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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Red Cross Barge By Marie Belloc Lowndes Characters: 16269

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


At last the Herr Doktor got up from his chair. Unnoticed by the others, he slipped out into the cooler air outside. The courtyard, shaded by high horse chestnut trees, was now crowded with good-humoured German cavalry-men waiting, patiently enough, for the savoury meal which Madame Blanc and her two anxious-faced young daughters were engaged in preparing for them.

As the Herr Doktor walked quickly over to the other side of the quadrangle, the soldiers respectfully made way for him, and he stood, for a few moments unnoticed, on the threshold of the big kitchen of the Tournebride. To eyes already war-worn it was a pleasant sight.

To and fro in her low, arch-roofed, spacious domain, the landlady came and went, busily intent on her considerable task of feeding over a hundred men. There were huge copper cauldrons on the steel top of the fourneau, and Madame Blanc herself constantly stirred and inspected their contents. But when she became suddenly aware of the German doctor's presence at the kitchen door, she stayed her labours and came towards him.

Silently she waited, a stern look of heavy-hearted endurance on her face, for him to speak; and at last, in a French which was somewhat halting, he put the question he had come to ask, and on the answer to which, as he well knew, depended a good deal of the future comfort of his illustrious, tiresome patient, Prince Egon von Witgenstein. Was there a hospital in Valoise?

'There is no hospital in Valoise.' Madame Blanc's voice was very, very cold. But after a moment's pause she added: 'The nuns were chased away four years ago, and the Government have not yet decided what to do with their convent.'

As there came a look of disappointment on his mild face she went on, as if the words were being dragged from her reluctant lips: 'But M. le Médecin will find a Red Cross barge on the river.'

Madame Blanc's powerful, swarthy face was set and grim; she did not look as if she had ever smiled, or if she had, would ever smile again. Yet the man now standing opposite to her remembered that, when he had first arrived with his patient, she had shown a certain maternal interest in the inmate of the Red Cross motor ambulance which now stood in a corner of her large paved courtyard, also that within a few minutes of the peaceful assault of her inn she had herself cooked for the wounded officer a delicate little meal.

The Herr Doktor smiled conciliatingly, but she gave him no answering smile. Her heart was still too full of wrath, of surprise, of agonised, impotent rage, at the happenings of the last two hours.

A troop of the abhorred, dreaded Uhlans had suddenly appeared, clattering along the wide Route Nationale which followed the right bank of the river Marne. Without drawing rein they had ridden up the steep, central street of Valoise, and then they had turned straight into the courtyard of the Tournebride.

Madame Blanc had been amazed at the extent and particularity of the Prussians' knowledge of the town, and of her inn. Not only had they greeted her, with a strange mixture of joviality and sternness, by name, but the golden-haired, pink-cheeked commanding officer had actually alluded to the spécialité of the Tournebride-a certain chicken-liver omelette which Parisians motored out to enjoy on all fine Sundays from each May to each October! And then, perhaps because she had tacitly refused to fall in with his pleasant humour, the young Uhlan officer, after his first roughly jovial words, had suddenly threatened her with mysterious and terrible penalties if she disobeyed, in any one particular, his own and his comrades' confusing orders.

Yes, they had only arrived two hours ago, and yet already Madame Blanc hated these arrogant Uhlan officers with all the strength of her powerful, secretive French nature. Quite willingly, had she thought it would have served the slightest good purpose, would she have put a good dose of poison in the excellent soup they, in the company of the man now talking to her, had just eaten.

She also hated, but in an infinitely lesser degree, their men-those big, bearded, splendidly equipped soldiers clad in the grey-green cloth which her strong common sense had at once told her must be so far more serviceable, because blending with nature's colouring, than the bright blue and red uniforms of her own countrymen. But for the wounded youth, who now lay straight and still in the huge grey motor-car, bearing on its side a painted Red Cross which she could almost touch from where she stood at her low kitchen door, she felt a thrill of motherly pity and concern....

'A Red Cross barge on the river?' repeated the Herr Doktor doubtfully.

For a man who had never been in France before, and who had been taught French by a German who, in his turn, had never been in France save during the brief, glorious-and-ever-victorious-campaign of 1870, the Herr Doktor spoke very fair French. But while he spoke, and even more while he listened to Madame Blanc's quick, short utterances, he blamed himself severely for having wasted so much time on the English language. English was now never likely to be of much use to him, save perhaps during the coming Occupation of London. If only he had spent as much time and trouble over French as he had done over English, not only would it have been useful here and now, but it would have been invaluable a little later on-when he took up his quarters, as he hoped to do within the next two or three weeks, at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

'Yes,' said Madame Blanc, with a touch of irritation in her even, vibrating voice, 'as I have just had the honour of explaining to M. le Médecin, there is a Red Cross barge on our river. Mademoiselle Rouannès is there all day, from six in the morning till nine o'clock each night.'

