A Diary Without Dates
by Enid Bagnold
I. OUTSIDE THE GLASS DOORS
II. INSIDE THE
III. “THE BOYS
A DIARY WITHOUT DATES
THAT FRIEND OF MINE
WHO, WHEN I WROTE HIM
WHY NOT KEEP SOMETHING
I apologize to those whom I may hurt.
Can I soothe them by pleading that one may only write what is
true for oneself?
I. OUTSIDE THE GLASS DOORS
I like discipline. I like to be part of an institution. It gives one
more liberty than is possible among three or four observant friends.
It is always cool and wonderful after the monotone of the dim
hospital, its half-lit corridors stretching as far as one can see, to
come out into the dazzling starlight and climb the hill, up into the
trees and shrubberies here.
The wind was terrible to-night. I had to battle up, and the leaves
were driven down the hill so fast that once I thought it was a
Madeleine's garden next door is all deserted now: they have gone up
to London. The green asphalt tennis-court is shining with rain, the
blue pond brown with slime; the little statues and bowls are lying on
their sides to keep the wind from putting them forcibly there; and all
over the house are white draperies and ghost chairs.
When I walk in the garden I feel like a ghost left over from the
I became aware to-night of one face detaching itself from the rest.
It is not a more pleasing face than the others, but it is becoming
conspicuous to me.
Twice a week, when there is a concert in the big hall, the officers
and the V.A.D.'s are divided, by some unspoken rulethe officers
sitting at one side of the room, the V.A.D.'s in a white row on the
When my eyes rest for a moment on the motley of dressing-gowns,
mackintoshes, uniforms, I inevitably see in the line one face set on a
slant, one pair of eyes forsaking the stage and fixed on me in a
steady, inoffensive beam.
This irritates me. The very lack of offence irritates me. But one
grows to look for everything.
Afterwards in the dining-room during Mess he will ask politely:
What did you think of the concert, Sister? Good show....
How wonderful to be called Sister! Every time the uncommon name is
used towards me I feel the glow of an implied relationship, something
which links me to the speaker.
My Sister remarked: If it's only a matter of that, we can provide
thrills for you here very easily.
The name of my ... admirer ... is, after all, Pettitt. The other
nurse in the Mess, who is very grand and insists on pronouncing his
name in the French way, says he is of humble origin.
He seems to have no relations and no visitors.
Out in the corridor I meditate on love.
Laying trays soothes the activity of the body, and the mind works
I meditate on love. I say to myself that Mr. Pettitt is to be
envied. I am still the wonder of the unknown to him: I exist, walk,
talk, every day beneath the beam of his eye, impenetrable.
He fell down again yesterday, and his foot won't heal. He has time
But in a hospital one has never time, one is never sure. He has
perhaps been here long enough to learn thatto feel the insecurity,
At any moment he may be forced to disappear into the secondary stage
of convalescent homes.
Yes, the impermanency of life in a hospital! An everlasting
dislocation of combinations.
Like nuns, one must learn to do with no nearer friend than God.
Bolts, in the shape of sudden, whimsical orders, are flung by an
Almighty whom one does not see.
The Sister who is over me, the only Sister who can laugh at things
other than jokes, is going in the first week of next month. Why? Where?
She doesn't know, but only smiles at my impatience. She knows
It unsettles me as I lay my spoons and forks. Sixty-five trays. It
takes an hour to do. Thirteen pieces on each tray. Thirteen times
sixty-five ... eight hundred and forty-five things to collect, lay,
square up symmetrically. I make little absurd reflections and
arrangementstaking a dislike to the knives because they will not lie
still on the polished metal of the tray, but pivot on their shafts, and
swing out at angles after my fingers have left them.
I love the long, the dim and lonely, corridor; the light centred in
the gleam of the trays, salt-cellars, yellow butters, cylinders of
Impermanency.... I don't wonder the Sisters grow so secret, so
uneager. How often stifled! How often torn apart!
It's heaven to me to be one of such a number of faces.
To see them pass into Mess like ghostsgentleman, tinker, and
tailor; each having shuffled home from death; each having known his
life rock on its base ... not talking muchfor what is there to
say?not laughing much for they have been here too longis a nightly
pleasure to me.
Creatures of habit! All the coloured dressing-gowns range themselves
round the two long tablesthis man in this seat, that man by the
gas-fire; this man with his wheel-chair drawn up at the end, that man
at the corner where no one will jostle his arm.
Curious how these officers leave the hospital, so silently.
Disappearances.... One face after another slips out of the picture, the
unknown heart behind the face fixed intently on some other centre of
I went into a soldiers' ward to-night to inquire about a man who has
Round his bed there stood three red screens, and the busy,
white-capped heads of two Sisters bobbed above the rampart.
It suddenly shocked me. What were they doing there? Why the screens?
Why the look of strain in the eyes of the man in the next bed who could
see behind the screens?
I went cold and stood rooted, waiting till one of them could come
out and speak to me.
Soon they took away the screen nearest to me; they had done with it.
The man I was to inquire for has no nostrils; they were blown away,
and he breathes through two pieces of red rubber tubing: it gave a more
horrible look to his face than I have ever seen.
The Sister came out and told me she thought he was not up to much.
I think she means he is dying.
I wonder if he thinks it better to die.... But he was nearly well
before he got pneumonia, had begun to take up the little habits of
living. He had been out to tea.
Inexplicable, what he thinks of, lying behind the screen.
To-night I was laying my trays in the corridor, the dim corridor
that I am likely often to mentionthe occasional blue gas-lamps
hanging at intervals down the roof in a dwindling perspective.
The only unshaded light in the corridor hangs above my head, making
the cutlery gleam in my hands.
The swish-swish of a lame foot approached down the stone tiling with
the tapping, soft and dull, of a rubber-tipped walking-stick.
He paused by the pillar, as I knew he would, and I busied myself
with an added rush and hurry, an added irritating noise of spoons flung
He waited patiently, shyly. I didn't look up, but I knew his face
was half smiling and suppliant.
We shall miss you, he said.
But I shall be back in a week!
We shall miss you ... laying the trays out here.
Everything passes, I said gaily.
He whistled a little and balanced himself against his stick.
You are like me, Sister, he said earnestly; and I saw that he took
me for a philosopher.
He shuffled on almost beyond the circle of light, paused while my
lips moved in a vague smile of response, then moved on into the shadow.
The low, deep quiet of the corridor resumed its hold on me. The patter
of reflection in my brain proceeded undisturbed.
You are like me! The deepest flattery one creature pays its fellow
... the cry which is uttered when another enters our country.
Far down the corridor a slim figure in white approaches, dwarfed by
the smoky distance; her nun-like cap floating, her scarlet cape, the
cape of pride, slipped round her narrow shoulders.
How intent and silent They are!
I watched this one pass with a look half-reverence, half-envy. One
should never aspire to know a Sister intimately. They are disappointing
people; without candour, without imagination. Yet what a look of
personality hangs about them....
To-night ... Mr. Pettitt: Sister!
Yes, Mr. Pettitt.
Do you ever go to theatres? Do you like them?
At the risk of appearing unnatural, I said, Not much.
Oh ... I thought.... H'm, that's a pity. Don't you like revues?
I thought you'd take me to a matinée one afternoon.
Oh, charming! I can't get leave in the afternoons, though.
You often have a day off.
Yes, but it's too soon to ask for another.
Well, how about Wednesday, then?
Too soon. Think of the new Sister, and her opinion of me! That has
yet to be won.
Well, let me know, anyway....
The new Sister is coming quite soon: she has a medal.
Now that I know my Sister must go I don't talk to her much; I
almost avoid her. That's true hospital philosophy.
I must put down the beauty of the night and the woman's laugh in the
I walked up from the hospital late to-night, half-past eight, and
hungry ... in the cold, brilliant moonlight; a fine moon, very low,
throwing long, pointed shadows across the road from the trees and
As one climbs up there is a wood on the right, the remains of the
old wooded hill; sparse trees, very tall; and to-night a star between
every branch, and a fierce moon beating down on the mud and grass.
I had on my white cap and long blue coat, very visible. The moon
swept the road from side to side: lovers, acting as though it were
night, were lit as though it was day.
I turned into the wood to take a message to a house set back from
the road, and the moonlight and the night vapour rising from the marshy
ground were all tangled together so that I could hardly see hedge from
field or path.
I saw a lit cigarette-end, and a woman's laugh came across the field
as naturally as if a sheep had bleated in the swampy grass. It struck
me that the dark countryside was built to surround and hide a laugh
like hersthe laugh of a lover, animal and protesting.
I saw the glowing end of the cigarette dance in a curve and fall to
the ground, and she laughed again more faintly.
Walking on in the middle of the moonlight, I reached the gate I was
looking for, ran up the pebbly drive to the dining-room window, gave my
message, and returned.
I slipped my cap off my hair and pushed it into my pocket, keeping
under the shadow of the hedge and into the quiet field.
They were whispering: Do you? I do.... Are you? I am....
crushed into the set branches of the hedge.
The Mess went vilely to-night. Sister adds up on her fingers, and
that's fatal, so all the numbers were out, and the chef sent in
forty-five meats instead of fifty-one. I blushed with horror and
responsibility, standing there watching six hungry men pretending to be
The sergeant wolfed the cheese too. He got it out from under my very
eyes while I was clearing the tables and ate it, standing up to it in
the pantry with his back to me when I went in to fetch a tray.
Whenever I see that broad khaki back, the knickered legs astride,
the flexed elbow-tips, I know that his digestion is laying up more
trouble for him.
Benks, the Mess orderly, overeats himself too. He comes to the bunk
and thrusts his little smile round the door: Sister, I got another of
them sick 'eadaches, very cheerfully, as though he had got something
worth having. She actually retorted, Benks, you eat too much! one
day, but he only swung on one leg and smiled more cheerfully than ever.
