Chapter IV. The Fall Of Antwerp
The hospital was in a handsome stone building, in ordinary times a club, perhaps, or a school; a wide, stone stairway led up the centre, and above it was a glass skylight. This central well would have been a charming place for a shell to drop into, and one did drop not more than fifty feet or so away, in or close to the rear court. A few yards down the avenue another shell hit a cornice and sent a ton or so of masonry crashing down on the sidewalk. Under conditions like these the nurses kept running up and down that staircase during the endless hour or two in which the wounded were being dressed and carried on stretchers to the street. They stood by the buses making their men comfortable, and when the first buses were filled they sat in the open street on top of them, patiently waiting, as calm and smiling as circus queens on their gilt chariots. The behavior of the men in the trenches was cool enough, but they at least were fighting men and but taking the chance of war. These were civilian volunteers, they had not even trenches to shelter them, and it took a rather unforeseen and difficult sort of courage to leave that fairly safe masonry building and sit smiling and helpful on top of a motor-bus during a wait of half an hour or so, any second of which might be one's last. There was an American nurse there, a tall, radiant girl, whom they called, and rightly, "Morning Glory," who had been introduced to me the day before because we both belonged to that curious foreign race of Americans. What her name was I haven't the least idea, and if we were to meet to-morrow, doubtless we should have to be carefully presented over again, but I remember calling out to her, "Good-by, American girl!" as we passed in the hall during the last minute or two, and she said good-by, and suddenly reached out and put her hand on my shoulder and added, "Good luck!" or "God bless you!" or something like that. And these seemed at the moment quite the usual things to do and say. The doctor in charge and the general's wife apologized for running away, as they called it, and the last I saw of the latter was as she waved back to me from the top of a bus, with just that look of concern over the desperate ride they were beginning which a slightly preoccupied hostess casts over a dinner-table about which are seated a number of oddly assorted guests.
The strange procession got away safely at last, and safely, too, so I was told later, across the river; but where they finally spent the night I never heard. I hurried down the street and into the Rue Nerviens. It must have been about four o'clock by that time. The bright October morning had changed to a chill and dismal afternoon, and up the western sky in the direction of the river a vast curtain of greasy, black smoke was rolling. The petrol-tanks along the Scheldt had been set afire. It looked at the moment as if the whole city might be going, but there was no time then to think of possibilities, and I slipped down the lee side of the street to the door with the Red Cross flag. The front of the hospital was shut tight. It took several pulls at the bell to bring any one, and inside I found a Belgian family who had left their own house for the thicker ceilings of the hospital, and the nuns back in the wards with their nervous men. Their servants had left that morning, the three or four sisters in charge had had to do all the cooking and housework as well as look after their patients, and now they were keeping calm and smiling, to subdue as best they could the fears of the Belgian wounded, who were ready to jump out of bed, whatever their condition, rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. Each had no doubt that if he were not murdered outright he would be taken to Germany and forced to fight in the east against the Russians. Several, who knew very well what was going on outside, had been found by the nurses that morning out of bed and all ready to take to the street.
Lest they should hear that their comrades in the Boulevard Leopold had been moved, the lay sister - the English lady - and I withdrew to the operating-room, closed the door, and in that curious retreat talked over the situation. No orders had come to leave; in fact, they had been told to stay. They did have a man now in the shape of the Belgian gentleman, and from the same source an able-bodied servant, but how long these would stay, where food was to be found in that desolate city, when the bombardment would cease, and what the Germans would do with them - well, it was not a pleasant situation for a handful of women. But it was not of themselves she was thinking, but of their wounded and of Belgium, and of what both had suffered already and of what might yet be in store. It was of that this frail little sister talked that hopeless afternoon, while the smoke in the west spread farther up the sky, and she would now and then pause in the middle of a syllable while a shell sang overhead, then take it up again.
Meanwhile the light was going, and before it became quite dark and my hotel deserted, perhaps, as the rest of Antwerp, it seemed best to be getting across town. I could not believe that the Germans could treat such a place and people with anything but consideration and told the little nurse so. She came to the edge of the glass-covered court, laughingly saying I had best run across it, and wondering where we, who had met twice now under such curious circumstances, would meet again. Then she turned back to the ward - to wait with that roomful of more or less panicky men for the tramp of German soldiers and the knock on the door which meant that they were prisoners.