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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Red Cross Barge By Marie Belloc Lowndes Characters: 16403

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


It was half-past five on this, the sixth morning of the Herr Doktor's stay at Valoise.

He leapt out of bed and had a cold plunge bath-a most peculiar, un-German habit he had acquired during the months he had boarded with an English family at Munich.

Then, when he was dressed, not before, he put on his spectacles and went across to the window. On the first morning of his stay there, he had been filled with a queer misgiving that perhaps when he looked out the Red Cross barge would have drifted away-disappeared, fairy-wise, in the night. That he now no longer feared, and on this lovely September morning his eyes rested with a feeling of exultant ownership on the now familiar scene before him. The trim, leafy mall just across the paved road, the slowly flowing river gleaming in the bright morning sun, the line of poplars above the opposite bank-and then in the centre, as it were, of the placid landscape, the Red Cross barge ... they were his, for ever-the harvest of his eyes, of his imagination, of his heart.

The Red Cross barge? The man standing at the window of this humble French wine-shop told himself how good it was that now, to-day, that work of mercy before him was the only reminder in Valoise that France was at war. Till the day before there had been a hundred and five spurred and booted reminders, but yesterday afternoon the Uhlans had ridden off eagerly, exultantly, to join their main victorious army-that army which was now engaged in pursuing the defeated English and the retreating French.

The Herr Doktor, on this peaceful, sunny morning, quite forgot that he himself was a constant reminder of the awful struggle, of the losing fight now going on between those the women of Valoise had sent forth-their husbands, sons, and lovers-and his countrymen.

But it was natural he should make this capital omission, for as he stood there, looking out on a still unawakened world, the people of Valoise, well disposed as he felt towards them, formed but a blurred background to the one figure which now possessed all his waking, aye, and all his dreaming thoughts. Not only did he now know, but he exulted in the knowledge that, with his first vision-like sight of Jeanne Rouannès, had come that 'love-at-once' of which some of his comrades had rhapsodised in the now-so-distant-as-to-be-almost-forgotten pre-war time. Those rhapsodies of long ago had left him unmoved, partly because as a student he had adored, with a selfless, hopeless passion, a famous singer far older than himself, and partly because, with the passing of years, he had seen the springtide romance of youth almost invariably dulled down into what would have been, to such a man as he knew himself to be, unendurably dull domesticity.

Was this new, and at once rapturous and painful, absorption in another human being the outcome of great, noble, war-provoked emotions? If so, how amazing that a Frenchwoman should have compelled the flowering of his soul, the awakening of both spirit and senses to what the union of a man and woman may mean! But well content was he that it should be so. This side of the great war-so futile from the point of view of happy, prosperous France-would soon be at an end. That he had been confidently assured, some three weeks ago, by a member of General von Kluck's own able staff. Within a very short time of the German occupation of Paris-some even believed within a few hours of the capitulation of the city-peace would be signed with France. There would be bitterness among certain sections of the French people-among the Chauvinists, for instance, who still hankered after Alsace. But the Conquerors had behaved so humanely and so wisely during their triumphant rush through Northern France, that this very natural feeling would soon fade away, while the love he, Max Keller, now bore Jeanne Rouannès was of the eternal, enduring quality which compels its own fulfilment.... Already in his dreams the Herr Doktor saw his house, his childhood's home, at Weimar, beflowered and garlanded to receive a bride.

But these dreams were far more living and tangible to his imagination during those waking hours when they two were apart, than when the Herr Doktor was faced with the reality of his and Mademoiselle Rouannès' necessarily formal relationship. More than once he had tried to engage her in talk on 'safe' subjects-such subjects, for instance, as that of the Great Revolution-but she had quietly eluded him, and he sometimes had to face the fact that the only common ground on which they met each day was that on which lay the wounded Frenchmen to whom she gave so much anxious care. It was a ground on which the Herr Doktor spent all the time he could. But unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it was ground which was being rapidly cleared, for thanks to his skill, to her care, and no doubt to nature too, 'our wounded,' as he had once ventured to call them to her, were now in full convalescence, almost fit, in fact, to be taken off as prisoners to Germany. When that thought, that knowledge, rose to the Herr Doktor's mind he always thrust it hurriedly away. The despatch of prisoners is purely a military duty, and would in this case be performed by whatever officer on whom it devolved; if no one better offered, then on the Herr Lieutenant, Prince Egon von Witgenstein.