The new Sister has come. That should mean a lot. What about one's
habits of life...?
The new Sister has come, and at present she is absolutely without
personality, beyond her medal. She appears to be deaf.
I went along to-night to see and ask after the man who has his nose
After the long walk down the corridor in almost total darkness, the
vapour of the rain floating through every open door and window, the
sudden brilliancy of the ward was like a haven.
The man lay on my right on enteringthe screen removed from him.
Far up the ward the Sister was working by a bed. Ryan, the man with
his nose gone, was lying high on five or six pillows, slung in his
position by tapes and webbing passed under his arms and attached to the
bedposts. He lay with his profile to meonly he has no profile, as we
know a man's. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his
protruding lipsthe nose, the left eye, gone.
He was breathing heavily. They don't know yet whether he will live.
When a man dies they fetch him with a stretcher, just as he came in;
only he enters with a blanket over him, and a flag covers him as he
goes out. When he came in he was one of a convoy, but every man who can
stand rises to his feet as he goes out. Then they play him to his
funeral, to a grass mound at the back of the hospital.
It takes all sorts to make a hospital.
For instance, the Visitors....
There is the lady who comes in to tea and wants to be introduced to
every one as though it was a school-treat.
She jokes about the cake, its scarcity or its quantity, and makes a
lot of fun about two lumps of sugar.
When she is at her best the table assumes a perfect and listening
silencenot the silence of the critic, but the silence of the absorbed
child treasuring every item of talk for future use. After she goes the
joy of her will last them all the evening.
There is the lady who comes in to tea and, sitting down at the only
unlaid table, cries, Nurse! I have no knife or plate or cup; and I
prefer a glass of boiling water to tea. And would you mind sewing this
button on my glove?
There is the lady who comes in and asks the table at large: I
wonder if any one knows General Biggens? I once met him....
Or: You've been in Gallipoli? Did you run across my young cousin, a
lieutenant in the...? Well, he was only there two days or so, I
suppose.... exactly as though she was talking about Cairo in the
To-day there was the Limit.
She sat two paces away from where I sit to pour out tea. Her face
was kind, but inquisitive, with that brown liver-look round the eyes
and a large rakish hat. She comes often, having heard of him through
the padre, to see a Canadian whom she doesn't know and who
doesn't want to see her.
From two places away I heard her voice piping up: Nurse, excuse my
asking, but is your cap a regulation one, like all the others?
I looked up, and all the tea I was pouring poured over the edge. Mr.
Pettitt and Captain Matthew, between us, looked down at their plates.
I put my hand to my cap. Is anything wrong? It ought to be like the
She leant towards me, nodding and smiling with bonhomie, and said
flatteringly, It's so prettily put on, I thought it was different.
And then (horror): Don't you think nurse puts her cap on well? she
asked Captain Matthew, who, looking harder than ever at his plate and
reddening to the ears, mumbled something which did not particularly
commit him since it couldn't be heard.
The usual delighted silence began to creep round the table, and I
tried wildly to divert her attention before our end became a stage and
the rest of the table an audience.
I think it's so nice to see you sitting down with them all, she
cooed; it's so cosy for them.
Is your cup empty? I said furiously, and held out my hand for it.
But it wasn't, of course; she couldn't even do that for me.
She shook hands with me when she went away and said she hoped to
come again. And she will.
There was once a lady who asked me very loudly whether I saw many
horrible sights, and did the V.A.D.'s have to go to the funerals?
And another who cried out with emotion when she saw the first
officer limp in to Mess, And can some of them walk, then!
Perhaps she thought they came in to tea on stretchers, with
field-bandages on. She quivered all over, too, as she looked from one
to the other, and I feel sure she went home and broke down, crying,
What an experience ... the actual wounds!
Shuffle, shuffle, up the corridor to-night, as I was laying my
trays. Captain Matthew appeared in the circle of light, his arm and
hand bound up and his pipe in his mouth.
He paused by me. Well.... he said companionably, and lolled
against a pillar.
You've done well at tea in the way of visitors, I remarked. Six,
Yes, he said, and now I've got rid of 'em all, except one.
Where's the one?
In there. He pointed with his pipe to the empty Mess-Room. He's
the father of a subaltern of mine who was killed.
He's come to talk to you about it?
But he seemed in no hurry to go in, waiting against the pillar and
staring at the moving cutlery.
He waited almost three minutes, then he sighed and went in.
Biscuits to put out, cheese to put out. How wet this new cheese is,
and fresh and good the little bits that fall off the edge! I never eat
cheese at home, but here the breakings are like manna.
And pears, with the old shopman's trick, little, bitten ones at the
bottom, fine ones at the top. Soft sugar, lump sugar, coffee. As one
stirs the coffee round in the tin the whole room smells of it, that
brown, burnt smell.
And then to click the light on, let down the blind, stir the fire,
close the door of the little bunk, and, looking round it, think what
exhilaration of liberty I have here.
Let them pile on the rules, invent and insist; yet behind them,
beneath them, I have that strong, secret liberty of an institution that
runs like a wind in me and lifts my mind like a leaf.
So long as I conform absolutely, not a soul will glance at my
thoughtsfew at my face. I have only to be silent and conform, and I
might be in so far a land that even the eye of God had lost me.
I took the plate of biscuits, the two plates of cheese, one in each
hand and one balanced with a new skill on my arm, and carried them into
the dining-room, where the tables were already laid and only one light
kept on as yet for economy's sake.
Low voices.... There in the dimmest corner sat Captain Matthew, his
chin dug deep in his grey dressing-gown, and beside him a little
elderly man, his hat on his knees, his anxious, ordinary face turned
towards the light.
A citizen ... a baker or a brewer, tinker, tailor, or
There had been the buying of the uniform, the visits to the camp in
England, the parcels to send outalways the parcelsweek by week. And
now nothing; no more parcels, no more letters, silence.
Only the last hungry pickings from Captain Matthew's tired memory
and nervous speech.
I turned away with a great shrinking.
In a very few minutes the citizen went past my bunk door, his hat in
his hand, his black coat buttoned; taking back to his home and his
family the last facts that he might ever learn.
At the end of the passage he almost collided with that stretcher
which bears a flag.
Of the two, the stretcher moved me least.
My Sister is afraid of death. She told me so. And not the
less afraid, she said, after all she has seen of it. That is terrible.
But the new Sister is afraid of life. She is shorter-sighted.
The rain has been pouring all day.
To-night it has stopped, and all the hill is steam and drizzle and
black with the blackness that war has thrust upon the countryside.
My Sister has gone.
Two nights ago I went up to a dinner at Madeleine's and to stay the
night. My Sister said, Go and enjoy yourself! And I did. It is very
amusing, the change into rooms full of talk and light; I feel a glow of
pleasure as I climb to the room Madeleine calls mine and find the
reflection of the fire on the blue wall-paper.
The evening wasn't remarkable, but I came back full of descriptions
to the bunk and Sister next day.
I was running on, inventing this and that, making her laugh, when
suddenly I looked up, and she had tears in her eyes.
I wavered and came to a stop. She got up suddenly and moved about
the room, and then with a muttered Wash my hands, disappeared into
I sat and thought: Is it that she has her life settled, quietly
continuous, and one breaks in...? Does the wind from outside hurt?
I regretted it all the evening.
Yesterday I arrived at the hospital and couldn't find the
store-cupboard keys, then ran across to her room and tapped at the
door. Her voice called Come in! and I found her huddled in an
arm-chair, unnerved and white. I asked her for the keys, and when she
gave them to me she held out her hand and said: I'm going away
to-morrow. They are sending me home; they say I'm ill.
I muttered something with a feeling of shock, and going back to my
bunk I brooded.
The new Sister came in, and a new V.A.D. too, explaining that my
former companion was now going into a ward.
A sense of desolation was in the air, a ruthlessness on the part of
some one unknown. Shuffle, shuffle ... they shuffle us like cards!
I rose and began to teach the new V.A.D. the subtle art of laying
trays. She seemed stupid.
I didn't want to share my trays with her. I love them; they are my
recreation. I hung over them idly, hardly laying down the spoons I held
in my hand, but, standing with them, chivied the new V.A.D. until her
movements became flustered and her eye distraught.
She was very ugly. I thought: In a day or two I shall get to like
her, and then I shan't be able to chivy her.
Out in the corridor came a tremendous tramping, boots and jingling
metal. Two armed men with fixed bayonets arrived, headed by a sergeant.
The sergeant paused and looked uncertainly this way and that, and then
I guessed their destination. In there, I nodded, pointing through
a closed glass door, and the sergeant marched his men in and beyond the
An officer had been brought back under arrest; I had seen him pass
with his escort. The rumour at tea had been that he had extended his
two days' leave into three weeks.
The V.A.D. looked at me questioningly but she didn't dare, and I
couldn't bear, to start any elucidations on the subject.
I couldn't think; she worried me. Her odds and ends of conversation
pecked at me like a small bird. She told me a riddle which filled me
with nausea, and finally a limerick which I had heard three times in
I left her and went into the bunk.
Here the new Sister had installed herself, gentle and pink and full
of quiet murmurs.
The rain, half snow, half sleet, dabbled against the window-pane,
and I lifted the blind to watch the flakes stick and melt on the glass.
The V.A.D., her trays finished, appeared in the doorway. The little
room seemed full of people.
There's a concert, I said, looking at the V.A.D. with distaste.
She looked at me uncertainly: Aren't you coming?
No, I said, I've a note to write, forgetting that the new Sister
might not allow such infringements. She gave no sign.
The V.A.D. gave in and disappeared concertwards.
The Sister rose too and went out into the kitchen to consult with
I slipped out behind her and down the steps into the gardeninto
the wet, dark garden, down the channels that were garden-paths, and
felt my way over to the Sisters' quarters.
