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The Cellar House of Pervyse - Chapter 4 - The Retreat
written by Out of battle on the 15th October 2018 at 15:13

'The Cellar-House of Pervyse'

A Tale of Uncommon Things from The Journals and Letters of the Baroness t'Serclaes and Mairi Chisholm

A Story of Two British Volunteer Nurses on the Yser Front

Chapter IV - The Retreat

But Ghent did not long remain a refuge; well before the middle of the month earnest warnings to evacuate it were given. The way in which the final summons came was dramatic. Mairi was in bed, sleeping with her usual heart-whole earnestness, when she was awakened suddenly, and saw standing by her one of the doctors attached to the ambulance, telling her the Germans were upon them and they must fly. Then followed a scramble. The first thing was to save the wounded soldiers, who must not be left to fall into the hands of the foe. Alas! the order had come through the day before that all the kits belonging to these men were to be sent to Ostend as a measure of precaution. One of those "decisions in blinkers" which cause such infinite suffering. The patients were mostly in thin cotton pyjamas; the night was foggy and bitterly cold; the only conveyance was an open transport waggon with a scanty layer of straw on the boards. Gipsy and Mairi rummaged for all the blankets they could find, and wrapped the poor fellows up in them; but it must have been a terrible journey for many of them. They were drawn by horses, and could only go at a walking pace on account of the direful roads, the quantity of traffic already occupying them, and the darkness of the night. And they had to cover fifty miles to gain safety! When they were finally sent off the members of the corps had to think of themselves.

There was none too much room in the cars, and they had to pack in like sardines. As Gipsy had been sitting up with a wounded officer when the summons came, and since then, having been occupied with the soldiers, had not been able to change the cotton hospital dress she happened to be wearing, she suffered frightfully from the cold. The cars crawled along to Eccloo, where they stopped at the house of an Englishwoman, a friend of Dr. Munro's. Although this lady and her husband were themselves preparing to fly, they received the rather forlorn party with the utmost kindness, and spread abundance of blankets on the floor of the drawing-room, where they made up a-roaring fire. There they all waited till daybreak. A strangely assorted party they were, lying about in all directions, some on the window-seats, some on the floor, and the two chauffeurs betrayed their qualifications by falling sound asleep with their mouths open, sitting bolt upright on two stiff-backed chairs, a feat that filled some of the others with admiration.

After breakfast next morning they all followed the wounded, and reached Bruges in time to get them into the convent hospital by midday. The stiff cold men had been unpacked, and fed, and laid in comfortable beds, and were beginning to recover a little from their awful night, when like a thunderbolt came the news that the Germans had entered Ghent at seven that morning, and that twelve thousand of them, ruthless men, without pity or consideration for the fallen, were hastening forward to Bruges; so all the poor tired soldiers had to be carried down again, and sent onward once more. It was heart-rending work.

This time the objective was Ostend, and along that poplar-lined road, which had seemed so peaceful when they ran the other way in high hopes about three weeks ago, back the Munro ambulance people went with heavy hearts. The nearer they drew to Ostend, the greater grew the crush. It seemed as if the whole population of Belgium must be converging on the port, the last link of the chain which England held. Hospital ambulances, troops, refugees, guns, transport, carts, were surging together and every now and then jammed. There was much cursing and swearing in a variety of tongues. In the town, streets, shops, houses, were packed with people; it seemed as if they must all be welded into a jelly, and unable to extricate themselves until the Germans arrived. The mental harassment of seeing to the wounded added tenfold to the strain on those responsible, and the relief was great when, at last, they were got on to a boat going across to England, which carried no less than seven thousand wounded men!

