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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Red Cross Barge By Marie Belloc Lowndes Characters: 7453

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

And during all that warm, early September afternoon, across the golden haze thrown up by the river, there came from 'là-bas' the rolling, muttering roar that was so like thunder, that now and again the Herr Doktor asked himself whether it might not be thunder after all? But whatever this provenance, these sounds had a strange, electric effect on the French wounded. They became restless and excited. Hitherto they had stayed below; now, without asking the Herr Doktor's permission, two or three pallid faces appeared above the stairway, and there was a look of strained suspense, almost of hope, in the eyes which avoided looking frankly into his face.

There was yet another curious change in all those young, wild-eyed Frenchmen. They talked in low hoarse whispers the one with the other, and once he heard a reference to la nouvelle armée, and then again to l'armée de Versailles. Of what army, new or old, could they be thinking? Brave but unready France had put every man for whom she had proper arms and accoutrements into the field from the first day.

Prince Egon shared in the subdued excitement. 'It is pleasant to feel that we are no longer away from the whirlpool!' he cried joyfully, and this was his only remark during that intolerably long afternoon.

At six o'clock the sounds of firing ceased as suddenly as they had begun. Four hours' desultory cannonade? It must have been a long-drawn-out rearguard action.

The Herr Doktor was sitting up on deck, a pocket volume of Heine in his hand. He read the verse-

Im wundersch?nen Monat Mai

Als alle Knospen sprangen

Da ist in meinem Herzen

Die Liebe aufgegangen.

And then he looked up and gazed across the river. Strange, strange indeed, that love should wait till now to blossom in his heart!

There came the sound, the now beloved, familiar sound of Her quick, light footfalls on the jetty, and a moment later Mademoiselle Rouannès walked on to the barge.

Leaping to his feet, he brought his heels together and bowed. But the ceremonious words of inquiry he was about to utter concerning her father's state were stayed on his lip, and the secret joy which had flooded his whole being on seeing her was suddenly changed to concern, even distress, so unlike did Jeanne Rouannès appear to his usual vision of her. Her face was flushed, her eyelids reddened by much crying. The look of composure, of dignity, which always aroused his willing admiration, if also his aching sense of her aloofness from himself, was gone, and now there was something appealing, as well as piteous and even helpless, in the face into which he was gazing.

'I have come to ask you,' she said abruptly, and in English, 'if you will give me a little of your small store of morphia or laudanum? My father is now in constant pain-I fear he is far more ill than he will admit is the case. I am very, very anxious about him.' She uttered the words with quick, nervous haste, lowering her voice as she spoke.

Was it possible that she thought there could be any fear of his refusing her request? Apparently there was, for, 'I know you do not like to diminish your store of narcotics. But from what I understand a quite small amount might lessen the pain my father is enduring.'

She had moved away from the middle of the deck, and they were standing, side by side, on the river side of the barge. As she spoke she did not look at the man by her side, instead she stared straight before her, and he saw the tears well up into her tired eyes, and roll down her pale cheeks.

'Would it not possible be,' he asked, 'for me your father to see?'

'No. That is quite impossible. But I thank you for thinking of doing so.'

'But if you tell him that to the Red

Cross,-that splendid, so-entirely-neutral and internationally-universal institution-I too belong? Surely would he then consent me to see?'

She shook her head. 'The truth is that-that--' She stopped, and he said 'Yes?' interrogatively, encouragingly. 'The truth is that my poor father had a most unfortunate experience with some German Red Cross doctors!'

'With German doctors,' he repeated, discomfited. 'That very strange is.'

'Yes, it was strange-strange and most unfortunate, as matters now are; for it makes me feel that I do not dare propose your visit to him.'

The Herr Doktor-or so it seemed to the girl standing by his side-fell into an abstracted silence. She respected his mood for a few moments, then she asked timidly, in a voice very different from that which he had ever heard issue from her proud lips before, 'I suppose your medical stores are at the Tournebride?'

He looked round eagerly. 'No,' he said quickly. 'I have them here, in the motor ambulance, and what necessary is, go I at once to procure. But, gracious miss! There has come to me a thought which I find most illuminating, a thought which I you earnestly beg very carefully before you it reject to consider. With my medical stores possess I naturally operation overalls.'

He stopped for a moment, as if anxious to give himself time, then went on hurriedly: 'Would it not possible be for me to put on an overall (it covers entirely my 'feld-grau' uniform) and then an English doctor to represent by the bedside of your honoured father? He surely would not object an English or, better still, a Scotch colleague to see?'

'That,' she said, and drew a long breath, 'is very true.'

And as he gazed at her with an earnest, longing look of the inner meaning of which she was, as he well knew, utterly unconscious, he saw surprise and indecision give way to hope and relief.

'But are you willing to do that?' she asked.'Would it not be very-very disagreeable for you to carry through such a-a--' Her English failed her, and she uttered a word of which he was ignorant, and could only guess the meaning-'to carry through such a supercherie? 'she said.

He answered eagerly, 'There is nothing I would not do'-and then he checked himself, and substituted for what he had been going to say, the words, 'for a French colleague. Absolutely easy will it be,' he went on confidently. 'You will him tell that I very little French know-which indeed the truth is.'

Even as he spoke, her woman's wit was hard at work. 'I will write my father a note,' she said, 'and send it by Thérèse. Then he will not be able to say "No" to me, and I on my side shall not have the pain of speaking a lie to him face to face.'

The Herr Doktor's face relaxed into a smile; women, so he reflected, were the same all the world over-in France as in Germany. He took out of his breast pocket a neat letter-case, of which he had made no use since his arrival in Valoise. Deferentially he handed it to her, and then he had the pleasure of seeing her write a letter on his note-paper. 'Do you think that will do?' she said. And he read over slowly and carefully the short, clear French phrases.

'My dear Father,-An English doctor has joined the Red Cross barge. I much desire that he should see thee. I will bring him with me in an hour. As far as I can judge he is experienced.



'Most excellent, honoured miss! And only one little word not absolutely true is!' He ventured a smile. She smiled back with the words, 'But it is a very important word-"English"!' And then she wondered why his face altered and stiffened into such frowning gravity; the English, after all, were no more the Herr Doktor's enemies than were the French.

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