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The Red Cross Barge By Marie Belloc Lowndes Characters: 16689

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

For some time, perhaps for as long as five minutes, the Herr Doktor stood on the stone jetty. He did not like to step down upon the barge and at once take possession of it, as it was his undoubted right, almost his duty, to do. Also, though in no way a coward, his nerve had been shaken by the terrible things he had seen, and by the long fatiguing hours of desperately hard work he had lately gone through. Horrible stories were whispered as to what the French were capable of doing to an unarmed enemy. The inside of this big, roomy barge might contain youths and old men armed with knives and scythes.... Perhaps his wisest course would be to go up the hill again, and, together with his patient, return with an armed escort who would deal in summary fashion with any evil-intentioned inmates of the Red Cross barge.

While he was thus hesitating, there suddenly floated towards him the stifled sounds of hurried whisperings. They were followed, a moment later, by the lady of the barge herself. But her fair hair was now almost entirely hidden by the severe, unbecoming head-dress of a French Red Cross nurse; and the hard white coif and flowing veil obscured the free, graceful, rather haughty poise of her head.

As at last she faced him squarely, he became painfully aware of the mingled terror and anger which made her face turn from white to red, and filled her blue eyes with a dreadful look of haunting fear.

The Herr Doktor was well read in the great Romantics of the world, and quite involuntarily he thought of Rebecca and a certain scene in 'Ivanhoe.'

Just behind the tall, slender figure, forming at once a guard and an escort to the Red Cross nurse, came a short, sturdy-looking, elderly woman, clad in a dark blue-and-white check gown, and an old man, dressed in a shabby black suit.

Stepping forward alone, Mademoiselle Rouannès stood close to the plank which connected the stone jetty with the barge, and while the Herr Doktor was trying to compose the right form of words, at once firm and conciliatory, with which to address her, she suddenly spoke.

'How many wounded have you?' she asked, in a low, clear voice. 'I must tell you, Monsieur, that we have not room for many here, for we already have eighteen.' As he remained silent, she went on, a little breathlessly, and he saw that her under-lip was quivering, 'We have one empty cabin, but it is not very large; it will not hold more than six.'

And then at last the Herr Doktor found the French words he wanted with which to answer and to reassure her.

'I have but one wounded man, gracious demoiselle. It is his Highness Prince Egon von Witgenstein. You may of him have heard?'

She shook her head with a touch of scorn, and he saw with relief that, for some difficult-to-understand reason, she was now no longer as afraid of him as she had been.

'Is he very badly wounded?' she asked in the clear, grave voice which already kindled his heart.

'He has very badly wounded been, but now on the way to recovery is,' said the Herr Doktor decidedly. He felt more at ease with this serious, beautiful maiden now that they were discussing his patient. 'What the Prince requires rest and care and quiet is. There could not a better place for him than your Red Cross barge be. Perhaps will you me allow with your doctor the arrangements to discuss?' His eyes sought uncertainly the man in the background, the thin, frightened-looking old man dressed in seedy black. Could this be a French physician?

Even while speaking he had edged cautiously down the plank footway. 'Have I your gracious permission to advance?' he asked politely.

And she bent her head.

A moment later he was standing close to her, gazing with an earnest, conciliating gaze into her sad blue eyes. She looked pale and worn, but it was only the transitory pallor and fatigue of youth unaccustomed to the strain of anxiety, and the wear of work and sorrow.

'We have no doctor,' she said and, sighing, looked away. 'My father, who is a doctor, would be here were it not that'-her voice broke suddenly-'he was terribly wounded-wounded when himself tending the wounded!'

'Sorry am I to hear that!' exclaimed the Herr Doktor, and he was indeed sorry. 'But who attends the eighteen men you tell me you on this barge have?'

'I attend them,' she said, and a little more colour came into her face. 'I and my two friends whom you see here. Most of them were only slightly wounded, but we have three serious cases.'

'Perhaps you will allow me to visit them, and see how helpful I to your three serious cases may be?' He spoke deferentially, and the rigid lines in which her soft mouth was set relaxed.

'I thank you,' she said quietly, 'but I fear they are beyond your help.'

She turned, and preceded him down the narrow, shaftlike stairway. It terminated in a square passage place, lighted by a porthole, on the ledge of which stood the pot of geraniums the Herr Doktor had noticed when standing under the lime tree mall.

Opening a narrow door to her right, the French girl led him into a large, low, cabin-room which looked the larger and the barer because here too everything was white-the walls, the floor, the curtains drawn across each small square window, and even the coverlets of the pallet beds in which lay the eighteen wounded men.