With the lifting of this terrible load the personal troubles of the ambulance were by no means ended, only now they had time to think of themselves. So desperate was the situation considered that no baggage was allowed to be taken off the cars. Still in her cotton dress, now soiled and crushed in a way to depress the heart of the most careless of women, Gipsy had to pass another night; and all night long consciousness was beating at the back of her half-awake brain that any moment the summons to continue the weary flight might sound. Rumours flew fast. The advance of the Germans was at a terrible pace. They would be here before morning! Already they were here! Their numbers swelled to hundreds of thousands— all was over! Though the worst of these forebodings proved untrue, yet the situation was bad enough. The work seemed smashed across the middle, past possibility of recovery, and there was a horrid knell of defeat to deaden and depress energies already heavily overtaxed.
That evening in Ostend, Mairi came across an elderly man in civilian clothes, much too small for him, standing at a street-corner, with tears running down his cheeks. She remembered having noticed him a few hours earlier in a garde civique uniform, and greeting him in the informal way that necessity teaches, she learnt his tale of woe. It was poured out on her in a flood of mingled French and Flemish, in that half-whimsical, half-serious way that told her he was sorely hurt; and as her French had already improved, she gathered the gist of it even before she was helped out by a Cockney Tommy who stood beside him.

' 'E sys, lydy, that orders is froo for 'em to put off of them clothes; he ain't a soldier, and them Boches, if they cetch 'im, why, they'll 'eng him I seen 'im done it. 'E's pitched 'em in the sea, all them noo clothes. Gord! I wish I had had 'em on a Sunday morning in the East End! I'd 'ev got more'n a quid for 'em! 'E's right-down sore, 'e is, pore old blighter! And thet's what 'tis all about. Na, I not speak his lingo—for why? 'Tain't necessary; I can understand these chaps wifout, and that's for why."
Mairi left them with a mingled feeling of laughing and crying; it seemed so preposterous that the great stout citizen who had given up his spare time and trained in peace should now have this awful humiliation forced upon him, the knowledge that he was only a play- soldier and no use at all. To be held in disdain; to be forced, by his own action in throwing away his beloved uniform, to confess it was all make-believe and no use when real war came—this was worse than being wounded. And there were hundreds of his kind doing the same thing. In Ghent the canals were choked with the heavy coats and belts flung away at the fierce threat of a shameful and ignominious end. It seemed, after all, as if the plight of the Gardes Civiques was more pitiable than that of the ambulance corps.

By nine the next morning a greatly swelled procession was marshalled out of the town on the road to Dunkirk; everyone had to keep in position and go at one pace, which was necessarily a crawl. There were about three hundred and fifty cars in the line, including those of two Belgian Generals and others belonging to Ministers. Most depressing of all was the news—which turned out after all to be untrue—that the Diplomats accredited to Belgium had gone to England. That horrible morning left its mark on the Two. Each hour, spun to extremity by the tension within, had upon them the effect of three in power of exhaustion, and yet they really got to Dunkirk not much after midday. Here again was the inextricable confusion, the crush and push. In contemplating war one looks at it usually in the light of history, when events are clear-cut and told with precision. Of the horrible uncertainties, the dubious outlook, the impossibility of reliable information, the difficulty of correct judgment on the spot, only those who are in the midst of it are aware.

Even at Dunkirk there was no room; men were sleeping on the billiard-tables in the hotels. So the two friends went out to a little bathing-place on the coast called Malo-les-Bains. But they were now in Belgium no longer, and the feeling that they had been forced to leave the country they had come to help weighed heavily on them. "I think I never felt so truly miserable," says Gipsy, "as the moment when we passed the frontier line between Belgium and France. I have left my heart behind me in that brave, honest little country. I shall always think of Belgium as the first country in the world for bravery, honesty, chivalry, and patriotism, and it will be my fervent prayer that they may some day get their country back again. There is something about Belgium that no other country has. I think my heart will always feel more Belgian than British in future"—which embodied an unconscious prophecy.

