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A Woman's Experience in the Great War By Louise Mack Characters: 10536

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

I was coming back with my luggage from Ostend next day when the train, which had been running along at a beautiful speed, came to a standstill somewhere near Bruges.

There was a long wait, and at last it became evident that something was wrong.

A brilliant-looking Belgian General, accompanied by an equally brilliant Belgian Captain, who had travelled up in the train with me from Ostend, informed me courteously, that it was doubtful if the train would go on to-day.

"What has happened?" I asked.

"Les Allemands sont sur la ligne!" was the graphic answer.

With the Belgians' courteous assistance, I got down my suit-case, and a large brown paper parcel, for of course in those day, no one thought anything of a brown paper parcel; in fact it was quite the correct thing to be seen carrying one, no matter who you were, king, queen, general, prince, or War-Correspondent.

"Do you see that station over there?" Le Capitaine said. "Well, in a few hours' time, a train may start from there, and run to Antwerp But it will not arrive at the ordinary station. It will go as far as the river, and then we shall get on board a steamer, and cross the river, and shall arrive at Antwerp from the quay."

Picking up my suit-case he started off, with the old General beside him carrying my parasols, while I held my brown paper parcel firmly under one arm, and grasped my hand-bag with the other hand. I was just thinking to myself how nice it was to have a General and a Capitaine looking after me, when, to my supreme disgust, my brown paper parcel burst open, and there fell out an evening shoe. And such a shoe! It was a brilliant blue and equally brilliant silver, with a very high heel, and a big silver buckle. It was a shoe I loved, and I hadn't felt like leaving it behind. And now there it fell on the station, witness to a woman's vanity. However, the Belgian Captain was quite equal to the occasion. He picked it up, and presented it to me with a bow, and said, in unexpected English, "Yourra Sabbath shoe!"

It was good to have little incidents like that to brighten one's journey, for a very long and tedious time elapsed before we arrived at Antwerp that night. The crowded, suffocating train crawled along, and stopped half an hour indiscriminately every now and then, and we wondered if the Germans were out there in the flat fields to either side of us.

When we arrived at the Scheldt, I trudged wearily on to the big river steamboat, more dead than alive. The General was still carrying my parasols, and the Capitaine still clung to my suit-case, and at last we crossed the great blue Scheldt, and landed on the other side, where a row of armed sentinels presented their bayonets at us, and kept us a whole hour examining our passports before they would allow us to enter the city.

Thanks to the kindly General, I got a lift in a motor car, and was taken straight to the Hotel Terminus. I had eaten nothing since the morning. But the sleepy hotel night-porter told me it was impossible to get anything at that hour; everything was locked up; "C'est la guerre!" he said.

Well, he was right; it was indeed the War, and I didn't feel that I had any call to complain or make a fuss, so I wearily took the lift up to my bedroom on the fourth floor, and speedily fell asleep.

When I awoke, it was three o'clock in the morning, and a most terrific noise was going on.

It was pitch dark, darker than any words can say, up there in my bedroom, for we were forbidden lights for fear of Zeppelins.

All day long I had been travelling through Belgium, and all day long, it seemed to me, I had been turned out of one train into another, because "les Allemands" were on the line.

So, when the noise awoke me, I knew at once it was those Germans that I had been running away from all day long, between Ostend and Bruges, and Bruges and Ghent, and Ghent and Boom, and Antwerp.

I lay quite still.

"They're come at last," I thought. "This is the real thing."

Vaguely I wondered what to do.

The roar of cannon was enormous, and it seemed to be just outside my window.

And cracking and rapping through it, I heard the quick, incessant fire of musketry-crack, crack, crack, a beautiful, clean noise, like millions of forest boughs sharply breaking in strong men's hands.

Vaguely I listened.

And vaguely I tried to imagine how the Germans could have got inside Antwerp so quickly.

Then vaguely I got out of bed.

In the pitch blackness, so hot and stifling, I stood there trying to think, but my room seemed full of the roar of cannon, and I experienced a queer sensation as though I was losing consciousness in the sea, under the loud beat of waves.

"I mustn't turn up the light," I said to myself, "or they will see where I am! That's the one thing I mustn't do."

Again I tried to think what to do, and then suddenly I found myself listening, with a sub-consciousness of immense and utter content, to the wild outcry of those cannons and muskets, and I felt as if I must listen, and listen, and listen, till I knew the sounds by heart.

As for fear, there was none, not any at all, not a particle.

Instead, there was something curiously akin to rapture.

