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The Cellar House of Pervyse - Chapter 6 - Gipsy and the Major
written by Out of battle on the 22nd October 2018 at 9:25

'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 VI - Gipsy and the Major

BY this time the resources of food at the hospital had run out—even porridge was not available—but fortunately one small butcher's shop in the town was discovered open, and at the back was a kind of little café where the workers could get something to eat. Through the streets of Fumes they went night by night in the pitch darkness, occasionally brightened by an odd gleam that seemed to come from nowhere until you were right on the top of it and looked down into a cellar opening off the pavement, where some of the few inhabitants who had not fled were crouching together talking in awestruck tones by the gleam of a candle or a few sticks. All lights were strictly suppressed of course, and at first, when there was still a certain amount of meat in the butcher's shop, they had to grope their way out, knocking their faces against the cold, still carcasses that hung suspended stiffly from their hooks.

As for the provender they got, Mairi remarks caustically of the soup: "One tomato in fifteen pints of water, but it was hot."

In desperation she and Gipsy at last descended to the cellars of the house they were in, and found some potatoes, jam, beer, and bottled waters, and carried them back for all to share alike. They had certainly earned their keep by the work they were doing for the Belgians.

Dixmude was being steadily shelled, and day by day they went on that long, dangerous road to bring in all the survivors they could. But the day's work was not unrelieved tragedy; a note of high comedy was struck the day Gipsy happened to be out in Oostkerke, about four miles west of Dixmude, just off the more direct and northerly road between that place and Furnes. She had made friends with a very odd-looking Belgian Major who, if he had been a little larger, would have done, without any making-up, for the figure of the giant in the old nursery tales, for he had a rubicund face, brilliant red hair, and a flaming moustache and bristly eyebrows of the same hue — therefore the word that fitly describes him is "scarlet." He was on observation duty. The only possible places in this flat country from which any extent of ground can be surveyed are the tall steeples of the churches, or, rather, perhaps they were the only places, for as both sides made the same discovery, and used them for the identical purpose whenever they came across them, they were naturally shelled persistently, and few indeed survive. The stout Major knew no English, but he was greatly impressed by this good- looking, fearless Englishwoman in her war-stained khaki suit, and so, with expressive gestures, he invited her to climb up the church steeple and see for herself where it was that he spent his days surveying. Gipsy never refused an offer like that, especially when the church tower might any moment be crumpled up by a shell. As Miss May Sinclair has said, "she had an irresistible inclination toward the greatest possible danger."

Up they climbed, and as they mounted each ladder became steeper and narrower than the last. When they gained the summit and peered out of the tiny observation hole, shells were bursting around in a way to satisfy the most ardent lover of danger! As they descended, in a very steep and narrow place, the Major stopped, completely barring the way, and drawing from his pocket a little crumpled French-English dictionary, laboriously turned the pages with his thick moistened thumb until he had found what he wanted. Then, looking up, he spluttered out: "Si je n'étais pas marié. Je voudrais dire, 'I luv you.' "

A sense of her own appalling loss must have made Gipsy nearly fall from her perch; it certainly required every bit of her self-control to enable her to keep her countenance and insist on his proceeding. But she had plenty of dignity, and the descent, perilous in more ways than one, was safely accomplished. They descended again, to find at the church door a sight which straightway sent the matter flying from her head. A French officer lay there with his foot in "a lovely mess." He had been scouting along the railway line which runs through Oostkerke, between Furnes and Dixmude, and a bullet had gone clean through his leg low down. He dropped on the ground to apply his first-aid bandage, and suddenly a "Black Maria" burst within ten yards of him, throwing earth all over his bleeding wound. He knew the great danger of the microbes in the soil getting into an open wound, and, having nothing else handy, he used the contents of his flask, which happened to be coffee, to wash it out. But as he told the story he was concerned, not with the pain of the wound, or with the terribly narrow escape he had had of his life, but with indignation that the shell should have dared to spatter him and make him waste his precious coffee! Such is human naturel He had dragged himself back to shelter with his mind full of this detestable outrage, and he poured it forth to a most sympathetic listener. Gipsy attended to him skilfully, and helped him into the little dug-out occupied by the Major. But directly she had entered it she was filled with anxiety to get out in a hurry; such a smell of stale tobacco, burnt fat, and other worse odours, permeated the place that it might be imagined even a shell would rebound harmlessly off the solidity of the atmosphere! However, nothing would satisfy the Major but that she must sit down and have a plate of soup. In whatever circumstances, soup did sound inviting on this bitter day to someone chronically under-fed and over-tired, so she assented.

A plate was promptly produced containing soup of a pale yellow colour, with a layer of grease about half an inch thick on the top. It was accompanied by a spoon which had most obviously been used to "sup soup" by someone else a very short time before. However, Gipsy philosophically remarks, "It looked a little cleaner when it had been in my soup!"

While she was struggling with the mess heroically, unwilling to hurt the feelings of her well-meaning host, his face lit as a happy thought struck him, and, fumbling in his pocket, he produced a little silver- paper pill, which he crushed between his fingers, burying it gaily and firmly in the midst of the plate of soup. The awful thought that it might be some sort of love-potion—nothing seemed too weird for belief in the strange life she now led—seized on Gipsy, and her quick mind visioned a sort of "Midsummer Night's Dream," with the Major in the part of Bottom! Seeing that he was delighted with his own performance, and totally unaware of the feelings he was arousing in her, even while she watched the soup grow darker under the influence of the pill, she nobly swallowed more of the nauseous compound. The taste assured her that the addition must have been some sort of Liebig, and the worst consequences would not result!

In came just then a doctor belonging to the corps, and he was straightway supplied with a similar plate; and as he looked at it wonderingly, and Gipsy thrust hers from her, having had all that human nature could endure, the little Major thereupon crowned his achievements by snatching at the spoon and picking up by its aid what was left of the silver pill—mainly paper by this time— and conveying it and the spoon together into the soup of the new-comer!

The second course of this appetizing meal was a stale and decrepit- looking piece of steak that had evidently won through with its life after a fierce assault by someone. This was too much; good intention carries far, but beyond a point flesh revolts. Gipsy shook her head as pleasantly as she could, but with a decision that was unmistakable, whereupon, the little man, dancing round her in the confined space, hauled out his precious dictionary, and after a mad hunt found the elusive words he was searching for, and with flaming face and eyes thrust them under her nose:

"I am stung to the quick!"

 Originally posted at

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