It was probably the first time Malo-les-Bains had ever had any visitors so late in October, and it must have been puzzled and overwhelmed by this strange honour. Inexpressibly dreary was Malo, with its long level plage and straight sea-line, seen through a curtain of steadily pouring rain. The rows of empty bathing-sheds faced the sea like sentry-boxes, and the little, cold, inadequate fringes of foam crept hesitatingly to their doors as if they hardly knew what to make of it all. There were still a few fishing-boats about, and a few men shrimping, mostly very old men, who "must eat."

The whole of this place was transformed by war, and the overflow from Dunkirk more than sufficed to overcrowd it as it had never been overcrowded in its gayest season. It was here that the party were joined by the authoress, the late Miss Macnaughtan, who afterwards established a soup-kitchen in Furnes, and did excellent work there at the railway-station among the hungry and bewildered soldiers.

Malo was crammed with troops. There were the British with the strong unmistakable Manchester accent of self-confidence; the French in their heavy and clumsy-looking overcoats; Senegalese shivering and wilted by a climate which spoilt the delightful game of war; and, of course, plenty of Belgians. Now and again a Taube hovered overhead, fiercely hawk-like, and got well shot at; and once a British aeroplane descended hurriedly, emitting sulphurous language, because it had been unrecognized and included in the too cordial welcome. At night all lights were out save the great searchlights which, like the Flaming Swords of the Angel of Eden, pierced the flatness of the forsaken sands.

On October 20 began what resulted in the tremendous fight for Ypres, when the Germans were thrust back, and those who had thought Belgium all lost took heart again. The mixed population on the coast thinned down again. Those who had given up heart went on further into France, the soldiers were moved, the refugees absorbed elsewhere. The place in these circumstances looked more dreary than ever, and, to add to their woes, the friends had a personal grief.

Gilbert was missing—Gilbert, who had so endeared himself to the corps that they felt for him as for a lifelong friend. They had seen nothing of him after the hasty summons to leave Ghent, and they greatly feared he had fallen, and was lost in the great swathes of the nameless and unburied. Dr. Munro had gone over to England to get help to start the work anew, and Mairi and Gipsy spent the few uncertain days at Malo wandering about, walking into Dunkirk on the pretence of shopping, and trying to make the best of the contradictory news that filtered in. One day they suddenly saw a familiar green uniform on a straight, slim young figure, with the head held proudly and lightly as ever. There was no mistaking that gait and that gay insouciance; even before they had caught a glimpse of his face they had flown toward him with outstretched hands. Gilbert laughed and seemed pleased at their solicitude. Oh, he was all right. He had stayed with his regiment to hold up the German vanguard and allow time for the evacuation of Ghent; but he had got off all right, scot-free not even a wound. "You won't have the pleasure of nursing me; I believe you're really disappointed," he chaffed in his quick French, and Mairi's shrewd eyes saw the tender, quizzical look he gave her friend. Instantly it darted into her mind that there was something behind all this. Gipsy's white face and worried, preoccupied manner had not been only for a surface friend. Mairi was clever beyond her years, and a loyal little soul; she led the way to the sea-shore, indicating the road back to Malo, and then quietly absented herself, and they did not miss her!

As she turned rather sadly by herself to go back into the town she was hailed by one of the British naval officers she knew. He caught sight of her at once, for the streets were comparatively empty; every kind of vehicle had been requisitioned for the flight. There was a hideous, dead-alive look settling down on Dunkirk.

"Come along and have a joy-ride in the last taxi-cab left in Dunkirk," he cried out cheerily. "An experience to record!" She assented readily, feeling rather lost without her almost inseparable companion. Her mind, indeed, was busily at work as she sat there beside this clean frank boy, who looked like a Spaniard, so dark was his colouring. Of course, it was inevitable that Gipsy would marry again some time. She was so good-looking, so high-spirited, so charming, that many, many men would want to marry her; and oh, she did so love to be loved! Therein lay the danger! Was Gilbert good enough? After all, they knew very little about him. He was attractive enough personally, but he was not of their race. Mairi would, of course, never spoil sport; if Gipsy was glad to walk alone with him, walk alone with him she should Î If she wanted to marry him, marry him she must; only she could decide. But then she was impulsive, her enthusiasm could be caught at the high tide, and what if such a match were not for her happiness? In some ways Mairi often felt older than her friend. "The dear kid!" she said half aloud.