And as he followed the young Red Cross nurse from bed to bed, as he divined what had once been the condition of most of the young soldiers there, and saw what it was now, the Herr Doktor paid his guide a secret, involuntary tribute of respect. She had not exaggerated, as the amateur nurse so often does, the state of three of her patients. The German surgeon saw with concern that two out of the three were indeed beyond his help-they were even now dying.

'The lad over there might by skilled attention benefit. Has no doctor him seen?' he asked abruptly. He had not raised his voice, but his companion's hand shot out; she touched his arm.

'Don't speak so loudly,' she whispered, 'or he will hear you. The poor fellow does not know how ill he is!'

The Herr Doktor felt at once a little irritated and a little moved. Apparently all Frenchwomen were like that! The only time he had had the slightest unpleasantness with one of those French noblewomen at the Feld-Lazaret was when he had suddenly spoken, in front of a certain wounded boy, of the fact that he could not last many hours. But whereas he had felt very much annoyed, annoyed and angry, with the rebuke uttered so sharply by the Red Cross nurse on that former occasion, this time irritation was merged in indulgent amusement. This fair-haired, blue-eyed girl-this French Elsa-was after all only a novice, though a most capable, conscientious, hard-working novice!

It was good to know that very soon-perhaps as soon as another fortnight or three weeks-the awful cloud of war would be lifted off beautiful, prosperous, frivolous France. She would be conquered for her own good, and would of course have to pay in treasure, as she was now paying in lives, heavily, for her lesson. But after the coming peace France would become, not only a peaceful, but what she had never before been, an affectionate neighbour to wise, masculine, masterful Germany. Already the Herr Doktor found himself celebrating the peace with France by planning a return visit to this charming, peaceful, little town of Valoise-sur-Marne.

It was a good thing for him as well as for Jeanne Rouannès that, while she busied herself with the lighting of a hand lamp, she had no clue to his exultant, disconnected thoughts.

More and more as she accompanied him to each bedside, and as he listened to her low, harmonious voice explaining the various cases of those poor human wrecks-flotsam and jetsam of cruel war-for whom she showed such pitiful concern, he felt the surprise he had not thought to feel, and the admiration he was ready to encourage, grow and grow. Glad indeed was the Herr Doktor to know that there were certain things which he could do to ease that last, losing conflict with death now being waged by two of the Frenchmen lying there before him. Impulsively he turned to her-Ah! if only he could express himself adequately in her difficult, attractive language!

And then there came to him a sudden inspiration.

'Do you speak English?' he asked i

n the language which, however much he hated it in theory, came yet so far more easily to his tongue than did that of France.

In a surprised tone the Red Cross nurse answered, in the same uncouth tongue, with the one word, 'Yes.'

And then, as she listened to his now quick, clear, intelligent explanation of what might at least bring the ease bred of oblivion to her dying patients, the look of anxious, almost agonised, strain faded from her blue eyes and delicately chiselled face; while as for the Herr Doktor, he felt as though they two had suddenly glided into a harbour of that happy, innocent No Man's Land where the gigantic absurdities, the incredible inhumanities of war had never been, and never could take place.

Only an hour ago Max Keller would have fiercely denied that anything connected with England or with the English could be anything but hateful to him-yet how thankful was he now for that sudden inspiration! It reversed the r?les, gave him the advantage, and that most agreeably, of this Red Cross nurse, for though he did not speak English nearly as correctly as did Mademoiselle Rouannès, he expressed himself more fluently.

'Have you ever to England been?' he ventured at last.

She shook her head. 'No, but for some time I had an English lady for a governess. And now-now I love England!' She looked at him quite straight as she spoke, and he felt a sudden sense of unease. It was as if the tide had turned. They were drifting away from that pleasant harbour of No Man's Land....

When they had finished their round, she led him through the little square passage room into the other and smaller half of the hold. This cabin was empty, save for a row of pallet beds. 'Will this be suitable for your wounded officer?' she asked him gently.

'Yes, very well it will do,' he said hastily. 'And now with your permission, gracious miss, my two orderlies I will send for the Prince to prepare.'

'Cannot my servants make what preparation is needed?' she asked, and there was a tremor of fear and of revolt in her voice.

'I fear not. First these beds must moved out be. But do not be afraid-they will great care take you not in any way to trouble. Indeed, you will not here be, it must now the time be when you away go.' And as she looked at him in surprise, he added awkwardly, 'The hostess of the Tournebride-I think Madame Blanc her name is-told me that you the barge at nine o'clock always left.'

'When there are soldiers dying,' she said in a low voice, 'I arrange to stay here all night'; and then, looking at him pleadingly, she added, 'Could you wait just one little hour before bringing your patient to the barge?'

Reluctantly he shook his head. 'I must as soon as possible the Prince here bring. It is bad for him in a courtyard full of noisy men to be.'