'Is Mademoiselle'-he had not really caught the curious name, 'is she'-he hesitated for the right phrase-'is she a Sister of Compassion?'

'I have just told M. le Médecin that all our good sisters were chased away by the Government four years ago. Mademoiselle Rouannès is our doctor's daughter.'

And then, as the man standing before her uttered a quick guttural exclamation of relief, she added sharply, 'You cannot see Doctor Rouannès, for he is very ill-some say he is dying.' As again she saw a look of disappointment overcast his face, she added-'But his daughter is a very serious demoiselle. The wounded have every confidence in Mademoiselle Rouannès.'

'Thank you, Madame, I will now the barge of the Red Cross go and seek,' he said, and bowed courteously.

'It is just at the bottom of the hill, this side of the lock. But wait a minute-I can show you the exact place from the abreuvoir.'

She stepped across the threshold of her kitchen, and walked, with a good deal of simple dignity, through the groups of tall soldiers who stood at ease, contentedly smoking their big pipes under the chestnut-leaves canopy of her courtyard. They made way for her pleasantly enough-some even smiled the foolish, fond smile of the big man-child, for she reminded more than one of these burly giants of his own mother. But Madame Blanc gave no answering smile, as, gazing straight before her, she hurried on towards the high gilt gates of her domain-a domain which till a hundred years ago, and for more than a hundred years before that, had kennelled royal staghounds, and housed their huntsmen.

The Herr Doktor stopped for a moment to speak to a non-commissioned officer, a good fellow who came from his own town of Weimar. 'Keep an eye on the motor ambulance,' he muttered. 'You might, in fact, go and ask His Highness if he requires anything further just now. Tell him I have gone out to look for quiet quarters. It would be impossible to have the Prince here to-night; the house won't settle down for a long time.'

The other grinned, broadly. 'These are comfortable, greatly-to-be-commended quarters, nevertheless, Herr Doktor.' And the Herr Doktor, nodding, hastened after his guide.

He followed her through the wrought-iron gilt gates, now wreathed with white jessamine and orange-coloured

trumpet flowers, and so to the great open space which formed the apex, not only of the hill, but of the little town, of Valoise-sur-Marne.

A moment later they stood before the oval abreuvoir, a stone-rimmed pool at which the timid does sometimes came, even now, to quench their thirst at night.

For a few moments Madame Blanc gazed dumbly over the dear familiar scene, and the German surgeon respected her silence.

Lit by the afterglow of the setting August sun, the little town of Valoise lay spread before them ... a picturesque, gaily charming cluster of white, grey, and red roof-trees, full of the peaceful stateliness of aspect which is a distinguishing mark of so many of the old villages and towns set amid chestnut groves, and on river banks, within easy reach of Paris.

From the days of Henri IV, the Kings of France had possessed a favourite hunting lodge on the edge of the wooded uplands stretching behind the town, and though the Pavillon du Roi had been destroyed during the Revolution, the avenue of high forest trees which had once bounded the royal demesne still remained, faithful witness to a vanished glory, while a fragmentary survival of what had been a grandiose and splendid whole remained in the stone abreuvoir.

And yet, as following his companion's example, the Herr Doktor gazed over what was in truth a singularly pleasing and soothing scene, a sense of chill, even of discomfort, crept over his kindly heart.

Valoise looked, on this fine summer evening, as might look a place stricken with the plague. Some melancholy-looking dogs had been shut out of doors: they, and a few cats who leapt furtively out of their way, seemed the only living things in the town.

Why were the French civilian population so sullen? The great, generous-hearted, all-conquering German army did not war on children and women-not, that is, so long as these women and children behaved in a reasonable, civilised manner.

The Herr Doktor had already heard rumours of certain painful, frightening things which had had to be done, and which were still being done, in Belgium. But the French were a more civilised people than the Belgians-or so the cultured Max Keller had persuaded himself to believe. Further, the Germans had no real quarrel with the French, the foolish, impulsive, chivalrous French, who had allowed themselves to be dragged into a quarrel with which they had no concern, in order to support barbarous Russia and lawless, savage Servia!

