A stump of candle in the neck of a bottle flickered once or twice and threatened to go out. Getting up, Stephen found a fresh candle and lit it, then she returned to her packing-case upon which had been placed the remnants of a chair minus its legs and arms.
The room had once been the much prized salon of a large and prosperous villa in Compiegne, but now the glass was gone from its windows; there remained only battered and splintered shutters which creaked eerily in the bitter wind of a March night in 1918. The walls of the salon had fared little better than its windows, their brocade was detached and hanging, while a recent rainstorm had lashed through the roof making ugly splotches on the delicate fabric — a dark stain on the ceiling was perpetually dripping. The remnants of what had once been a home, little broken tables, an old photograph in a tarnished frame, a child’s wooden horse, added to the infinite desolation of this villa that now housed the Breakspeare Unit — a Unit composed of Englishwomen, that had been serving in France just over six months, attached to the French Army Ambulance Corps.
The place seemed full of grotesquely large shadows cast by figures that sat or sprawled on the floor. Miss Peel in her Jaeger sleeping-bag snored loudly, then choked because of her cold. Miss Delmé-Howard was gravely engaged upon making the best of a difficult toilet — she was brushing out her magnificent hair which gleamed in the light of the candle. Miss Bless was sewing a button on her tunic; Miss Thurloe was peering at a half-finished letter; but most of the women who were herded together in this, the safest place in the villa and none too safe at that be it said, were apparently sleeping quite soundly. An uncanny stillness had descended on the town; after many hours of intensive bombardment, the Germans were having a breathing-space before training their batteries once more upon Compiegne.
Stephen stared down at the girl who lay curled up at her feet in an army blanket. The girl slept the sleep of complete exhaustion, breathing heavily with her head on her arm; her pale and rather triangular face was that of someone who was still very young, not much more than nineteen or twenty. The pallor of her skin was accentuated by the short black lashes which curled back abruptly, by the black arched eyebrows and dark brown hair — sleek hair which grew to a peak on the forehead, and had recently been bobbed for the sake of convenience. For the rest her nose was slightly tip-tilted, and her mouth resolute considering her youth; the lips were well-modelled and fine in texture, having deeply indented corners. For more than a minute Stephen considered the immature figure of Mary Llewellyn. This latest recruit to the Breakspeare Unit had joined it only five weeks ago, replacing a member who was suffering from shell-shock. Mrs. Breakspeare had shaken her head over Mary, but in these harassed days of the German offensive she could not afford to remain shorthanded, so in spite of many misgivings she had kept her.
Still shaking her head she had said to Stephen: ‘Needs must when the Bodies get busy, Miss Gordon! Have an eye to her, will your She may stick it all right, but between you and me I very much doubt it. You might try her out as your second driver.’ And so far Mary Llewellyn had stuck it.
Stephen looked away again, dosing her eyes, and after a while forgot about Mary. The events that had preceded her own coming to France began to pass through her brain in procession. Her chief in The London Ambulance Column, through whom she had first met Mrs. Claude Breakspeare — a good sort, the chief, she had been a staunch friend. The great news that she, Stephen, had been accepted and would go to the front as an ambulance driver. Then Puddle’s grave face: ‘I must write to your mother, this means that you will be in real danger.’ Her mother’s brief letter: ‘Before you leave I should very much like you to come and see me,’ the rest of the letter mere polite empty phrases. The impulse to resist, the longing to go, culminating in that hurried visit to Morton. Morton so changed and yet so changeless. Changed because of those blue-clad figures, the lame, the halt and the partially blinded who had sought its peace and its kindly protection. Changeless because that protection and peace belonged to the very spirit of Morton. Mrs. Williams a widow; her niece melancholic ever since the groom Jim had been wounded and missing — they had married while he had been home on leave, and quite soon the poor soul was expecting a baby. Williams now dead of his third and last stroke, after having survived pneumonia. The swan called Peter no longer gliding across the lake on his white reflection, and in his stead an unmannerly offspring who struck out with his wings and tried to bite Stephen. The family vault where her father lay buried — the vault was in urgent need of repair —’ No men left, Miss Stephen, we’re that short of stonemasons; her ladyship’s bin complainin’ already, but it don’t be no use complainin’ these times.’ Raftery’s grave a slab of rough granite: ‘In memory of a gentle and courageous friend, whose name was Raftery, after the poet.’ Moss on the granite half effacing the words; the thick hedge growing wild for the want of clipping. And her mother — a woman with snow-white hair and a face that was worn almost down to the spirit; a woman of quiet but uncertain movements, with a new trick of twisting the rings on her fingers. ‘It was good of you to come.’ ‘You sent for me, Mother.’ Long silences filled with the realization that all they dared hope for was peace between them — too late to go back — they could not retrace their steps even though there was now peace between them. Then those last poignant moments in the study together — memory, the old room was haunted by it — a man dying with love in his eyes that was deathless — a woman holding him in her arms, speaking the words such as lovers will speak to each other. Memory — they’re the one perfect thing about me. Stephen, promise to write when you’re out in France, I shall want to hear from you.’ ‘I promise, Mother.’ The return to London; Puddle’s anxious voice: ‘Well, how was she?’ ‘Very frail, you must go to Morton.’ Puddle’s sudden and almost fierce rebellion: ‘I would rather not go, I’ve made my choice, Stephen.’ ‘But I ask this for my sake. I’m worried about her — even if I weren’t going away, I couldn’t go back now and live at Morton — our living together would make us remember.’ ‘I remember, too, Stephen, and what I remember is hard to forgive. It’s hard to forgive an injury done to someone one loves . . . ’ Puddle’s face, very white, very stern — strange to hear such words as these on the kind lips of Puddle. ‘I know, I know, but she’s terribly alone, and I can’t forget that my father loved her.’ A long silence, and then: ‘I’ve never yet failed you — and you’re right — I must go to Morton.’
Stephen’s thoughts stopped abruptly. Someone had come in and was stumping down the room in squeaky trench boots. It was Blakeney holding the time-sheet in her hand — funny old monosyllabic Blakeney, with her curly white hair cropped as close as an Uhlan’s, and her face that suggested a sensitive monkey.
‘Service, Gordon; wake the kid! Howard — Thurloe —— ready?’ They got up and hustled into their trench coats, found their gas masks and finally put on their helmets.
Then Stephen shook Mary Llewellyn very gently: ‘It’s time.’ Mary opened her clear, grey eyes: ‘Who? What?’ she stammered. ‘It’s time. Get up, Mary.’
The girl staggered to her feet, still stupid with fatigue. Through the cracks in the shutters the dawn showed faintly.
The grey of a bitter, starved-looking morning. The town like a mortally wounded creature, torn by shells, gashed open by bombs. Dead streets — streets of death — death in streets and their houses; yet people still able to sleep and still sleeping.
‘How far is the Poste?’
‘I think about thirty kilometres; why?’
‘Oh, nothing — I only wondered.’
The long stretch of an open country road. On either side of the road wire netting hung with pieces of crudely painted rag — a camouflage to represent leaves. A road bordered by rag leaves on tall wire hedges. Every few yards or so a deep shell-hole.
‘Are they following, Mary? Is Howard all right?’
The girl glanced back: ‘Yes, it’s all right, she’s coming.’
They drove on in silence for a couple of miles. The morning was terribly cold; Mary shivered. ‘What’s that?’ It was rather a foolish question for she knew what it was, knew only too well!
‘They’re at it again,’ Stephen muttered.
A shell burst in a paddock, uprooting some trees. ‘All right, Mary?’
‘Yes — look out! We’re coming to a crater!’ They skimmed it by less than an inch and dashed on, Mary suddenly moving nearer to Stephen.
‘Don’t joggle my arm, for the Lord’s sake, child!’
‘Did I? I’m sorry.’
Yes — don’t do it again,’ and once more they drove forward in silence. Farther down the road they were blocked by a farm cart: ‘Militaires! Militaires! Militaires!’ Stephen shouted.
Rather languidly the farmer got down and went to the heads of his thin, stumbling horses. ‘Il faut vivre,’ he explained, as he pointed to the cart, which appeared to be full of potatoes.