"The blue eyes are very clouded to-day," remarked Lieutenant N---, turning his own black ones on his companion.

He said it very nicely and not offensively, but Mairi sat up, on her dignity at once.

That sort of thing was all right for Gipsy, who had been married already and could put up with it; but as for her, she had other things to do than marry— at present, at all events. In the far future, of course, it would be all right, but when it came in her case it would be a very serious, for-ever-and-a-day business.

"Do you believe in mixed marriages?" she asked, refusing to respond to the personality.

"Depends what sort of 'mixed,' " the naval man replied briskly, making an opening for himself out of the most unpromising material, as is the way of the navy. "Old and young? Rich and poor? Fair and dark? Land and sea?" The last two very significantly, bending his own close-cropped, dark head down toward the girl's fair hair. "I believe in the last two all the time!"

Mairi looked at him quite candidly and fearlessly, without a trace of coquetry. "I haven't any use for that sort of thing," she announced simply; "I'm a Scot," and she wondered why he laughed so merrily.
Dr. Munro returned next day with the news that all was well, and that they were to have headquarters at Furnes, in Belgium, and continue the work. The party was to be reorganized, and M. de Broqueville, one of the sons of the Belgian War Minister, was to command one division of it. This was a great help, as naturally, with all the good-will in the world, an ambulance party, which has to go into the most secret places and which can't help poking into matters that must be kept secret, is on delicate ground when run entirely by another race, even though they be the closest of allies. This addition would put them on an unassailable footing. The British Field Hospital was also to be re-established at Furnes and work in connection with the corps.

Gilbert also was to be attached to the party, and was to drive one of the cars and take some sort of command.

Even in the three weeks that she had been with the corps Gipsy had already been dissatisfied with her own position; she felt that so much energy and usefulness was being run to waste for want of proper grip and organization. Nevertheless, she and Mairi knew one thing, for lack of which knowledge so many well-intentioned women fall by the way when they attempt to do hard public work. They knew how to wait. In all work of world importance there are dreary intervals of waiting, and, as Mairi said, "patience is necessary beyond everything." A great many women live on a kind of spurious excitement; they must be rushing from one thing to another, and if this stimulant fails them they collapse altogether. It is the woman who knows how to wait who can take the opportunity when it comes. Therefore, though the first start had not been auspicious, yet Gipsy was willing to wait, for with the additions to the party, and the knowledge born of experience, she was hopeful of better things for the future. It was a new start.

She and Mairi went through their clothes, and discovered that many things that had been considered absolute necessities on leaving were merely encumbrances; so they sent back to England all but the strictest minimum, or what they now considered so. They had passed one milestone on the way, but there were others ahead! Three of the ladies of the party were to work with the forward ambulances in future, collecting the wounded, and the other two, at first, were to remain at the hospital. Naturally there was great competition for the danger-line. Mrs. Knocker, it was unanimously acknowledged, must be a "forward" as, owing to her expert knowledge of cars, she was invaluable. "My driving was much more use than my nursing," she remarked, in speaking of these days; but there were difficulties in placing the rest of the party. It eventually fell to Mairi and the American lady to toss for the last place at the front, and Mairi, to her great joy, won.

Furnes is south of Nieuport, about a third of the way between it and Dunkirk, but further inland than either. It is not a coast town, and is a meeting-place for many canals. Like all these quiet old Belgian towns, it has a Grand Place, and to this day Furnes still embodies something of the restful Sunday-afternoon feeling which was a characteristic of so many of these little towns before they were rudely awakened out of their sleep to be mutilated and smashed. There are two great churches in the Place, and a beautiful Hôtel de Ville with a verandah or balcony in front.