My Sister hadn't moved. There by the gas-fire, her thin hand to her
face, she sat as she had two hours before.
Come in, she offered, and talk to me.
Her collar, which was open, she tried to do up. It made a painful
impression on me of weakness and the effort to be normal.
I remembered that she had once told me she was so afraid of death,
and I guessed that she was suffering now from that terror.
But when the specialist is afraid, what can ignorance say...?
Life in the bunk is wretched (except that the new V.A.D. tells
fortunes by hands).
The new Sister is at the same time timid and dogged. She looks at me
with a sidelong look and gives me little flips with her hand, as though
(a) she thought I might break something and (b) that she
might stave it off by playfulness.
To stand up straight on one's feet, strong, easy, without the
surging of any physical sensation, by a bedside whose coverings are
flung here and there by the quivering nerves beneath it ... there is a
sort of shame in such strength.
What can I do for you? my eyes cry dumbly into his clouded brown
I was told to carry trays from a ward where I had never been
beforejust to carry trays, orderly's work, no more.
No. 22 was lying flat on his back, his knees drawn up under him, the
sheets up to his chin; his flat, chalk-white face tilted at the
ceiling. As I bent over to get his untouched tray his tortured brown
eyes fell on me.
I'm in pain, Sister, he said.
No one has ever said that to me before in that tone.
He gave me the look that a dog gives, and his words had the
character of an unformed cry.
He was quite alone at the end of the ward. The Sister was in her
bunk. My white cap attracted his desperate senses.
As he spoke his knees shot out from under him with his restless
pain. His right arm was stretched from the bed in a narrow iron frame,
reminding me of a hand laid along a harp to play the chords, the
fingers with their swollen green flesh extended across the strings; but
of this harp his fingers were the slave, not the master.
Shall I call your Sister? I whispered to him.
He shook his head. She can't do anything. I must just stick it out.
They're going to operate on the elbow, but they must wait three days
His head turned from side to side, but his eyes never left my face.
I stood by him, helpless, overwhelmed by his horrible loneliness.
Then I carried his tray down the long ward and past the Sister's
bunk. Within, by the fire, she was laughing with the M.O. and drinking
a cup of teaa harmless amusement.
The officer in No. 22 says he's in great pain, I said doubtfully.
(It wasn't my ward, and Sisters are funny.)
I know, she said quite decently, but I can't do anything. He must
stick it out.
I looked through the ward door once or twice during the evening, and
still his knees, at the far end of the room, were moving up and down.
It must happen to the men in France that, living so near the edge of
death, they are more aware of life than we are.
When they come back, when the postwar days set in, will they keep
that vision, letting it play on life ... or must it fade?
And some become so careless of life, so careless of all the whims
and personalities and desires that go to make up existence, that one
wrote to me:
The only real waste is the waste of metal. The earth will be
covered again and again with Us. The corn will grow again; the bread
and meat can be repeated. But this metal that has lain in the earth for
centuries, the formation of the beginning, that men have sweated and
grubbed for ... that is the waste.
What carelessness of worldly success they should bring back with
Orderlies come and go up and down the corridor. Often they carry
stretchersnow and then a stretcher with the empty folds of a flag
flung across it.
Then I pause from laying my trays, and with a bunch of forks in my
hand I stand still.
They take the stretcher into a ward, and while I wait I know what
they are doing behind the screens which stand around a bed against the
wall. I hear the shuffle of feet as the men stand to attention, and the
orderlies come out again, and the folds of the flag have ballooned up
to receive and embrace a man's body.
Where is he going?
To the mortuary.
Yes ... but where else...?
Perhaps there is nothing better than the ecstasy and unappeasement
II. INSIDE THE GLASS DOORS
My feet ache, ache, ache...!
End of the first day.
Life in a ward is all scurry and rush. I don't reflect; I'm putting
on my cap anyhow, and my hands are going to the dogs.
I shall never get to understand Sisters; they are so strange, so
tricky, uncertain as collies. Deep down they have an ineradicable
axiom: that any visitor, any one in an old musquash coat, in a
high-boned collar, in a spotted veil tied up at the sides, any one with
whom one shakes hands or takes tea, is more important than the most
charming patient (except, of course, a warded M.O.).
For this reason the mouths of the pillow-cases are all turned to
face up the ward, away from the door.
I think plants in a ward are a barbarism, for as they are always
arranged on the table by the door, it is again obvious that they are
intended only to minister to the eye of the visitor, that race of gods.
In our ward there are eighteen fern-pots, some in copper, some in
pink china, three in mauve paper, and one hanging basket of ferns. All
of these have to be taken out on the landing at night and in again in
the morning, and they have to be soaked under the tap.
The Sisters' minds are as yet too difficult for me, but in the minds
of the V.A.D.'s I see certain salient features. I see already
manifested in them the ardent longing to be alike. I know and remember
this longing; it was present through all my early years in a large
boarding-school; but there it was naturally corrected by the changes of
growth and the inexpertness of youth. Here I see for the first time
grown women trying with all the concentration of their fuller years to
be as like one another as it is possible to be.
There is a certain dreadful innocence about them too, as though each
would protest, In spite of our tasks, our often immodest tasks, our
minds are white as snow.
And, as far as I can see, their conception of a white female mind is
the silliest, most mulish, incurious, unresponsive, condemning kind of
an ideal that a human creature could set before it.
At present I am so humble that I am content to do all the labour and
take none of the temperatures, but I can see very well that it is when
I reach a higher plane that all the trouble will begin.
The ranklings, the heart-burnings, the gross injustices.... Who is
to make the only poultice? Who is to paint the very septic throat of
Mr. Mullins, Army Service Corps? Who is todizzy splendourgo round
with the M.O. should the Sister be off for a half-day?
These and other questions will form the pride and anguish of my
It is wonderful to go up to London and dine and stay the night with
Madeleine after the hospital.
The hospitala sort of monotone, a place of whispers and wheels
moving on rubber tyres, long corridors, and strangely unsexed women
moving in them. Unsexed not in any real sense, but the white clothes,
the hidden hair, the stern white collar just below the chin, give them
an air of school-girlishness, an air and a look women don't wear in the
world. They seem unexpectant.
Then at Madeleine's ... the light, the talk, the deep bath got ready
for me by a maid, instead of my getting it ready for a patient....
Not that I mind getting it ready; I like it. Only the change! It's
like being turn and turn about maid and mistress.
There is the first snow here, scanty and frozen on the doorstep.
I came home last night in the dark to dinner and found its faint
traces on the road and in the gutter as I climbed the hill. I couldn't
see well; there were stars, but no moon. Higher up it was unmistakable;
long white tracks frozen in the dried mud of the road, and a branch
under a lamp thickened with frozen snow.
Shall I ever grow out of that excitement over the first bit of
I felt a glow of pride in the hill, thinking:
In London it's all slush and mud. They don't suspect what we've got
here. A suburb is a wonderful place!
After a wet and muddy day in London I've seen the trains pull into
Charing Cross with snow piled on the roofs of the carriages, and felt a
foot taller for joy that I was one of those fortunates who might step
into a train and go down into a white countryside.
It is the same excitement to wake up early to an overnight fall and
see down the Dover Road for miles no foot of man printed, but only the
birds' feet. Considering the Dover Road has been a highway since the
Romans, it really is a fine moment when you realize its surface has
suddenly become untrodden and unexplored as any jungle.
Alas, the amount of snow that has set me writing!... two bucketfuls
in the whole garden!
When a Medical Officer goes sick, or, in other words, when an M.O.
is warded, a very special and almost cynical expression settles on his
face. Also the bedside manner of the Visiting Officer is discarded as
he reaches the bed of the sick M.O.
My knees are very painful, says the sick M.O., but it is a
despondent statement, not a plea for aid.
The Visiting Officer nods, but he does not suggest that they will
soon be better.
They look at each other as weak human beings look, and:
We might try...? says the Visiting Officer questioningly.
The M.O. agrees without conviction, and settles back on his pillows.
Not for him the comfortable trust in the divine knowledge of
specialists. He can endure like a dog, but without its faith in its
The particular M.O. whose knees are painful is, as a matter of fact,
better now. He got up yesterday.
Mooning about the ward in a dressing-gown, he stared first out of
one window into the fog and then out of another.
Finally, just before he got back into bed, he made an epigram.
Nurse, he said, the difference between being in bed and getting
up is that in bed you do nothing, but when you get up there's nothing
I tucked him up and put the cradle over his knees, and he added,
One gets accustomed to everything, and settled back happily with his
reading-lamp, his French novel, and his dictionary.
The fog developed all day yesterday, piling up white and motionless
against the window-panes. As night fell a little air of excitement ran
here and there amongst the V.A.D.'s.
How shall we get home...? Are the buses running? Oh no, the
last one is stuck against the railings outside! My torch has run
By seven o'clock even the long corridor was as dim as the alley
outside. No one thought of shutting the windowsI doubt whether they
will shut ... and the fog rolled over the sill in banks and round the
open glass doors, till even the white cap of a Sister could hardly be
seen as she passed.
I am pleased with any atmospheric exaggeration; the adventure of
going home was before me....
At eight I felt my way down over the steps into the alley; the
torch, held low on the ground, lighted but a small, pale circle round
my shoes. Outside it was black and solid and strangely quiet.
In the yard a man here and there raised his voice in a shout; feet
strayed near mine and edged away.
At the cross-roads I came on a lantern standing upon the ground, and
by it drooped the nose of a benighted horse; the spurt of a match lit
the face of its owner.
Up the hill, the torch held low against the kerbstone, the sudden
looming of a black giant made me start back as I nearly ran my head
into a telegraph-post....
I was at the bottom of the sea; fathoms and fathoms of fog must
stand above my head.