In a field on the right worked three very old women; they were hoeing with a diligent and fatalistic patience. At any moment a stray shell might burst and then, presto! little left of the very old women. But what will you? There is war — there has been war so long — one must eat, even under the noses of the Germans; the bon Dieu knows this. He alone can protect — so meanwhile one just goes on diligently hoeing. A blackbird was singing to himself in a tree, the tree was horribly maimed and blasted; all the same he had known it the previous spring and so now, in spite of its wounds, he had found it. Came a sudden lull when they heard him distinctly.
And Mary saw him: ‘Look,’ she said, ‘there’s a blackbird!’ Just for a moment she forgot about war.
Yet Stephen could now very seldom forget, and this was because of the girl at her side. A queer, tight feeling would come round her heart, she would know the fear that can go hand in hand with personal courage, the fear for another.
But now she looked down for a moment and smiled: ‘Bless that blackbird for letting you see him, Mary.’ She knew that Mary loved little wild birds, that indeed she loved all the humbler creatures.
They turned into a lane and were comparatively safe, but the roar of the guns had grown much more insistent. They must be nearing the Poste de Secours, so they spoke very little because of those guns, and after a while because of the wounded.
The Poste de Secours was a ruined auberge at the crossroads, about fifty yards behind the trenches. From what had once been its spacious cellar, they were hurriedly carrying up the wounded, maimed and mangled creatures who, a few hours ago, had been young and vigorous men. None too gently the stretchers were lowered to the ground beside the two waiting ambulances — none too gently because there were so many of them, and because there must come a time in all wars when custom stales even compassion.
The wounded were patient and fatalistic, like the very old women back in the field. The only difference between them being that the men had themselves become as a field laid bare to a ruthless and bloody hoeing. Some of them had not even a blanket to protect them from the biting cold of the wind. A Poilu with a mighty wound in the belly, must lie with the blood congealing on the bandage. Next to him lay a man with his face half blown away, who, God alone knew why, remained conscious. The abdominal case was the first to be handled, Stephen herself helped to lift his stretcher. He was probably dying, but he did not complain inasmuch as he wanted his mother. The voice that emerged from his coarse, bearded throat was the voice of a child demanding its mother. The man with the terrible face tried to speak, but when he did so the sound was not human. His bandage had slipped a little to one side, so that Stephen must step between him and Mary, and hastily readjust the bandage.
‘Get back to the ambulance! I shall want you to drive.’ In silence Mary obeyed her.
And now began the first of those endless journeys from the Poste de Secours to the Field Hospital. For twenty-four hours they would ply back and forth with their light Ford ambulances. Driving quickly because the lives of the wounded might depend on their speed, yet with every nerve taut to avoid, as far as might be, the jarring of the hazardous roads full of ruts and shell-holes.
The man with the shattered face started again, they could hear him above the throb of the motor. For a moment they stopped while Stephen listened, but his lips were not there . . . an intolerable sound.
‘Faster, drive faster, Mary!’
Pale, but with firmly set, resolute mouth, Mary Llewellyn drove faster.
When at last they reached the Field Hospital, the bearded Poilu with the wound in his belly was lying very placidly on his stretcher; his hairy chin pointing slightly upward. He had ceased to speak as a little child — perhaps, after all, he had found his mother.
The day went on and the sun shone out brightly, dazzling the tired eyes of the drivers. Dusk fell, and the roads grew treacherous and vague. Night came — they dared not risk having lights, so that they must just stare and stare into the darkness. In the distance the sky turned ominously red, some stray shells might well have set fire to a village, that tall column of flame was probably the church; and the Roches were punishing Compiegne again, to judge from the heavy sounds of bombardment. Yet by now there was nothing real in the world but that thick and almost impenetrable darkness, and the ache of the eyes that must stare and stare, and the dreadful, patient pain of the wounded — there had never been anything else in the world but black night shot through with the pain of the wounded.
On the following morning the two ambulances crept back to their base at the villa in Compiegne. It had been a tough job, long hours of strain, and to make matters worse the reliefs had been late, one of them having had a breakdown. Moving stiffly, and with red rimmed and watering eyes, the four women swallowed large cups of coffee; then just as they were they lay down on the floor, wrapped in their trench coats and army blankets. In less than a quarter of an hour they slept. Though the villa shook and rocked with the bombardment.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55