Chapter XIV. Cannon Fodder
At the head of each iron bed hung the nurse's chart and a few words of "history." These histories had been taken down as the wounded came in, after their muddy uniforms had been removed, they had been bathed, and could sink, at last, into the blessed peace and cleanness of the hospital bed. And through them, as through the large end of a telescope, one looked across the hot summer and the Hungarian fields, now dusty and yellow, to the winter fighting and freezing in the Carpathians.
"Possibly," the doctor said, "you would like to see one of these cases." The young fellow was scarce twenty, a strapping boy with fine teeth and intelligent eyes. He looked quite well; you could imagine him pitching hay or dancing the czardas, with his hands on his girl's waist and her hands on his, as these Hungarian peasants dance, round and round, for hours together. But he would not dance again, as both his feet had been amputated at the ankle and it was from the stumps that the doctor was unwrapping the bandages. The history read: While doing sentry duty on the mountains on March 28, we were left twenty-four hours without being relieved and during that time my feet were frozen.
The doctor spoke with professional briskness. He himself would not have tried to save any of the foot - better amputate at once at the line of demarcation, get a good flap of healthy tissue and make a proper stump. "That scar tissue'll never heal - it'll always be tender and break when he tries to use it; he has been here four months now, and you can see how tender it is."
The boy scowled and grinned as the doctor touched the scar. For our English and those things under the sheet he seemed to have much the same feeling of strangeness: both were something foreign, rather uncomfortable. He looked relieved when the bandages were on again and the white sheet drawn up. "We had dozens of them during the winter - one hundred and sixty-three frozen feet and one hundred frozen hands in this hospital alone. They had to be driven back from the front in carts, for days sometimes. When they got here their feet were black - literally rotting away. Nothing to do but let the flesh slough off and then amputate."
We strolled on down the sunny, clean-smelling wards. The windows were open. They were playing tennis in the yard below; on a bench under a tree a young Hungarian soldier, one arm in a sling, and a girl were reading the same book. Sunday is a very genial day in Budapest. The cafe tables are crowded, orchestras playing everywhere, and in dozens of pavilions and on the grass and gravel outside them peasants and the humbler sort of people are dancing. The Danube - beautiful if not blue - flows through the town.
Pest is on one bank and Buda on the other, beside a wooded hill climbing steeply up to the old citadel, somewhat as the west bank of the Hudson climbs up to Storm King.
I first came on the Danube at Budapest in the evening after dinner and saw, close in front of me, what looked to be some curious electric-light sign. It seemed odd in war time, and I stared for a moment before I saw that this strange design was really the black, opposite bank with its zigzag streams of lamps.
Few cities have so naturally beautiful a drop-curtain, and, instead of spoiling it with gas-works' and grain-elevators as we should do, the Hungarians have been thoughtful enough to build a tree-covered promenade between the Danube and the string of hotels which line the river. In front of each of these hotels is a double row of tables and a hedge, and then the trees, under which, while the orchestras play, all Pest comes to stroll and take the air between coffee-time and the late Hungarian dinner.
Hundreds of cities have some such promenade, but few so genial and cosey a one as that of Budapest - not the brittle gayety of some more sophisticated capitals, but the simpler light-heartedness of a people full of feeling, fond of music and talk, and ready to share all they have with a stranger.
The bands play tunes from our musical comedies, but every now and then - and this is what the people like best - they swing into the strange, rolling, passionate-melancholy music of the country. Wherever the tzigany music comes from, it seems Hungarian, at any rate - fiery and indolent and haphazard, rolling on without any particular rhyme or reason, now piling up and now sinking indolently back as the waves roll up and fall back on the sand. People will listen to it for hours, and you can imagine one of those simpler daredevils - a hussar, for instance - in his blue-braided jacket, red breeches, and big cavalry boots, listening and drinking, and thinking of the fights he has won and the girls he has lost, getting sorry for himself at last and breaking his glass and weeping, and being very happy indeed.
There is a club in Budapest - at once a club and a luxurious villa almost too crowded with rugs and fine furniture. When you go to play tennis, instead of the ordinary locker-room one is ushered into a sort of boudoir filled with Chippendale furniture. It is a delightful place to get exercise, with tea served on a garden table between sets; yet, when I was in Budapest, the place was almost deserted. It was not, it seemed, the season that people came there, although just the season to use such a place. For six weeks they came here, and nothing could bring them back again. They did things only in spurts, so to speak: "They go off on hunting trips to the ends of the earth, bring back animals for the Zoo, then off to their country places and - flop! Then there is a racing season, and they play polo and race for a while, then - flop!"