Suddenly a dozen lights showed about me, then the whole sky alight
with stars, and naked trees with the rime on them, bristling; the long
road ran up the hill its accustomed steel colour, the post office was
there with its red window, the lean old lamp-post with its broken
I had walked out of the fog as one walks out of the sea on to a
Looking back, I could see the pit behind me; the fog standing on the
road like a solid wall, straight up and down. Again I felt a pride in
the hill. Down there, I thought, those groping feet and shouting
voices; that man and that horse ... they don't guess!
I walked briskly up the hill, and presently stepped on to the
pavement; but at the edge of the asphalt, where tufted grass should
grow, something crackled and hissed under my feet. Under the torchlight
the unnatural grass was white and brittle with rime, fanciful as a
stage fairy scene, and the railings beyond it glittered too.
I slid in the road as I turned down the drive; a sheet of ice was
spread where the leaky pipe is, and the steps up to the house door were
But oh, the honeysuckle and the rose-trees...! Bush, plant, leaf,
stem, rimed from end to end. The garden was a Bond Street jeweller's!
Perhaps the final chapter on Mr. Pettitt....
In the excitement of the ward I had almost forgotten him; he is
buried in the Mess, in the days when I lived on the floor below.
To-night, as I was waiting by the open hatch of the kitchen for my
tray to be filled with little castles of lemon jelly, the hot blast
from the kitchen drawing stray wisps of hair from beneath my cap, I saw
the familiar limping figurea figure bound up with my first days at
the hospital, evoking a hundred evenings at the concerts, in the
dining-room. I felt he had been away, but I didn't dare risk a So
He smiled, blushed, and limped past me.
Upstairs in the ward, as I was serving out my jellies, he arrived in
the doorway, but, avoiding me, hobbled round the ward, visiting every
bed but the one I was at at the moment. Then he went downstairs again.
I passed him on the stairs. He can't say he didn't have his
opportunity, for I even stopped with my heavy tray and spoke to him.
Half an hour later he was back in the ward again (not his ward), and
this time he found the courage of hysteria. There in the middle of the
ward, under the glaring Christmas lights, with the eyes of every
interested man in every bed glued upon us, he presented me with a fan
wrapped in white paper: A little present I bought you, nurse. I took
it, eyes sizzling and burning holes in my shoulders, and stammered my
You do like it, nurse? he said rapidly, three times in succession.
And I: I do, I do, I do....
I thought you would. You do like it?
Oh, just what I wanted!
That's all right, then. Just a little Christmas present.
We couldn't stop. It was like taking too much butter for the
marmalade and too much marmalade for the butter.
He leaves the hospital in a day or two.
The fog is still thick. To-night at the station after a day off I
found it white and silent. Touching the arm of a man, I asked him the
all-important question: Are the buses running?
And the cabs all gone home to bed, and I was hungry!
What ghosts pass ... and voices, bodyless, talking intimately while
their feet fall without a stir on the grass of the open Heath.
I was excited by the strange silent fog.
But my left shoe began to hurt me, and stopping at the house of a
girl I knew, I borrowed a country pair of hers: no taller than I, she
takes two sizes larger; they were like boats.
I started to trudge the three miles home in the boats: the slightest
flick of the foot would have sent one of them flying beyond the eye of
God or man. After a couple of miles the shoes began to tell, and I
stood still and lifted up one foot behind me, craning over my shoulder
to see if I could catch sight of the glimmer of skin through the heel
of the stocking. The fog was too thick for that.
Another half-mile and I put my finger down to my heel and felt the
wet blood through a large hole in my stocking, so I took off the shoes
and tied them together ... and, more silent than ever in the tomb of
fog, padded along as God had first supposed that woman would walk, on
the wet surface of the road.
A warded M.O. is pathetic. He knows he can't get well quicker than
time will let him. He has no faith.
To-morrow I have to take down all the decorations that I put up for
Christmas. When I put them up I never thought I should be the one to
take them down. When I was born no one thought I should be old.
While I was untying a piece of holly from the electric-light cords
on the ceiling and a patient was holding the ladder for me, a young
padre came and pretended to help us, but while he stood with us he
whispered to the patient, Are you a communicant? I felt a wave of
heat and anger; I could have dropped the holly on him.
They hung up their stockings on Christmas night on walking-sticks
hitched over the ends of the beds and under the mattresses. Such big
stockings! Many of them must have played Father Christmas in their own
homes, to their own children, on other Christmases.
On Christmas Eve I didn't leave the hospital till long after the
Day-Sisters had gone and the Night-Sisters came on. The wards were all
quiet as I walked down the corridor, and to left and right through the
glass doors hung the rows of expectant stockings.
Final and despairing postscript on Mr. Pettitt.
When a woman says she cannot come to lunch it is because she doesn't
Let this serve as an axiom to every lover: A woman who refuses lunch
The hospital is alive; I feel it like a living being.
The hospital is like a dream. I am afraid of waking up and finding
The white Sisters, the ceaselessly-changing patients, the long
passages, the sudden plunges into the brilliant wards ... their scenery
Sometimes in the late evening one walks busily up and down the ward
doing this and that, forgetting that there is anything beyond the drawn
blinds, engrossed in the patients, one's tasksbed-making, washing,
one errand and anotherand then suddenly a blind will blow out and
almost up to the ceiling, and through it you will catch a glimpse that
makes you gasp, of a black night crossed with bladed searchlights, of a
moon behind a crooked tree.
The lifting of the blind is a miracle; I do not believe in the wind.
A new Sister on to-night ... very severe. We had to make the beds
like white cardboard. I wonder what she thinks of me.
Mr. Pettitt (who really is going to-morrow) wandered up into the
ward and limped near me. Sister.... he began. He will call me
Sister. I frowned at him. The new Sister glanced at him and blinked.
He was very persistent. Sister, he said again, do you think I can
have a word with you?
Not now, I whispered as I hurried past him.
Oh, is that so? he said, as though I had made an interesting
statement, and limped away, looking backwards at me. I suppose he wants
to say good-bye.
He sat beside Mr. Wicks's bed (Mr. Wicks who is paralysed) and
looked at me from time to time with that stare of his which contains so
It is curious to think that I once saw Mr. Wicks on a tennis-lawn,
walking across the grass.... Mr. Wicks, who will never put his foot on
grass again, but, lying in his bed, continues to say, as all Tommies
say, I feel well in meself.
So he does; he feels well in himself. But he isn't going to live,
all the same.
Still his routine goes on: he plays his game of cards, he has his
joke: Lemonade, please, nurse; but it's not from choice!
When I go to clear his ash-tray at night I always say, Well, now
I've got something worth clearing at last!
And he chuckles and answers, Thought you'd be pleased. It's the
others gets round my bed and leaves their bits.
He was once a sergeant: he got his commission a year ago.
My ruined charms cry aloud for help.
The cap wears away my front hair; my feet are widening from the
everlasting boards; my hands won't take my rings.
I was advised last night on the telephone to marry immediately
before it was too late.
A desperate remedy. I will try cold cream and hair tonics first.
There is a tuberculosis ward across the landing. They call it the
It is a den of coughs and harrowing noises.
One night I saw a negro standing in the doorway with his long hair
done up in hairpins. He is the pet of the T.B. ward; they call him
Henry came in to help us with our Christmas decorations on Christmas
Eve, and as he cleverly made wreaths my Sister whispered to me, He's
never spitting ... in the ward!
But he wasn't, it was part of his languagelittle clicks and ticks.
He comes from somewhere in Central Africa, and one of the T.B.'s told
me, He's only got one wife, nurse.
He is very proud of his austerity, for he has somehow discovered
that he has hit on a country where it is the nutty thing only to have
No one can speak a word of his language, no one knows exactly where
he comes from; but he can say in English, Good morning, Sister! and
Christmas Box! and One!
Directly one takes any notice of him he laughs and clicks, holding
up one finger, crying, One!
Then a proud T.B. (they regard him as the Creator might regard a
humming-bird) explains: He means he's only got one wife, nurse.
Then he did his second trick. He came to me with outstretched black
hand and took my apron, fingering it. Its whiteness slipped between his
fingers. He dropped it and, holding up the hand with its fellow, ducked
his head to watch me with his glinting eyes.
He means, explained the versatile T.B., that he has ten
piccaninnies in his village and they're all dressed in white.
It took my breath away; I looked at Henry for corroboration. He
nodded earnestly, coughed and whispered, Ten!
How do you know he means that? I asked. How can you possibly have
We got pictures, nurse. We showed 'im kids, and 'e said 'e got
tensix girls and four boys. We showed 'im pictures of kids.
I had never seen Henry before, never knew he existed. But in the
ward opposite the poor T.B.'s had been holding conversations with him
in window-seats, showing him pictures, painfully establishing a
communion with him ... Henry, with his hair done up in hairpins!
Although they showed him off with conscious pride, I don't think he
really appeared strange to them, beyond his colour. I believe they
imagine his wife as appearing much as their own wives, his children as
the little children who run about their own doorsteps. They do not
stretch their imaginations to conceive any strangeness about his home
surroundings to correspond with his own strangeness.
To them Henry has the dignity of a man and a householder, possibly a
He seems quite happy and amused. I see him carrying a bucket
sometimes, sharing its handle with a flushed T.B. They carry on
animated conversations as they go downstairs, the T.B. talking the
most. It reminds me of a child and a dog.
What strange machinery is there for getting him back? Part of the
cargo of a ship ... one day ... a nigger for Central Africa....
Where's his unit?
Who knows! One nigger and his bundle ... for Central Africa!
The ward has put Mr. Wicks to Coventry because he has been abusive
and violent-tempered for three days.
He lies flat in his bed and frowns; no more jokes over the lemonade,
no wilfulness over the thermometer.
It is in these days that Mr. Wicks faces the truth.
