato of terror.

At nine-thirty, when the aeroplanes had been overhead for three-quarters of an hour, there came a period of silence. There were no more explosions.

"It is over," said one of the Belgian officers, smiling. "It is over, and madame lives!"

But it was not over.

I took advantage of the respite to do the forbidden thing and look out through one of the windows. The moon had come up and the square was flooded with light. All around were silent houses. No ray of light filtered through their closed and shuttered windows. The street lamps were out. Not an automobile was to be seen, not a hurrying human figure, not a dog. No night prowler disturbed that ghastly silence. The town lay dead under the clear and peaceful light of the moon. The white paving stones of the square gleamed, and in the centre, saturnine and defiant, stood uninjured the statue of Jean Bart, privateer and private of Dunkirk.

Crash again! It was not over. The attack commenced with redoubled fury. If sound were destructive the little town of Dunkirk would be off the map of Northern France to-day. Sixty-seven bombs were dropped in the hour or so that the Germans were overhead.

The bombardment continued. My feet were very cold, my head hot. The lady manager was silent; perhaps she had fainted. But Emil reappeared for a moment, his round white face protruding above the staircase well, to say that a Zeppelin was reported on the way.

Then at last silence, broken soon by the rumble of ambulances as they started on their quest for the dead and the wounded. And Emil was wrong. There was no Zeppelin. The night raid on Dunkirk was history.

The lights did not come on again. From that time on for several weeks Dunkirk lay at night in darkness. Houses showing a light were fined by the police. Automobiles were forbidden the use of lamps. One crept along the streets and the roads surrounding the town in a mysterious and nerve-racking blackness broken only by the shaded lanterns of the sentries as they stepped out with their sharp command to stop.

The result of the raid? It was largely moral, a part of that campaign of terrorisation which is so strangely a part of the German system, which has set its army to burning cities, to bombarding the unfortified coast towns of England, to shooting civilians in conquered Belgium, and which now sinks the pitiful vessels of small traders and fishermen in the submarine-infested waters of the British Channel. It gained no military advantage, was intended to gain no military advantage. Not a soldier died. The great stores of military supplies were not wrecked. The victims were, as usual, women and children. The houses destroyed were the small and peaceful houses of noncombatants. Only two men were killed. They were in a side street when the first bomb dropped, and they tried to find an unlocked door, an open house, anything for shelter. It was impossible. Built like all French towns, without arcades or sheltering archways, the flat facades of the closed and barricaded houses refused them sanctuary. The second bomb killed them both.

Through all that night after the bombardment I could hear each hour the call of the trumpet from the great overhanging tower, a double note at once thin and musical, that reported no enemy in sight in the sky and all well. From far away, at the gate in the wall, came the reply of the distant watchman's horn softened by distance.

"All well here also," it said.

Following the trumpets the soft-toned chimes of the church rang out a hymn that has chimed from the old tower every hour for generations, extolling and praising the Man of Peace.

The ambulances had finished their work. The dead lay with folded hands, surrounded by candles, the lights of faith. And under the fading moon the old city rested and watched.

Mary Roberts Rinehart