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   Chapter 2 ON THE WAY TO ANTWERP

A Woman's Experience in the Great War By Louise Mack Characters: 10289

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


A couple of days afterward, however, feeling thoroughly ashamed of having fled, and knowing that Ostend was now reinforced by English Marines, I gathered my courage together once more, and returned to Belgium.

This time, so that I should not run away again so easily, I took with me a suit-case, and a couple of trunks.

These trunks contained clothes enough to last a summer and a winter, the MS. of a novel-"Our Marriage," which had appeared serially, and all my chiffons.

In fact I took everything I had in my wardrobe. I thought it was the simplest thing to do. So it was. But it afterwards proved an equally simple way of losing all I had.

Getting back to Ostend, I left my luggage at the Maritime Hotel, and hurried to the railway station.

I had determined to go to Antwerp for the day and see if it would be possible to make my headquarters in that town.

"Pas de train!" said the ticket official.

"But why?"

"C'est la guerre!"

"Comment!"

"C'est la guerre, Madame!"

That was the answer one received to all one's queries in those days.

If you asked why the post had not come, or why the boat did not sail for England, or why your coffee was cold, or why your boots were not cleaned, or why your window was shut, or why the canary didn't sing,-you would always be sure to be told, "c'est la guerre!"

Next morning, however, the train condescended to start, and three hours after its proper time we steamed away from Ostend.

Slowly, painfully, through the hot summer day, our long, brown train went creeping towards Anvers!

Anvers!

The very name had grown into an emblem of hope in those sad days, when the Belgians were fleeing for their lives towards the safety of their great fortified city on the Scheldt.

Oh, to see them at every station, crushing in! In they crowd, and in they crowd, herding like dumb, driven cattle; and always the poor, white-faced women with their wide, innocent eyes, had babies in their arms, and little fair-haired Flemish children hanging to their skirts. Wherever we stopped, we found the platforms lined ten deep, and by the wildness with which these fugitives fought their way into the crowded carriages, one guessed at the pent-up terror in those poor hearts! They must, they must get into that train! You could see it was a matter of life and death with them. And soon every compartment was packed, and on we went through the stifling, blinding August day-onwards towards Antwerp.

But when a soldier came along, how eager everyone was to find a place for him! Not one of us but would gladly give up our seat to any soldat! We would lean from the windows, and shout out loudly, almost imploringly, "Here, soldat! Here!" And when two wounded men from Malines appeared, we performed absolute miracles of compression in that long, brown train. We squeezed ourselves to nothing, we stood in back rows on the seats, while front rows sat on our toes, and the passage between the seats was packed so closely that one could scarcely insert a pin, and still we squeezed ourselves, and still fresh passengers came clambering in, and so wonderful was the spirit of goodwill abroad in these desperate days in Belgium, that we kept on making room for them, even when there was absolutely no more room to make!

Then a soldier began talking, and how we listened.

Never did priest, or orator, get such a hearing as that little blue-coated Belgian, white with dust, clotted with blood and mud, his yellow beard weeks old on his young face, with his poor feet in their broken boots, the original blue and red of his coat blackened with smoke, and hardened with earth where he had slept among the beet-roots and potatoes at Malines.

He told us in a faint voice: "I often saw King Albert when I was fighting near Malines. Yes, he was there, our King! He was fighting too, I saw him many times, I was quite near him. Ah, he has a bravery and magnificence about him! I saw a shell exploding just a bare yard from where he was. Over and over again I saw his face, always calm and resolute. I hope all is well with him," he ended falteringly, "but in battle one knows nothing!"

"Yes, yes, all is well," answered a dozen voices. "King Albert is back at Antwerp, and safe with the Queen!"

A look of radiant happiness flashed over the poor fellow's face as he heard that.

Then he made us all laugh.

He said: "For two days I slept out in the fields, at first among the potatoes and the beet-roots. And then I came to the asparagus." He drew himself up a bit. "Savez-vous? The asparagus of Malines! It is the best asparagus in the world? C'est ?a! AND I SLEPT ON IT, ON THE MALINES ASPARAGUS!"

About noon that day we had arrived close to Ghent, when suddenly the train came to a standstill, and we were ordered to get out and told to wait on the platform.

"Two hours to wait!" the stationmaster told us.