I lingered by his bed last night, after I had put his tea-tray on
his table, and looked down at him; he pretended to be inanimate, his
open eyes fixed upon the white rail of the bed. His bedclothes were
stretched about him as though he had not moved since his bed was made,
His worldly pleasures were beside himhis reading-lamp, his
Christmas box of cigars, his Starbut his eyes, disregarding
them, were upon that sober vision that hung around the bedrail.
He began a bitter conversation:
Nurse, I'm only a ranker, but I had a bit saved. I went to a
private doctor and paid for myself. And I went to a specialist, and he
told me I should never get this. I paid for it myself out of what I had
We might have been alone in the world, he and I. Far down at the
other end of the room the men sat crouched about the fire, their trays
before them on chairs. The sheet of window behind Mr. Wicks's head was
flecked with the morsels of snow which, hunted by the gale, obtained a
second's refuge before oblivion.
I'd sooner be dead than lying here; I would, reely. You hear that
often in the world. I'd sooner be dead than But Mr. Wicks meant
it; he would sooner be dead than lying there. And death is a horror, an
end. Yet he says lying there is worse.
You see, I paid for a specialist myself, and he told me I should
never be like this.
There was nothing to be said.... One must have one's tea. I went
down the ward to the bunk, and we cut the pink iced cake left over from
I did not mean to forget him, but I forgot him. From birth to death
we are alone....
But one of the Sisters remembered him.
Mr. Wicks is still in the dumps, she remarked.
What is really the matter with him, Sister?
Locomotor ataxy. And she added as she drank her tea, It's his own
Oh, hush, hush! my heart cried soundlessly to her, You can't
judge the bitterness of this, nun, from your convent...!
Alas, Mr. Wicks!... No wonder you saved your money to spend upon
specialists! How many years have you walked in fear of this? He took
your money, the gentleman in Harley Street, and told you that you might
go in peace. He blessed you and gave you salvation.
And the bitterest thing of all is that you paid for him like an
officer and he was wrong.
How the blinds blew and the windows shook to-night...! I walked out
of the hospital into a gale, clouds driving to the sea, trees bending
back and fore across the moon.
I walked till I was warm, and then I walked for happiness.
The maddening shine of the moon held my eyes, and I walked in the
road like a fool, watching hertill at last, bringing my eyes down,
the telegraph-posts were small as blades of grass on the hill-side and
the shining ribbon tracks in the mud on the road ran up the hill for
ever. They go to Dover, and Dover is Franceand France leads anywhere.
To what a lost enchantment am I recalled by the sight of a branch
across the moon? Something in childhood, something which escapes yet
does not wither....
As I passed the public-house on the crest of the hill, all black and
white in the cold moonlight, a heavy door swung open and, with a cough
and a deep, satisfied snuffle, a man coming out let a stream of
gaslight across the road. If I were a man I should certainly go to
public-houses. All that polished brass and glass boxed up away from the
moon and the shadows would call to me. And to drink must be a happy
thing when you have climbed the hill.
The T.B. ward is a melancholy place. There is a man in a bed near
the door who lies with his mouth open; his head is like a bird-cage
beneath a muslin cloth. I saw him behind his screens when I took them
over a little lukewarm chicken left from our dinner.
There was a dark red moon to-night, and frost. Our orderly said,
You can tell it's freezing, nurse, by the breath, as he watched mine
curl up in smoke in the icy corridor. I like people who notice
Out in the road in front of the hospital I couldn't get the
motor-bicycle to work, and sat crouched in the dark fiddling with
The charwomen came out of the big gate in the dark talking and
laughing, all in a bunch. One of them stepped off the pavement near me
and stopped to put her toe through the ice in the gutter.
Nah, come on, Mrs. Toms!
I always 'ave to break it, it's ser nice an' stiff, she said as
she ran after them.
To be a Sister is to have a nationality.
As there are Icelanders urbane, witty, lazy ... and yet they are all
Icelanders ... so there are cold, uproarious, observant, subservient,
slangy, sympathetic, indifferent, and Scotch Sisters, and yet....
Sister said of a patient to-day, He was a funny man.
A funny man is a man who is a dark horse: who is neither friendly
nor antagonistic; who is witty; who is preoccupied; who is whimsical or
erraticfunny qualities, unsafe qualities.
No Sister could like a funny man.
In our ward there are three sorts of men: Nothing much, nice
boys, and Mr. Wicks.
The last looms even to the mind of the Sister as a Biblical figure,
a pillar of salt, a witness to God's wrath.
The Sister is a past-mistress of such phrases as Indeed! That is
a matter of opinion, We shall see... It is possible.
I have discovered a new and (for me) charming game which I play with
my Sister. It is the game of telling the truth about the contents of my
mind when asked.
Yesterday Sister was trying to get some coal out of the coal-bin
with a shovel that turned round and round on its handle; she was
I said, Let me, Sister!
She said, Why?
And I: Because I think I can do it better.
Why should you think that?
Because all human beings do, I said, and, luckily, she smiled.
She was washing her caps out in a bowl in the afternoon when I came
Good afternoon, Sister, I said. Ironing?
I am obviously only washing as yet, she said.
It's because I think so quickly, Sister, I said; I knew you would
I dined with Irene last night after the hospital.
I refused to believe what she told me about the last bus passing at
half-past nine, and so at a quarter to ten I stood outside The Green
Lamp and waited.
Ten minutes passed and no bus.
With me were two women waiting tooone holding a baby; the other,
younger, smarter, dangling a purse.
At last I communicated my growing fears: I believe the last has
We fixed our six eyes on the far corner of the road, waiting for the
yellow lights to round it, but only the gas-lamps stood firm in their
Oh my, Elsie! said the woman with the baby, you can't never walk
up to the cross-roads in the dark alone!
I wouldn't make the attempt, not for anything! replied the younger
Without waiting for more I stepped into the middle of the road and
started on my walk home; the very next sentence would have suggested
that Elsie and I should walk together.
She wouldn't make the attempt.... Her words trailed through my
mind, conjuring up some adventure, some act of bravery and daring.
The road was the high road, the channel of tarmac and pavements that
she probably walked along every day; and now it was the selfsame high
road, the same flagstones, hedges, railings, but with the cloak of
night upon them.
It wasn't man she feared; even in the dark I knew she wasn't that
kind. She would be awfully capablewith man. No, it was the darkness,
the spooky jungle of darkness: she feared the trees would move....
I wouldn't make the attempt, not for anything; and the other woman
had quite agreed with her.
I knew where I was by the smells and the sounds on the roadthe
smell of the lines of picketed horses behind the railings, the sharp
and sudden stamp of the sick ones in the wooden stables, and, later on,
the glitter of water in the horse-troughs.
I thought: I am not afraid.... Is it because I am more educated, or
have less imagination?
Halt! Who goes there?
Friend, I said, thrilling tremendously.
He approached me and said something which I couldn't make anything
of. Presently I disentangled, You should never dread the baynit,
But I'm not dreading, I said, annoyed, I ... I love it.
He said he was cold, and added: I bin wounded. If you come to that
lamp you can see me stripe.
We went to the lamp. It's them buses, he complained, they won't
stop when I halt 'em.
But why do you want to stop them? They can't poison the
It's me duty, he said. There's one comin'.
A bus, coming the opposite way, bore down upon us with an unwieldy
rush and roarthe last bus, in a hurry to get to bed.
You'll see, he said pessimistically.
'Alt! 'Alt, there! The bus, with three soldiers hanging on the
step, rushed past us, and seemed to slow a little. The sentry ran a few
paces towards it, crying 'Alt! But it gathered speed and boomed on
again, buzzing away between the gas-lamps. He returned to me sadly.
I don't believe they can hear, I said, and gave him some
chocolates and went on.
As I passed the hospital gates it seemed there was a faint, a very
faint, sweet smell of chloroform....
I was down at the hospital to-night when the factory blew up over
The lights went out, and as they sank I reached the kitchen hatchway
with my tray. At the bottom of the stairs I could see through the
garden door the sky grown sulphur and the bushes glowing, while all the
panes of glass turned incandescent.
Then the explosion came; it sounded as though it was just behind the
hospital. Two hundred panes of glass fell out, and they made a noise
Standing in the dark with a tray in my hand I heard a man's voice
saying gleefully, I haven't been out of bed this two months!
Some one lit a candle, and by its light I saw all the charwomen from
the kitchen bending about like broken weeds, and every officer was
saying, There, there now!
We watched the fires till midnight from the hill.
I went over this morning early. We were thirty-two in a
carriageLascars, Chinese, children, Jews, niggers from the docks.
Lascars and children and Jews and I, we fought to get off the
station platform; sometimes there wasn't room on the ground for both my
feet at once.
The fires were still burning and smouldering there at midday, but a
shower of rime fell on it, so that it looked like an old ruin,
something done long ago.
At Pompeii, some one told me, one looked into the rooms and they
were as they had been lefttables laid.... Here, too, I saw a table
laid for the evening meal with a bedstead fallen from the upper floor
astraddle across it. The insides of the houses were coughed into their
windows, basket-chairs hanging to the sills, and fire-irons.
Outside, the soil of the earth turned up; a workman's tin mug stuck
and roasted and hardened into what looks like solid rocka fossil, as
though it had been there for ever.
London is only skin-deep. Beneath lies the body of the world.
The hump under the blankets rolls over and a man's solemn face
appears upon the pillow.
Can you get me a book, nurse?
Yes. What kind do you like?
Nothing fanciful; something that might be true.
Not sentimental and not funny, I like a practical story.
I got him Lord Jim....
Another voice: Nurse, is there any modern French poetry in that
Good heavens, no! Who would have brought it here?
(Who are they all ... these men with their differing tastes?)
Perhaps the angels feel like this as they trail about in heaven with
their wings flapping on their thin white legs....