In one corner of the Square are some quaint old Spanish houses with crow-stepped gables and red roofs, in contrast with the grey stone of the other buildings. As the cars rolled in on October 21 the red light of the autumn sun caught these roofs and showed up between the flying buttresses of St. Walburga. The little groups of soldiery standing about gave the impression of terriers with their ears pricked. They wore an air of expectancy; yet Dixmude was held, and while Dixmude remained Furnes was safe.

Year by year on the last Sunday in July the inhabitants of Furnes have turned out in holiday garb to watch, with mingled awe and excitement, the strange procession organized by the “Confrérie de la Sodalité". Weird men covered by dark brown robes which came over their heads like palls, leaving only two slits for their bright narrowed eyes to peep out, walked solemnly through the streets; they bent beneath burdens of heavy crosses, and their bare feet struck the uneven stones. Yes, and there were women too, thus disguised, doing penance for sins of which their own consciences accused them. They were followed by other oddly dressed characters, which seemed to the startled children, who kept one hand on their mother's gown, to have marched straight out of the Bible. There was Abraham flourishing the very sword with which he prepared to kill Isaac, and Aaron with his snaky rod. Then the hot grip relaxed a little, for there came next a real babe, one that they knew was like themselves. But the awe and the mystery gathered again as they saw Jesus crowned with thorns, stately though in agony, with the sharp points actually pressing into his flesh, and the same Christ bending beneath the cross. Then, as the evening darkened, and the serious mummers, doing their part with intense earnestness and solemnity, paraded round the Square, there appeared the Host, most mysterious of all, with flaming torches and shadowy figures beside it. All these sights were of the nature of a mystery-play, and were reverently carried out by the people themselves: they were not done for purposes of gain or to attract tourists, for very few tourists ever discovered Furnes. With this annual ceremony and the remembrance of the Inquisition in their midst, of which dread stories were whispered, while the very house where those awful torturers sat in conclave is still standing in their sight, the people of Furnes grew up with more of seriousness in their nature than their fellow-subjects.

And now reality had come upon them. What need any more to represent these things in mummery when the via crucis was on every high-road in Belgium; when strings of weary men and women, parched with thirst and nearly dead with fear, bowed beneath their loads, trudged solemnly along they knew not whither; when these very churches, so sacred and so grand, St. Walburga with its high steeple and St. Nicholas with its tall, blunt tower, were packed with dying and agonized men suffering from tortures as real as any dealt by the Inquisition? The remembrance of those garbed figures peeping through the slits in their hoods became almost friendly in comparison with the ruddy-faced, brutal German soldier in the hated grey-green uniform. When Furnes revives her Passion-play, it will seem a play indeed against the background of reality.

The convent close up against St. Nicholas is now a hospital, and it was into this courtyard that the cars of the ambulance party turned when they reached their destination. The battle of Dixmude had filled the little rooms with wounded, and even the reading-rooms and the chapel were requisitioned. The courtyard was crowded with the ambulances, and every ten minutes a fresh load of wounded was brought in.

No words can describe the horror of the scene that unrolled before them in the wards. There was so much to be done and so few to do it. The great influx of the wounded had swamped all attempts at order. Those who had just been attended to were lying side by side with the dead, and all the loathsome sights and smells of an operating-theatre were mingled with those of a charnel-house. Some men lay dying silently, the perspiration standing in beads on their foreheads as they gasped for each difficult breath that might be the last; others were hideous spectacles, with smashed faces or lack of limbs. They twisted and groaned in irrepressible agony, uttering low, heartrending moans that would not be suppressed. Valiantly the whole party of the new-comers set to work to separate the living from the dead, and carry out the bodies to the room set apart for them opposite.

