Chapter IV. The Fall Of Antwerp
"Well," he called after me as I started across the open space between the gate and the houses, a stone's throw away, "you've had an experience anyway."
I was just about to answer that undoubtedly I had when - "Tzee-ee-ee-er-r" - a shell just cleared the ramparts over our heads and disappeared in the side of a house directly in front of us with a roar and a geyser of dust. Neither the motor nor a guest's duty now detained me, and, waving him good-by, I turned at right angles and made with true civilian speed for the shelter of a side street.
The shells all appeared to be coming from a southeast direction, and in the lee of houses on the south side of the street one was reasonably protected. Keeping close to the house-fronts and dodging - rather absurdly, no doubt - into doorways when that wailing whistle came up from behind, I went zigzagging through the deserted city toward the hotel on the other side of town.
It was such a progress as one might make in some fantastic nightmare - as the hero of some eerie piece of fiction about the Last Man in the World. Street after street, with doors locked, shutters closed, sandbags, mattresses, or little heaps of earth piled over cellar windows; streets in which the only sound was that of one's own feet, where the loneliness was made more lonely by some forgotten dog cringing against the closed door and barking nervously as one hurried past.
Here, where most of the shells had fallen the preceding night, nearly all the houses were empty. Yet occasionally one caught sight of faces peering up from basement windows or of some stubborn householder standing in his southern doorway staring into space. Once I passed a woman bound away from, instead of toward, the river with her big bundle; and once an open carriage with a family in it driving, with peculiarly Flemish composure, toward the quay, and as I hurried past the park, along the Avenue Van Dyck - where fresh craters made by exploding shells had been dug in the turf - the swans, still floating on the little lake, placidly dipped their white necks under water as if it were a quiet morning in May.
Now and then, as the shell's wail swung over its long parabola, there came with the detonation, across the roofs, the rumble of falling masonry. Once I passed a house quietly burning, and on the pavement were lopped-off trees. The impartiality with which those far-off gunners distributed their attentions was disconcerting. Peering down one of the up-and-down streets before crossing it, as if a shell were an automobile which you might see and dodge, you would shoot across and, turning into a cosey little side street, think to yourself that here at least they had not come, and then promptly see, squarely in front, another of those craters blown down through the Belgian blocks.
Presently I found myself under the trees of the Boulevard Leopold, not far from the British hospital, and recalled that it was about time that promise was made good. It was time indeed, and help with lifting they needed very literally. The order had just come to leave the building, bringing the wounded and such equipment as they could pack into half a dozen motor-buses and retire - just where, I did not hear - in the direction of Ghent. As I entered the porte-cochere two poor wrecks of war were being led out by their nurses - more men burned in the powder explosion at Waelhem, their seared faces and hands covered with oil and cotton just as they had been lifted from bed.
The phrase "whistle of shells" had taken on a new reality since midnight. Now one was to learn something of the meaning of those equally familiar words, "they succeeded in saving their wounded, although under heavy fire."
None of the wounded could walk, none dress himself; most of them in ordinary times would have lain where they were for weeks. There were fractured legs not yet set, men with faces half shot away, men half out of their heads, and all these had to be dressed somehow, covered up, crowded into or on top of the buses, and started off through a city under bombardment toward open country which might already be occupied by the enemy.
Bundles of uniforms, mud-stained, blood-stained, just as they had come from the trenches, were dumped out of the storeroom and distributed, hit or miss.
British "Tommies" went out as Belgians, Belgians in British khaki; the man whose broken leg I had lifted the day before we simply bundled in his bed blankets and set up in the corner of a bus. One healthy-looking Belgian boy, on whom I was trying to pull a pair of British trousers, seemed to have nothing at all the matter with him, until it presently appeared that he was speechless and paralyzed in both left arm and left leg. And while we were working, an English soldier, shot through the jaw and throat, sat on the edge of his bed, shaking with a hideous, rattling cough.