Who were you, angel?
I was a beggar outside San Marco.
Were you? How odd! I was an Englishman.
The concerts that we give in the ward touch me with some curious
emotion. I think it is because I am for once at rest in the ward and
have time to think and wonder.
There is Captain Thomson finishing his song. He doesn't know what to
do with his hands; they swing. He is tall and dark, with soft eyesand
Could one guess what he is? Never in a dozen years.... But I know!
He said to me last night, Nurse, I'm going out to-morrow.
I leant across the table to listen to him.
Nurse, if you ever want any crêpe de Chine ... for
nightgowns ... mind, at wholesale prices....
I have bought some at a sale.
May I ask at what price?
Four-and-eleven a yard.
Pity! You could have had it from me at three!
He gave me his business card. That's it, nurse, he said, as he
wrote on the back of it. Drop me a line to that address and you'll get
any material for underwear at trade prices.
He booked one or two orders the night he went awaynot laughingly,
not as a joke, but with deep seriousness, and gravely pleased that he
was able to do what he could for us. He was a traveller in ladies'
underwear. I have seldom met any one so little a snob....
Watch Mr. Gray singing....
One hand on the piano, one on his hip:
I love every mouse in that old-fashioned house.
That fellow can sing! whispers the man beside me.
Is he a professional? I asked as, finishing, the singer made the
faintest of bows and walked back to his chair.
I think he must be.
He is, he is! whispered Mr. Matthews, I've heard him before.
They know so little about each other, and they don't ask. It is only
I who wonderI, a woman, and therefore of the old, burnt-out world.
These men watch without curiosity, speak no personalities, form no
sets, express no likings, analyse nothing. They are new-born; they have
as yet no standards and do not look for any.
Ah, to have had that experience too!... I am of the old world.
Again and again I realize, A nation in arms....
Watchmakers, jewellers, station-masters, dress-designers, actors,
travellers in underwear, bank clerks ... they come here in uniforms and
we put them into pyjamas and nurse them; and they lie in bed or hobble
about the ward, watching us as we move, accepting each other with the
unquestioning faith of children.
The outside world has faded since I have been in the hospital. Their
world is often near metheir mud and trenches, things they say when
they come in wounded.
The worst of it is it almost bores me to go to London, and London
was always my Mecca. It is this garden at home, I think. It is so easy
not to leave it.
When you wake up the window is full of branches, and last thing at
night the moon is on the snow on the lawn and you can see the
Then one goes to the hospital....
When Madeleine telephones to me, I'm living in a whirl.... it
disturbs me. Suddenly I want to too, but it dies down again.
Not that it is their world, those trenches. When they come in
wounded or sick they say at once, What shows are on?
Mr. Wicks has ceased to read those magazines his sister sends him;
he now stares all day at his white bedrail.
I only pass him on my way to the towel-cupboard, twice an evening,
and then as I glance at him I am set wondering all down the ward of
what he thinks, or if he thinks....
I may be quite wrong about him; it is possible he doesn't think at
all, but stares himself into some happier dream.
One day when he is dead, when he is as totally dead as he tells me
he hopes to be, that bed with its haunted bedrail will bend under
another man's weight. Surely it must be haunted? The weight of thought,
dream or nightmare, that hangs about it now is almost visible to me.
Mr. Wicks is an uneducated and ordinary man. In what manner does his
dream run? Since he has ceased to read he has begun to drop away a
little from my living understanding.
He reflects deeply at times.
To-night, as I went quickly past him with my load of bath-towels,
his blind flapped a little, and I saw the moon, shaped like a horn,
Dropping my towels, I pulled his blind back:
Mr. Wicks, look at the moon.
Obedient as one who receives an order, he reached up to his
supporting handle and pulled his shoulders half round in bed to look
with me through the pane.
The young moon, freed from the trees, was rising over the hill.
I dropped the blind again and took up my towels and left him.
After that he seemed to fall into one of his trances, and lay
immovable an hour or more. When I took his dinner to him he lifted his
large, sandy head and said:
Seems a queer thing that if you hadn't said 'Look at the moon' I
might have bin dead without seeing her.
But don't you ever look out of the window?
The obstinate man shook his head.
There was a long silence in the ward to-night. It was so cold that
no one spoke. It is a gloomy ward, I think; the pink silk on the
electric lights is so much too thick, and the fire smokes dreadfully.
The patients sat round the fire with their British warms over their
dressing-gowns and the collars turned up.
Through the two glass doors and over the landing you can see the
T.B.'s moving like little cinema figures backwards and forwards across
the lighted entrance.
Suddenlya hesitating touchan ancient polka struck up, a tune
remembered at children's parties. Then a waltz, a very old one too. The
T.B.'s were playing dance music.
I crept to their door and looked. One man alone was taking any
notice, and he was the player; the others sat round coughing or staring
at nothing in particular, and those in bed had their heads turned away
from the music.
The man whose face is like a bird-cage has now more than ever a look
of ... an empty cage. He allows his mouth to hang open: that way the
bird will fly.
What is there so rapturous about the moon?
The radiance of a floating moon is unbelievable. It is a figment of
dream. The metal-silver ball that hung at the top of the Christmas
tree, or, earlier still, the shining thing, necklace or spoon, the
thing the baby leans to catch ... the magpie in us....
Mr. Beecher is to be allowed to sleep till eight. He sleeps so
badly, he says. He woke up crying this morning, for he has
That is what Sister says.
He should have been in bed all yesterday, but instead he got up and
through the door watched the dead T.B. ride away on his stretcher (for
the bird flew in the night).
How morbid of him! Sister says.
He has seen many dead in France and snapped his fingers at them, but
I agree with him that to die of tuberculosis in the backwaters of the
war isn't the same thing.
It's dreary; he thought how dreary it was as he lay awake in the
But then he has neurasthenia....
Pity is exhaustible. What a terrible discovery! If one ceases for
one instant to pity Mr. Wicks he becomes an awful bore. Some days, when
the sun is shining, I hear his grieving tenor voice all over the ward,
his legendary tale of a wrong done him in his promotion. The men are
kind to him and say Old man, but Mr. Gray, who lies in the next bed
to him, is drained of everything except resignation. I heard him say
yesterday, You told me that before....
We had a convoy last night.
There was a rumour at tea-time, and suddenly I came round a corner
on an orderly full of such definite information as:
There's thirty officers, nurse; an 'undred an' eighty men.
I flew back to the bunk with the news, and we sat down to our tea
wondering and discussing how many each ward would get.
Presently the haughty Sister from downstairs came to the door: she
held her thin, white face high, and her rimless glasses gleamed, as she
remarked, overcasually, after asking for a hot-water bottle that had
been loaned to us:
Have you many beds?
Have they many beds? The one question that starts up among the
And, I don't want any; I've enough to do as it is! is the false,
cloaking answer that each Sister gives to the other.
But my Sisters are frank women; they laughed at my
excitementthemselves not unstirred. It's so long since we've had a
The gallants of the ward showed annoyance. New men, new
interests.... They drew together and played bridge.
A little flying boy with bright eyes said in his high, piping voice
to me across the ward:
So there are soldiers coming into the ward to-night!
I paused, struck by his accusing eyes.
What do you mean? Soldiers...?
I mean men who have been to the front, nurse.
The gallants raised their eyebrows and grew uproarious.
The gallants have been saying unprofessional things to me, and I
haven't minded. The convoy will arm me against them. Soldiers are
coming into the ward.
Eight o'clock, nine o'clock.... If only one could eat something! I
took a sponge-finger out of a tin, resolving to pay it back out of my
tea next day, and stole round to the dark corner near the German ward
to eat it. The Germans were in bed; I could see two of them. At last,
freed from their uniform, the dark blue with the scarlet soup-plates,
they lookedhow strange!like other men.
One was asleep. The other, I met his eyes so close; but I was in the
dark, and he under the light of a lamp.
I knew what was happening down at the station two miles away; I had
been on station duty so often. The rickety country station lit by one
large lamp; the thirteen waiting V.A.D.'s; the long wooden table loaded
with mugs of every size; kettles boiling; the white clock ticking on;
that frowsy booking clerk....
Then the sharp bell, the tramp of the stretcher-bearers through the
station, and at last the two engines drawing gravely across the lighted
doorway, and carriage windows filled with eager faces, other carriage
windows with beds slung across them, a vast Red Cross, a chemist's
shop, a theatre, more windows, more faces....
The stretcher-men are lined up; the M.O. meets the M.O. with the
train; the train Sisters drift in to the coffee-table.
Here they come! Walkers first....
The station entrance is full of men crowding in and taking the
steaming mugs of tea and coffee; men on pickaback with bandaged feet;
men with only a nose and one eye showing, with stumbling legs, bound
arms. The station, for five minutes, is full of jokes and witticisms;
then they pass out and into the waiting chars-à-bancs.
A long pause.
The first stretchers are laid on the floor.
There I have stood so often, pouring the tea behind the table,
watching that littered floor, the single gas-lamp ever revolving on its
chain, turning the shadows about the room like a wheelmy mind filled
with pictures, emptied of thoughts, hypnotized.
But last night, for the first time, I was in the ward. For the first
time I should follow them beyond the glass door, see what became of
them, how they changed from soldiers into patients....
The gallants in the ward don't like a convoy; it unsexes us.
Nine o'clock ... ten o'clock.... Another biscuit. Both Germans are
At last a noise in the corridor, a tramp on the stairs.... Only
walkers? No, there's a stretcherand another...!
Now reflection ends, my feet begin to move, my hands to undo
bootlaces, flick down thermometers, wash and fetch and carry.
The gallants play bridge without looking up. I am tremendously
fortified against them: for one moment I fiercely condemn and then
forget them. For I am without convictions, antipathies, prejudices,
reflections. I only work and watch, watch....