The grey old city of Ghent, calm and massive among her monuments, looked as though war were a hundred miles away. The shops were all open. Business was being briskly done. Ladies were buying gloves and ribbons, old wide-bearded gentlemen were smokin

g their big cigars. Here and there was a Belgian officer. The shops were full of English papers.

I went into the Cathedral. It was Saturday morning, but great crowds of people, peasants, bourgeoisie and aristocracy, were there praying and telling their rosaries, and as I entered, a priest was finishing his sermon.

"Remember this, my children, remember this," said the little priest. "Only silence is great, the rest is weakness!"

It has often seemed to me since that those words hold the key-note to the Belgian character.

"Seul la silence est grande; la reste est faiblesse."

For never does one hear a Belgian complain!

At last, over the flat, green country, came a glimpse of Antwerp, a great city lying stretched out on the flat lands that border the river Scheldt.

From the train-windows one saw a bewildering mass of taxi-cabs all gathered together in the middle of the green fields at the city's outskirts, for all the taxi-cabs had been commandeered by the Government. And near them was a field covered with monoplanes and biplanes, a magnificent array of aircraft of every kind, with the sunlight glittering over them like silver; they were all ready there to chase the Zeppelin when it came over from Cologne, and in the air-field a ceaseless activity went on.

Slowly and painfully our train crept into Antwerp station. The pomp and spaciousness of this building, with its immense dome-like roof, was very striking. It was the second largest station in the world. And in those days it had need to be large, for the crowds that poured out of the trains were appalling. All the world seemed to be rushing into the fortified town. Soldiers were everywhere, and for the first time I saw men armed to the teeth, with bayonets drawn, looking stern and implacable, and I soon found it was a very terrible affair to get inside the city. I had to wait and wait in a dense crowd for quite an hour before I could get to the first line of Sentinels. Then I shewed my passport and papers, while two Belgian sentinels stood on each side of me, their bayonets horribly near my head.

Out in the flagged square I got a fiacre, and started off for a drive.

My first impression of Antwerp, as I drove through it that golden day, was something never, never to be forgotten.

As long as I live I shall see that great city, walled in all round with magnificent fortifications, standing ready for the siege. Along the curbstones armed guards were stationed, bayonets fixed, while dense crowds seethed up and down continually. In the golden sunlight thousands of banners were floating in the wind, enormous banners of a size such as I had never seen before, hanging out of these great, white stately houses along the avenues lined with acacias. There were banners fluttering out of the shops along the Chaussée de Malines, banners floating from the beautiful cathedral, banners, banners, everywhere. Hour after hour I drove, and everywhere there were banners, golden, red and black, floating on the breeze. It seemed to me that that black struck a curiously sombre note-almost a note of warning, and I confess that I did not quite like it, and I even thought to myself that if I were a Belgian, I would raise heaven and earth to have the black taken out of my national flag. Alas, one little dreamed, that golden summer day, of the tragic fate that lay in wait for Antwerp! In those days we all believed her utterly impregnable.

After a long drive, I drove to the Hotel Terminus to get a cup of tea and arrange for my stay.

It gave me a feeling of surprise to walk into a beautiful, palm-lined corridor, and see people sitting about drinking cool drinks and eating ices. There were high-spirited dauntless Belgian officers, in their picturesque uniforms, French and English business men, and a sprinkling of French and English War-Correspondents. A tall, charming grey-haired American lady with the Red Cross on her black chiffon sleeve was having tea with her husband, a grey-moustached American Army Doctor. These were Major and Mrs. Livingstone Seaman, a wealthy philanthropic American couple, who were devoting their lives and their substance to helping Red Cross work.

Suddenly a man came towards me.

"You don't remember me," he said. "You are from Australia! I met you fifteen years ago in Sydney."

It was a strange meeting that, of two Australians, who were destined later on to face such terrific odds in that city on the Scheldt.

"My orders are," Mr. Frank Fox told me as we chatted away, "to stick it out. Whatever happens, I've got to see it through for the Morning Post."

"And I'm going to see it through, too," I said.

"Oh no!" said Mr. Fox. "You'll have to go as soon as trouble threatens!"

"Shall I?" I thought.

But as he was a man and an Australian, I did not think it was worth while arguing the matter with him. Instead, we talked of Sydney, and old friends across the seas, the Blue mountains, and the Bush, and our poets and writers and painters and politicians, friends of long ago, forgetting for the moment that we were chatting as it were on the edge of a crater.

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