Prince Egon? On this fine September morning, the Herr Doktor suddenly found himself wondering whether it would not be advisable to move his patient into the now empty Tournebride. The knowledge that the Prince would soon be well enough to sit up on deck was not as agreeable to the Herr Doktor as it ought to have been to a conscientious medical attendant. True, Mademoiselle Rouannès never even asked him how his noble patient was progressing, and once, when old Jacob had alluded to the Uhlan officer, the Herr Doktor had overheard her exclaim, with a strange touch of passion in her voice, 'I forbid you-I forbid you, Jacob, to speak of that Prussian to me!' But Prince Egon did not share her indifference, still less her-was it hatred? He was frankly interested in his fair enemy, and very eager to make her acquaintance. But the Herr Doktor was determined that this so uncalled-for and undesirable-from-every-point-of-view desire of the Prince should not be gratified.

* * *

There came a knock at the door; it was his petit déjeuner, and the woman who brought it in smiled quite pleasantly. It was only the second time she had smiled at her unbidden guest. It was curious how the departure of those burly, good-natured Uhlans had affected the people of Valoise! Within an hour of their going, windows had been unshuttered, doors unbarred, and a stream of women, of children, and of old men the Herr Doktor had not suspected of being in Valoise at all, had flowed into the streets of the town....

He drank his coffee and ate his rolls with an excellent appetite, and then he glanced at his chronometer. It was three minutes to six-time he went across to the barge. For when six struck by the church tower (which, according to his Baedeker, had been built by the English in the now utterly departed days of their valour and military prowess, that is in the thirteenth century) the Herr Doktor invariably met Mademoiselle Rouannès by accident, either in the road, or, what was pleasanter still, under the trees in the mall. When he saw her coming, gravely he would stop and bow, and she would bend her head in greeting. It would have been natural, and agreeable too, for them to linger a few moments; but that he had soon found she would never do. Singularly reserved always was she in her manner, and in vain did he persist in his attempts to persuade her to engage in general beneficial-to-the-intellect and pleasantly-agreeable-to-the-cultured-mind conversation.

Two cases, as we know, had been beyond human help when he had first undertaken the care of the French wounded, but the third case, greatly owing to his skill and untiring efforts, seemed likely to pull through. Still, even so, the Herr Doktor and Mademoiselle Rouannès were very anxious about this case, a boy of nineteen, a clever, well-mannered, gentle boy of the peasant class, who

had been shot through the lung. What had touched the German surgeon's heart, what had made him especially interested in this young soldier, were a few words which had been uttered by the Red Cross nurse very early in their joint work of mercy. 'Il est le seul soutien de sa vieille grand'mère.' Now, curiously enough, he, Max Keller, was also 'the sole support of his old grandmother,' a grand old woman of seventy-nine, now eating her heart out in placid, cultured Weimar, while thanking God her boy was not in the firing line.

* * *

The Herr Doktor went across the road to the grateful shade of the lime trees. There he waited, his heart beating, his pulse throbbing, for what seemed a long, long time. Every moment he hoped, nay, he expected confidently, to see her hastening towards him, clad in the white dress and wearing the medieval-looking cap, with its red cross in the centre, which now seemed the most becoming head-dress in the world. Hastening towards him? Nay, nay,-hastening towards the Red Cross barge.

But the minutes went slowly by, and Mademoiselle Rouannès did not come. Suddenly it occurred to him that perhaps she was already on the barge. If so, he had indeed wasted precious moments....

As he hurried along the stone jetty he saw the stout figure of old Thérèse on deck. That meant that her young mistress was below, in the ward.

The Herr Doktor smiled pleasantly at the old woman, and she smiled back, a broad genial smile of good fellowship. What a difference the departure of those few countrymen of his yesterday had made, to be sure!

But when he hurried down to the French ward he at once knew, without being told, that Mademoiselle Jeanne had not yet arrived. Old Thérèse had done her best, but it was a very poor best, to make the men lying there comfortable. Still, they all looked more cheerful than usual, and the boy he now hoped to save, the boy for whom he had a very tender corner in his kindly, sentimental soul, caught hold of his hand as he went by, and asked huskily, 'Is it true that the Prussians are gone? Quel bonheur!'

It struck half-past six, seven, then half-past seven.

The Herr Doktor went up again on to the deck. Thérèse was sitting there sewing. 'And Mademoiselle?' he asked questioningly.

She shook her head. 'Mademoiselle was very unhappy last night. She thinks her father is much worse. I myself can see no difference. But something he said to her frightened her, and so she said she must stop at home to-day, and nurse him.'

He felt absurdly surprised, absurdly annoyed, absurdly taken aback.