Our ward is divided: half of it is neat and white and orderly; the
other half has khaki tumbled all over itSam Brownes, boots, caps,
mud, the caked mud from the other side.
But the neat beds are empty; the occupants out talking to the
new-comers, asking questions. Only the gallants play their bridge
unmoved. They are on their mettle, showing off. Their turn will come
Now it only remains to walk home, hungry, under a heavy moon.
The snow is running down the gutters. What a strange and penetrating
smell of spring! February ... can it be yet?
The running snow is uncovering something that has been delayed. In
the garden a blackbird made a sudden cry in the hedge. I did smell
spring, and I'm starving....
I thought last night that a hospital ward is, above all, a serene
place, in spite of pain and blood and dressings. Gravity rules it and
order and a quiet procession of duties.
Last night I made beds with the eldest Sister. The eldest Sister is
good company to make beds with; she is quiet unless I rouse her, and
when I talk she smiles with her eyes. I like to walk slowly round the
ward, stooping and rising over the white beds, flicking the sheets
mechanically from the mattress, and finally turning the mattress with
an ease which gives me pleasure because I am strong.
In life nothing is too small to please....
Once during the evening the eldest Sister said to me:
I am worried about your throat. Is it no better?
And from the pang of pleasure and gratitude that went through me I
have learnt the value of such remarks.
In every bed there is some one whose throat is at least more sore
Though I am not one of those fierce V.A.D.'s who scoff at sore
throats and look for wounds, yet I didn't know it was so easy to give
The strange, disarming ways of men and women!
I stood in the bunk to-night beside the youngest Sister, and she
looked up suddenly with her absent stare and said, You're not so nice
as you used to be!
I was dumbfounded. Had I been nice? And now different....
What a maddening sentence, for I felt she was going to refuse me any
But one should not listen to what people say, only to what they
mean, and she was one of those persons whose minds one must read for
oneself, since her words so often deformed her thoughts.
The familiarity and equality of her tone seemed to come from some
mood removed from the hospital, where her mistrustful mind was hovering
about a trouble personal to herself.
She did not mean You are not so nice.... but You don't like me so
She was so young, it was all so new to her, she wanted so to be
liked! But there was this question of her authority....
How was she to live among her fellows?
Can one afford to disdain them? Can one steer happily with
indifference? Must one, to be liked, bend one's spirit to theirs?
And, most disturbing question of all, is to be liked the final
Whether to wear, or not to wear, a mask towards one's world? For
there is so much that is not ripe to showchange and uncertainty....
As she sat there, unfolding to me the fogs of her situation, her
fresh pink face clouded, her grand cap and red cape adding burdens of
authority to the toil of growth, I could readily have looked into the
glass to see if my hair was grey!
Then there is nothing you condemn? said the youngest Sister
finally, at the close of a conversation.
I have to-day come up against the bedrock of her integrity; it is
terrible. She has eternal youth, eternal fair hair, cold and ignorant
judgments. On things relating to the world I can't further soften her;
a man must do the rest.
A gentleman ... a gentleman.... I am so tired of this cry for a
Why can't they do very well with what they've got!
Here in the wards the Sisters have the stuff the world is made of
laid out, bedded, before their eyes; the ups and downs of man from the
four corners of the Empire and the hundred corners of social life,
helpless and in pyjamasand they're not satisfied, but must cry for a
I couldn't make a friend of that man! the youngest Sister loves to
add to her criticism of a patient.
It isn't my part as a V.A.D. to cry, Who wants you to?
I couldn't trust that man! the youngest Sister will say equally
This goes deeper....
But whom need one trust? Brother, lover, friend ... no more. Why
wish to trust all the world?...
They are not real men, she says, not men through and through.
That's where she goes wrong; they are men through and
throughpatchy, ordinary, human. She means they are not men after her
Something will happen in the ward. Once I have touched this bedrock
in her I shall be for ever touching it till it gets sore!
One should seek for no response. They are not elastic, these
In all honesty the hospital is a convent, and the men in it my
This for months on end....
For all that, now and then some one raises his eyes and looks at me;
one day follows another and the glance deepens.
Charme de l'amour qui pourrait vous peindre!
Women are left behind when one goes into hospital. Such women as are
in a hospital should be cool, gentle; anything else becomes a torment
to the prisoner.
For me, too, it is bad; it brings the world back into my eyes;
duties are neglected, discomforts unobserved.
But there are things one doesn't fight.
Charme de l'amour.... The ward is changed! The eldest Sister and
the youngest Sister are my enemies; the patients are my enemieseven
Mr. Wicks, who lies on his back with his large head turned fixedly my
way to see how often I stop at the bed whose number is 11.
Last night he dared to say, It's not like you, nurse, staying so
much with that rowdy crew.... The gallants ... I know! But one among
them has grown quieter, and his bed is No. 11.
Even Mr. Wicks is my enemy.
He watches and guards. Who knows what he might say to the eldest
Sister? He has nothing to do all day but watch and guard.
In the bunk at tea I sit among thoughts of my own. The Sisters are
I am alive, delirious, but not happy.
I am at any one's mercy; I have lost thirty friends in a day. The
thirty-first is in bed No. 11.
This is bad: hospital cannot shelter this life we lead, No. 11 and
I. He is a prisoner, and I have my honour, my responsibility towards
him; he has come into this room to be cured, not tormented.
Even my hand must not meet hisno, not even in a careless touch,
not even in its duty; or, if it does, what risk!
I am conspired against: it is not I who make his bed, hand him what
he wishes; some accident defeats me every time.
Now that I come to think of it, it seems strange that the Sisters
should be my enemies. Don't we deserve sympathy and pity, No. 11 and I?
From women, too....
Isn't there a charm hanging about us? Aren't we leading magic days?
Do they feel it and dislike it? Why?
I feel that the little love we have created is a hare whose natural
fate is to be run by every hound. But I don't see the reason.
We can't speak, No. 11 and I, only a whispered word or two that
seems to shout itself into every ear. We don't know each other.
Last night it was stronger than I. I let him stand near me and talk.
I saw the youngest Sister at the far end of the ward by the door, but I
didn't move; she was watching. The moment I took my eyes from her I
forgot her.... That is how one feels when one is desperate; that is how
Later, I stood down by the hatch waiting for the tray of fish, and
as I stood there, the youngest Sister beside me, he came down, for he
was up and dressed yesterday, and offered to carry the tray. For he is
She told him to go back, and said to me, looking from her young,
condemning eyes, I suppose he thinks he can make up for being the
cause of all the lateness to-night.
Sister.... and then I stopped short. I hated her. Were we late? I
looked at the other trays. We were not late; it was untrue. She had
said that because she had had to wrap her barb in something and hadn't
the courage to reprove me officially. I resented that and her air of
equality. Since I am under her authority and agree to it, why dare she
not use it?
As for me, I dared not speak to her all the evening. She would have
no weapons against me. If I am to remember she is my Sister I must hold
my hand over my mouth.
She would not speak to me, either. That was wrong of her: she is in
authority, not I.
It is difficult for her because she is so young; but I have no room
At moments I forget her position and, burning with resentment, I
reflect, ... this schoolgirl....
To-day I walked down to the hospital thinking: I must be stronger.
It is I who, in the inverted position of things, should be the
stronger. He is being tortured, and he has no release. He cannot even
be alone a moment.
But at the hospital gates I thought of nothing but that I should see
In the bunk sat the eldest Sister, writing in a book. It passed
through my head that the two Sisters had probably sat on my affairs
together. I wondered without interest what the other had told her.
Putting on my cap, I walked into the ward.
Surely his bed had had a pink eiderdown!
I walked up the ward and looked at it; but I knew without need of a
second glance what had happened.
His bed was made in the fashion in which we make an empty bed, a bed
that waits for a new patient. His locker was empty and stood open,
already scrubbed. I smiled as I noticed they hadn't even left me that
No one volunteered a word of explanation, no one took the trouble to
say he had gone.
These women.... I smiled again. Only the comic phrase rang in my
head They've properly done me in! Properly done me in....
I went downstairs and fetched the trays, and all the time the smile
was on my lips. These women.... Somehow I had the better of the Sister.
It is better to be in the wrong than in the right.
His friends looked at me a little, but apparently he had left no
message for me.
Later I learnt that he had been taken to another hospital at two,
while I came on at three.
Once during the evening the eldest Sister mentioned vaguely,
So-and-so has gone.
And I said aloud, after a little reflection, Yes ... in the nick of
During the evening I realized that I should never see him again. It
was here in this ward the thing had grown. The hare we had started
wouldn't bear the strain of any other life. He might write, but I
shouldn't go and see him.
He must be wild, I thought with pity.
The feeling between us would die anyhow; better throw in my strength
with the Sister's and help her hurl it now towards its death. I looked
at her bent head with a secret triumph.
Then, slowly: How ... permanently am I in disgrace?
And she: Not at all ... now.
Behind the stone pillar of the gateway is one dirty little patch of
snow; I saw it even in the moonless darkness.
The crown of the hill here holds the last snows, but for all that
the spring smell is steaming among the trees and up and down the
bracken slopes in the garden next door.
There is no moon, there are no stars, no promise to the eye, but in
the dense, vapouring darkness the bulbs are moving. I can smell what is
not earth or rain or bark.
The curtain has been drawn over No. 11; the Sister holds the corners
tightly against the window-frame. He is outside, somewhere in the
world, and I am here moving among my thirty friends; and since it isn't
spring yet, the lights are lit to hide the twilight. The Sister's eyes
talk to me again as we make bedsyes, even bed No. 11 with a little
jaundice boy in it. They let me make it now!
Last night we had another concert in the ward.
A concert demoralizes me. By reason of sitting on the beds and
talking to whom one wills, I regain my old manners, and forget that a
patient may be washed, fed, dressed but not talked to. My old manners
were more gracious, but less docile.