"Twice we were called into the operating-room with our stretcher, and twice I received the full weight of a man off the operating-table. I supported the head-end of the stretcher, as I was the stronger," said Mairi. The doctors had not a second to lose, or life might be wasted; if a man died, he must be tumbled off hastily to make way for one for whom there might be a chance. The dead were laid out in rows together, some wrapped in winding-sheets; but here and there the uniformity of the still lines was broken by a homely, mud-stained uniform, just as if a soldier had lain down to sleep among them.

For five hours these noble women worked at this terrible task. As fast as the beds in the wards were emptied of their inert burdens they were re-occupied by others, for the ambulances brought in fresh cases continually, and it might be that the next man also died, and was in his turn carried out within the next few moments. Meantime, two small boys with a hand-cart were all the transport available for transferring the bodies from the ever-filling mortuary to the place of burial. The lads took hold of the stretcher, tilted it up a little, slid the dead man into the cart, and when they had as many bodies as they could manage they went off with their load. Thus the men who had stood up for honour and right against an overwhelming foe, who had preferred that their country might for a while be overrun in order that her soul might live for ever, were huddled into nameless graves.

There was no room in the already overflowing convent for any of the party to lodge, and so they were told to hunt up quarters for themselves anywhere in the town. Many of the houses were empty, as the inhabitants had fled. A Belgian gentleman who had lost everything he possessed by the war had attached himself to the ambulance corps as chauffeur, and when at last Gipsy and Mairi, feeling as if they had been bruised all over, body and soul, with the body-breaking and heartrending work, were free to think of themselves, they found him waiting.

"You will want somewhere to live; I can show you a house that belonged to my cousin," he said in French. "It has, at all events, a good pianola and is clean."

They followed him gratefully, for to start house-hunting in an unknown town at that hour of the night was a pastime that had no attractions to offer. When they reached the house, he gave them the key and told them to go in and take possession, and himself vanished.

It might have been one of those houses in Pompeii where everyone was eating and drinking and going on with their ordinary avocations when swift death descended on them from the sky. On the table in the dining-room was the horrible débris of what had been the last meal, scraps of food lying on the dirty plates where the dust had hardly had time to settle. Flowers still unwilted were in the vases, and the promised pianola was open. As the two tired women penetrated from one room to another they became very silent, and ceased to remark on the familiar evidences of life. It was as if the house were tenanted with ghosts; it was almost impossible to believe that these people who had lived and loved in that place were not there silently resenting the intrusion. The evacuation must have been in the night, for the beds had obviously been used, and the coverings were hastily flung aside as by those who rise in haste. In the largest bedroom, that of the lady of the house, clothes were lying about on chair-backs and on the floor—dainty delicate garments, in accordance with the dressing-table appointments, and the violet-scented sachet carelessly dropped among them. It was horrible to think of the occupant of that room as a homeless wanderer, possibly dependent on charity!

They could picture the scene. The scepticism as the tale of the oncoming Germans became more insistent; the refusal to go. "They will never come to Fumes," and then the cry ringing through the silence of the night: "Dixmude is fallen; the Germans are almost here." No matter whether the cry were true or false, it pierced like truth into those startled ears, and almost stopped the beating of the heart for an agonized second. Then the thoughts of husband and wife simultaneously leapt to the nursery. "The children!"

This was on the next storey, and the toys of the children proved their presence. They lay on the floor in a pathetic little row. Near the door were a furry bear, a doll without a head, and a cart. It was as if the little ones had snatched up their treasures, and had had them pulled away from them one by one by the frightened nurse. Would they ever return? And what would be their future, torn up by the roots like this? Lucky for them, indeed, if their parents clung tightly to them in that modern Exodus, for if not, it might be that those very children, whose soft little fingers had clung so determinedly to the beloved bear, might be hopelessly lost, as thousands of Belgian children have been, to be brought up in one great group, not knowing their own names or the names of their forbears, forlorn waifs, in spite of all that human kindness could do.

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