Standing by the side of the sensible, clean housewife who had just served him so admirably cooked a meal, the Herr Doktor reflected complacently that very soon some sort of peace would be signed in Paris, after which the French and Germans, friends as they had never been before, would join together to break the might of the now decadent, nerveless, and treacherous English.

He would have liked to have expressed some of this comfortable, so-friendly-to-the-French feeling to the woman who now stood, her hands clenched together, as if absorbed in painful, far-away thoughts, by his side. But he knew that his French was too halting to convey these cultured-and-so-humane and German sentiments. He started slightly when Madame Blanc suddenly turned to him with the words, 'It is getting rather too dark to see the place clearly from here, but if M. le Médecin will go straight down to the river, and across the wall, he will see the Red Cross barge just in front of him.'

Before he had time to utter the words aloud, 'Very truly, Madame, do I thank you,' she had left his side, and was halfway across the Grande Place, on her way towards the Tournebride.

Feeling a little discomfited by her abrupt departure, the Herr Doktor stepped forward, and started walking briskly down the hill.

How pleasant it was to be alone-alone with his own exciting and, yes, glorious thoughts! The absence of solitude had been the thing which had tried Max Keller the most in this amazing-and-ever-victorious campaign. During the last three days he had found the conversation of Prince Egon's brother officers particularly wearing, as also very, very-he hardly knew what phrase to use even in his inmost mind, but at last he found it-very-lacking-in-culture-and-seriousness.

The Paris of which these Junkers talked incessantly was not the Paris to which he, the Herr Doktor, looked forward so eagerly, the Paris, for instance, of the Pasteur Institute, and of the Salpétrière. The Paris of these young officers-and he regretted indeed that it was so-was the Paris which, as every good German knew, so aroused the anger and contempt of God as to cause France to be once more crushed and humiliated to the dust. Of this Paris there existed a very fair imitation in what had been euphemistically called 'the night life of Berlin,' but Berlin, to the Herr Doktor at any rate, did not stand for his Fatherland as Paris stands for France.

So musing, so thankful for even a few moments of peace and solitude, the mildest of the conquerors of Valoise reached the bottom of the hill.

* * *

Across the paved Route Nationale was an avenue, or mall, of lime trees which formed a green wall between the road and the river. He crossed the street as he had been directed to do, and then, when actually under the dense arch formed by interlacing branches of green leaves, he uttered an exclamation of relief; for there before him, close to the entrance of the lock, and only to be reached by a narrow stone jetty, lay on the placid, slow-moving waters of the river a broad, white barge, on the side of which was painted a large Red Cross. The small, square, white curtained windows just above the dimpling water line were all open, and, set amidships, was a round porthole, on whose edge stood a pot of brilliant scarlet geraniums.

On the deck of the barge stood a woman. She wore the loose, unbecoming white overall which forms the only uniform of a French Red Cross nurse, and there was a red cross on her breast. From where he stood the German surgeon could see that she was young, straight, and lithe. The gleams of the sun, which was now resting, like a huge scarlet ball, on the horizon, lit up her fair hair, which was massed, in the French way, above her forehead. He saw her in profile, for she seemed to be gazing, through the waning light, down the river beyond the lock.

With a queer thrill at the heart the Herr Doktor told himself that so might Wagner have visioned his Elsa in war-time. Since the Herr Doktor had left Weimar, he had not seen a so awakening-to-the-better-feelings and pleasant-to-the-senses-of-man sight as was this French golden-haired girl.

Taking off his cap-for Max Keller was aware that Frenchwomen are curiously punctilious, and he did not wish her to suppose that a cultured German could be lacking in even unnecessary courtesy-he started walking along the narrow stone jetty.

And then, when at last he stood just opposite to the barge, and as suddenly the Red Cross nurse became aware of his presence, he saw a dreadful look of aversion and dread flash into her face and she turned and hastened away, down what he concluded must be a stairway leading to the interior of the barge.

For what seemed to him a considerable time the Herr Doktor stared at the now empty deck with a feeling of sharp exasperation and disappointment.

In the little town where had come that awful rush of wounded after the battle of Charleroi he had already been in contact with the French Red Cross. There had been several Frenchwomen-two countesses, so he had been told, and a duchess-middle-aged ladies who had treated him with suave, if distant, courtesy, and who had always deferred, most politely and sensibly, to his professional knowledge. In the same hastily improvised Feld-Lazaret there had also been three English nurses; them he had naturally disliked, the more so that they had a sharp, short way with them, and always seemed to disapprove of his methods-methods which, being German, were of course in every way superior-and-more-truly-scientific than anything likely to issue from the English Army Medical Service.

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