But she went on, making an evident effort to speak calmly, conciliatingly. 'Our curé is on his way to administer these poor dying. I cannot think why he has delayed so long-I sent for him at five o'clock--'

'But-but'-and now it was the Herr Doktor's turn to hesitate-'your curé cannot come here to-night, gracious miss-at least the old priest who lives in the house next the church cannot do so. He has been taken as a hostage for the good behaviour of the population of this town. Temporarily is he prisoner. A sad necessity of war such things are.' He looked at her deprecatingly-for the first time it occurred to him that the Herr Commandant might have contented himself with locking up the truculent mayor, and letting the old priest alone.

He saw her wince, he saw the colour rush into her face. 'But surely Monsieur le Curé will be allowed to administer the last Sacraments to dying soldiers!' she exclaimed.

He shook his head solemnly. It was indeed unfortunate for him that war, and the cruel, grotesque inhumanities of war, were invading the stretch of neutral country on which he and this-this so refined and zierliches Madchen had glided so pleasantly but a short half-hour ago. Full of very real concern he nerved himself to reject the personal appeal he felt sure she was about to make to him. But Mademoiselle Rouannès did nothing of the kind. Instead she turned, and looking up the shaft of the stairway, called out sharply 'Jacob!' and then 'Thérèse!'

The thin man and the stout woman both came hurrying down, and at once she spoke to them in quiet, dry, urgent tones. 'The Prussian doctor of the Red Cross is going to bring a wounded Prussian officer on to the barge. He will occupy the smaller cabin. Two orderlies are coming to help you to prepare the cabin; and you, Jacob, will have to show the Prussians how the crane is worked.'

The Herr Doktor, himself much ruffled by hearing himself described as a Prussian, saw a look of sullen ill-temper come over Jacob's face. But Mademoiselle Rouannès put out her hand and laid it on the old fellow's shoulder. 'My good friend,' she said, and her voice quivered for the first time, 'pray do what I ask of you without discussion. And you, Thérèse, I must ask to go home and tell my father that I am taking the watch here to-night.'

Jacob was the first to respond to the appeal. He looked fiercely at the German Red Cross surgeon. 'At your orders, M'sieur,' he said gruffly. As for the woman, she turned away with a sullen 'Bien, Mademoiselle,' and started walking up the ladder-like stairway.

The Red Cross nurse bowed distantly. 'Bon soir, Monsieur,' she said coldly.

The Herr Doktor also bowed stiffly. It was disconcerting, even strange, to find himself once more in enemy country.

She slipped through the narrow door of the larger ward, and he heard her draw the bolt.

Again he felt irritated, and surprised as he had been surprised at seeing that strange look of aversion and horror flash into her face when her eyes had first rested on him....

True, she was young, divinely compassionate, and very delightful to the eye, but she evidently misunderstood the situation! It was he, Herr Doktor Max Keller, who was now in command of the Red Cross barge, and that by the rules of the International Red Cross Society. He might, however, so far humour her as not to bring his orderlies to-night on board what had been her Red Cross barge. He had noticed with sincere annoyance that his men-who, by the way, were Prussians-were rough, not to say brutal, in their manner to those French people with whom they were perforce brought into contact.

So after he had made the old Frenchman understand what he wanted done, he asked him, in his halting French, 'Is there an hotel close by where sleep I can?'

'There's a kind of cabaret yonder'-and then, as if rather ashamed of his ungraciousness, the man added, 'I will come and show Monsieur le Médecin where it is.'

Together they climbed up on to the deck of the barge, and there the Herr Doktor stopped a moment, and looking round about him, drew a deep, long breath. The falling of the shade of night was singularly beautiful on this quiet stretch of slow-moving waters. Across the river a line of poplars looked like a row of ghostly, giant sentinels....

The two men, the Frenchman in front, the German behind, stepped off the barge on to the narrow stone jetty, and then they walked for a few yards in darkness along the leafy mall. None of the street lamps had been lit on this, the evening of the most tragic day in the life of Valoise, but dim lights twinkled in the house across the roadway to which old Jacob now led his enemy.

'M'sieur will find this place quite clean,' he observed, vigorously pulling the bell of a narrow door. There was a long delay-then a young woman, opening her door a few inches, looked timorously out at them. But Jacob now took everything on himself. With what seemed to his companion an unnecessary torrent of words, he explained that 'Monsieur' was a doctor of the Red Cross, who had come to look after the wounded on the Red Cross barge, and that therefore a room must at once be prepared for him. The woman's face cleared, she opened her narrow door widely, and led the way up to a large, clean bedroom on the first floor, of which the windows overlooked the mall, the river, and-the barge.

As a few moments later they left the house the Herr Doktor could not help feeling grateful to old Jacob. Jacob? Why 'twas almost a German name!

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