It seemed to me that the supreme satisfacti

on of having at last dropped clean away from all the make-believes of life, seized upon me, standing there in my nightgown in the pitch-black, airless room at Antwerp, a woman quite alone among strangers, with danger knocking at the gate of her world.

Make-believe! Make-believe! All life up to this minute seemed nothing else but make-believe. For only Death seemed real, and only Death seemed glorious.

All this took me about two minutes to think, and then I began to move about my room, stupidly, vaguely.

I seemed to bump up against the noise of the cannons at every step.

But I could not find the door, and I could not find a wrapper.

My hands went out into the darkness, grabbing, reaching.

But all the while I was listening with that deep, undisturbed content to the terrific fire that seemed to shake the earth and heaven to pieces.

All I could get hold of was the sheet and blankets.

I had arrived back at my bed again.

Well, I must turn away, I must look elsewhere.

And then I quietly and unexpectedly put out my hand and turned up the light in a fit of desperate defiance of the German brutes outside.

In a flash I saw my suit-case. It was locked. I saw my powder puff. I saw my bag. Then I put out the light and picked up my powder-puff, got to my bag, and fumbled for the keys, and opened my suit-case and dragged out a wrapper, but no slippers came under my fingers, and I wanted slippers in case of going out into the streets.

But by this time I had discovered that nothing matters at all, and I quietly turned up the light again, being by then a confirmed and age-old fatalist.

Standing in front of the looking-glass, I found myself slowly powdering my face.

Then the sound of people rushing along the corridor reached me, and I opened my door and went out.

"C'est une bataille! Ce sont les Allemands, n'est-ce-pas?" queried a poor old lady.

"Mais non, madame," shouts a dashing big aeronaut running by. "Ce n'est pas une bataille. C'est le Zeppelin!"

And so it was.

The Zeppelin had come, for the second time, to Antwerp! And the cannons and musketry were the onslaughts upon the monster by the Belgian soldiers, mad with rage at the impudent visit, and all ready with a hot reception for it.

Down the stairs I fled, snatched away now from those wonderful moments of reality, alone, with the noise of the cannons in the pitch-blackness of that stifling bedroom; down the great scarlet-carpeted stairs, until we all came to a full stop in the hotel lounge below.

One dim light, shaded half into darkness, revealed the silhouettes of tall, motionless green palms and white wicker chairs and scarlet carpets and little tables, and the strangest crowd in all the world.

The Zeppelin was sailing overhead just then, flinging the ghastliest of all ghastly deaths from her cages as she sped along her craven way across the skies, but that crowd in the foyer of the great Antwerp Hotel remained absolutely silent, absolutely calm.

There was a tiny boy from Liège, whose trembling pink feet peeped from the blankets in which he had been carried down.

There was a lovely heroic Liège lady whose gaiety and sweetness, and charming toilettes had been making "sunshine in a shady place" for us all in these dark days.

Everyone remembered afterwards how beautiful the little Liège lady looked with her great, black eyes, still sparkling, and long red-black hair falling over her shoulders, and a black wrapper flung over her white nightgown.

And her husband, a huge, fair-haired Belgian giant with exquisite manners and a little-boy lisp-a daring aviator-never seen except in a remarkable pair of bright yellow bags of trousers. His lisp was unaffected, and his blue eyes bright and blue as spring flowers, and his heart was iron-strong.

And there was Madame la Patronne, wrapped in a good many things; and an Englishman with a brown moustache, who must have had an automatic toilette, as he is here fully dressed, even to his scarf-pin, hat, boots and all; and some War-Correspondents, who always, have the incontestable air of having arranged the War from beginning to end, especially when they appear like this in their pyjamas; and a crowd of Belgian ladies and children, and all the maids and gar?ons, and the porters and the night-porters, and various strange old gentlemen in overcoats and bare legs, and strange old ladies with their heads tied, who will never be seen again (not to be recognised), and the cook from the lowest regions, and the chasseur who runs messages-there we all were, waiting while the Zeppelin sailed overhead, and the terrific crash and boom and crack and deafening detonations grew fainter and fainter as the Belgian soldiers fled along through the night in pursuit of the German dastard that was finally driven back to Cologne, having dashed many houses to bits.

Then the little "chass," who has run through the street-door away down the road, comes racing back breathless across the flagged stone courtyard.

"Oh, mais c'est chic, le Zepp," he cries enthusiastically, his young black eyes afire. "C'est tout à fait chic, vous savez!"

And if that's not truly Belge, I really don't know what is!

An Order from the Belgian War Office.

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