Had Mademoiselle Rouannès a right to leave the ambulance barge? He doubted it-doubted it very much indeed. Of course he himself, being now in command of the barge, could order her to come. He was a Red Cross doctor, and she a Red Cross nurse; he had, therefore, the absolute right to dispose of her time and services. But, sighing, he dismissed the thought. She was quite unlike any German girl he had ever seen. It would not occur to her to be flattered, or even touched, by his imperious wish for her presence.

As he stood there, wondering what he had better do, there flashed into his mind the wording of a short note which it might become his duty to write to her. The note would be written in English, and it would run somewhat in this wise: 'Gracious Miss,'-or perhaps it would be better to put plain 'Miss' in the French way-'If you your father can leave for a short time, I should be glad if to the barge you come would. One of your wounded is not so well.-Yours respectfully, Max Keller.'

There would be nothing offensive, nothing hectoring about such a missive, and he thought, he felt sure, that it would bring her. But he would not write that note yet. He would wait till he had seen his own patient, Prince Egon. Luckily, there was no hurry as to that, and, still secretly hoping she would come, he lingered on, up on deck.

The sun had gone behind a cloud. There was an autumnal chill in the morning air. The waters of the slowly flowing river looked grey and sullen. Suddenly the Herr Doktor felt oddly friendless, and alone. 'This morning felt I so foolishly cheerful, and this the natural reaction is!' he exclaimed to himself.

He turned and walked down to Prince Egon's small quarters. Cautiously he opened the narrow door, but his patient was awake and smiling.

What a contrast this curious little cabin presented, especially to-day, to that containing the French wounded! Here everything was ship-shape, even to a modest degree, luxurious. On an inlaid table, which had been 'commandeered' from an empty villa, were laid out gold-backed brushes, and a number of pretty trifles. Above the table hung a circular mirror, also commandeered, and there was a whiff of some sweet, pungent scent in the air. How different, too, the white and pink yellow-haired youth lying there from the small, dark, and now unshaved Frenchmen on the other side. Old Jacob was kept too busy attending on the Prussian prince to spare any time for his own countrymen.

The Herr Doktor looked at what had partly been his own handiwork-the handiwork of which he had felt proud on the first evening of his arrival at Valoise-with a feeling of dissatisfaction, almost of disgust.

Over a basket-chair was carefully spread out a green-and-gold-silk dressing-gown, in the Weimar surgeon's eyes a garment of almost Oriental splendour.

'If you will allow of it, Herr Doktor, I propose to get up,' said Prince Egon cheerfully. 'I feel wonderfully better to-day! It is extraordinary what good this rest has done me. And then that old Jacob! An almost perfect valet! What good fortune for me that he should be here! He has already made me a delicious omelette this morning.'

'And your Highness was not afraid to eat it?' This was really a little joke on the Herr Doktor's part. But his patient did not so accept it. An extraordinary change came over the recumbent man's fair face; it became livid, discomposed.

'God in heaven!' he cried. 'Do you suspect old Jacob, Herr Doktor?'

And then the older man burst into laughter. 'No, no,' he said soothingly. 'I suspect nothing! Besides your Highness has made it very much worth old Jacob's while to keep you alive.'

'Aye, aye! That's true.' The prince was reassured. 'As I was saying just now, I feel so much better that, if you permit it, I propose to get up. I will wear my dressing-gown, not my uniform, and I will go up on deck. There I will sit and chat with the beautiful English-speaking Mamselle. Jacob tells me that on her mother's side she is of noble birth, and that, although her father is only a physician, she--'

The Herr Doktor put up his hand. 'I must now take your Highness' temperature,' he said a little sharply. 'I doubt much if you are well enough to go upstairs. A chill would be very serious in your Highness's condition. As for the Red Cross Sister, she is not here to-day. Her father is very ill.'

'Not here? But that is absurd!' The young man spoke with a touch of imperious decision. 'You must send for her, my dear Herr Doktor; she must be requisitioned!' He smiled-an insolent smile.

The other shook his head. A sudden passion of dislike, of contempt, for his patient filled his heart. But all he said was-'Impossible! Her father is very ill indeed.'

'Then I will not trouble to get up. I am very well where I am. It is very comfortable here.'

Prince Egon spoke pettishly. He had looked forward to an amusing flirtation with the Mamselle with whose manifold perfections old Jacob sometimes entertained him.

The hours of the morning dragged wearily on. To the Herr Doktor it seemed as if there had never been such a long, such an utterly lacking-in-flavour, day as was this day. For the first time he talked to the convalescent Frenchmen at some length of themselves. Not one of them had been a soldier at the time the war broke out on that fateful 1st of August, and yet it surprised him, and in a sense moved him, to see that every one of them wished to go back and fight. Not one of them seemed conscious that he was now a prisoner, and that, unless peace was made at once, he would soon be in Germany....

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