Afterwards we wheeled the beds back into their positions. I bumped
Mr. Lambert's as I wheeled it, and apologized.
I'm not grumbling, he smiled from his pillow.
You never do, I answered.
You don't know me, nurse!
And I thought as I looked down at him I shall never know him better
or so well again....
Indeed a Sister is a curious creature. She is like a fortress,
unassailable, and whose sleeping guns may fire at any minute.
I was struck with a bit of knowledge last night that will serve me
through life, i.e. that to justify oneself is the inexcusable fault. It
is better to be in the wrong than in the right.
A Sister has an intimate life.
It occurs when she goes off duty; that is to say, it lies between
8.45, when she finishes her supper, and 10 o'clock, when she finishes
That is why one Sister said to me, If I hadn't taken up nursing I
should have gone in for culture.
I don't laugh at that.... To have an intimate life one must have a
Who am I that I can step in from outside to criticize? The hospital
is not my life. I am expectant....
But for them here and now is the business of life.
As the weeks go by I recognize the difficulty of keeping the life of
the Sisters and the V.A.D.'s out of the circle of my thoughts. Their
vigorous and symmetrical vision of the ward attacks me; their attitude
towards the patients, which began by offending me, ends by overtaking
On the whole the Sisters loathe relations. They look into the ward
and see the mothers and sisters and wives camped round the beds, and go
back into the bunk feeling that the ward doesn't belong to them.
The eldest Sister said to me yesterday: Shut the door, nurse;
there's Captain Fellows's father. I don't want him fussing round.
On that we discussed relations, and it seemed to me that it was
inevitable that a Sister should be the only buffer between them and
their pressing anxieties.
No, a relation is the last straw.... You don't understand! she
I don't understand, but I am not specialized.
Long ago in the Mess I said to my Sister, laughing: I would
go through the four years' training just to wear that cap and cape!
And she: You couldn't go through it and come out as you are....
Mr. Wicks has set his heart on crutches.
If you won't try me on them I'll buy me own and walk out of here!
Then I realize the vanity of his threat and the completeness of his
imprisonment, and hurry to suggest a new idea before he sees it too....
We set him on crutches....
He is brave. He said with anger, I can't stand on these, they're
too long. You go and ask for some shorter ones....
And thus together we slurred over the fact of that pendulous,
nerveless body which had hung from the crutches like an old stocking.
But all the evening he was buried in his own silence, and I suppose
he was looking at the vision on the bedrail.
A boy of seventeen was brought in yesterday with pneumonia.
He was so ill that he couldn't speak, and we put screens round his
bed. All the other patients in the ward immediately became
I helped Sister to wash him, holding him on his side while he
groaned with pain; and Sister, no longer cynical, said, There you are
Sonnie, it's almost finished....
When I rolled back the blanket it gave me a shock to see how young
his feet wereclean and thin, with the big toe curling up and the
little toes curling back.
Will you brush my hair? he managed to say to me, and when I had
finished: This is a pretty ward....
It isn't, but I am glad it seems so to him.
The boy is at his worst. Whenever we come near him he lifts his eyes
and asks, What are you going to do now?
But to whatever we do he submits with a terrible docility.
Lying there propped on his pillow, with his small yellow face
staring down the ward, he is all the centre of my thoughts; I am
preoccupied with the mystery that is in his lungs.
Five days ago he was walking on his legs: five days, and he is on
the edge of the worldto-night looking over the edge.
There is no shell, no mark, no tear.... The attack comes from
The others in the ward are like phantoms.
When I say to-morrow, How is the boy? what will they say?
The sun on the cobwebs lights them as it lights the telephone-wires
above. The cocks scream from every garden.
To-day the sky is like a pale egg-shell, and aeroplanes from the two
aerodromes are droning round the hill.
I think from time to time, Is he alive?
Can one grow used to death? It is unsafe to think of this....
For if death becomes cheap it is the watcher, not the dying, who is
His mother buys a cake every day and brings it at tea-time, saying,
For the Sisters' tea....
It is a bribe, dumbly offered, more to be on the safe side of every
bit of chance than because she really believes it can make the
Now that I have time to think of it, her little action hurts me, but
yesterday I helped to eat it with pleasure because one is hungry and
the margarine not the best.
Aches and pains....
Pains and aches....
I don't know how to get home up the long hill....
DEAR SISTER,Four more days before they will let me out of bed....
Whatever I promise to a patient in future I shall do, if I have to wear
a notebook hanging on my belt.
By which you will see that I am making discoveries!
The quality of expectation in a person lying horizontally is
wrought up to a high pitch. One is always expecting something.
Generally it is food; three times a day it is the post; oftener it is
the performance of some promise. The things that one asks from one's
bed are so small: 'Can you get me a book?' 'Can you move that vase of
flowers?' 'When you come up next time could you bring me an envelope?'
But if one cannot get them life might as well stop.
The wonder to me is how they stood me!
I was always cheerfulI thought it a merit; I find instead it is
I make a hundred reflections since my eyes are too bad to read. I
stare at the ceiling, and if a moth comes on itand just now that
happened, or I would not have thought of mentioning itI watch the
pair of them, the moth and its leaping shadow, as they whirl from
square to square of the smoke-ripened ceiling. This keeps my thoughts
Then in the daytime there is the garden, the dog that crosses the
lawn, the gardener talking to himself, the girl who goes to feed the
I don't say that in any of these things I find a substitute for
reading, but since I can't and mayn't read....
I am thinking, you know, of the beds down the right-hand side of
There's Mr. Wicks, now: he has his back to the road with the trams
Do you see anything in that?
I do. But then I have the advantage of you; my position is
Mr. Wicks's position is also ... strictly ... horizontal. It seems
to me that if he could see those trams, mark Saturdays and Sundays by
the increase of passengers, make little games to himself involving the
number of persons to get on and off (for the stopping-place is within
view: I know, for I looked) it might be possible to draw him back from
that apathy which I too, as well as you, was ceasing to notice.
Mr. Wicks, Sister, not only has his back to the road with trams on
it, but for eleven months he has had his eyes on the yellow stone of
the wall of the German ward; that is, when they are not on his own
But if his bed were turned round to range alongside the window...?
For he is a man with two eyes; not one who can write upon a stone wall
with his thoughts.
And yet ... it would be impossible! There's not a ward in the
hospital whose symmetry is so spoilt.
And that, you know, is a difficulty for you to weigh. How far are
you a dictator?
I have been thinking of my rôle and yours.
In the long run, however 'capable' I become, my soul should be
given to the smoothing of pillows.
You are barred from so many kinds of sympathy: you must not
sympathize over the deficiencies of the hospital, over the food, over
the M.O.'s lack of imagination, over the intolerable habits of the man
in the next bed; you must not sigh 'I know ...' to any of these
Yours is the running of the ward. Yours the isolation of a crowned
One day you said a penetrating thing to me:
'He's not very ill, but he's feeling wretched. Run along and do the
sympathetic V.A.D. touch!'
For a moment I, just able to do a poultice or a fomentation,
But you were right.... One has one's métier.
III. THE BOYS ...
So now one steps down from chintz covers and lemonade to the Main
Army and lemon-water.
And to show how little one has one's eye upon the larger issues, the
thing that upset me most on coming into a Tommies' ward was the fact
that instead of twenty-six lemons twice a day for the making of
lemonade I now squeeze two into an old jug and hope for the best about
Smiff said to-day, Give us a drop of lemon, nurse.... And the
Sister: Go on with you! I won't have the new nurse making a pet of
I suppose I'm new to it, and one can't carry on the work that way,
but, God knows, the water one can add to a lemon is cheap enough!
Smiff had a flash of temper to-night. He said: Keepin' me here
starin' at green walls this way! Nothing but green, nine blessed
His foot is off, and to-night for the first time the doctor had
promised that he should be wheeled into the corridor. But it was
forgotten, and I am too new to jog the memory of the gods.
It's a queer place, a Tommies' ward. It makes me nervous. I'm not
simple enough; they make me shy. I can't think of them like the others
do, as the boys; they seem to me full-grown men.
I suffer awfully from my language in this ward. I seem to be the
only V.A.D. of whom they continually ask, What's say, nurse? It isn't
that I use long words, but my sentences seem to be inverted.
An opportunity for learning to speak simple Saxon....
An antitetanic injection for Corrigan, said Sister. And I went to
the dispensary to fetch the syringe and the needles.
But has he any symptoms? I asked. (In a Tommies' ward one dare ask
anything; there isn't that mystery which used to surround the officers'
Oh no, she said, it's just that he hasn't had his full amount in
So I hunted up the spirit-lamp and we prepared it, talking of it.
But we forgot to talk of it to Corrigan. The needle was into his
shoulder before he knew why his shirt was held up.
His wrath came like an avalanche; the discipline of two years was
forgotten, his Irish tongue was loosened. Sister shrugged her shoulders
and laughed; I listened to him as I cleaned the syringe.
I gathered that it was the indignity that had shocked his sense of
individual pride. Treating me like a cow.... I heard him say to
Smiffwho laughed, since it wasn't his shoulder that carried the
serum. Smiff laughed: he has been in hospital nine months, and his
theory is that a Sister may do anything at any moment; his theory is
that nothing does any goodthat if you don't fuss you don't get worse.
Corrigan was angry all day; the idea that a bloomin' woman should
come an' shove something into me systim was too much for him. But he
forgets himself: there are no individualists now; his system belongs
Sister said, laughing, to Smiff the other day, Your leg is mine.
Wrong again; it's the Governmint's! said Smiff. But Corrigan is
Irish and doesn't like that joke.
There are times when my heart fails me; when my eyes, my ears, my
tongue, and my understanding fail me; when pain means nothing to me....
In the bus yesterday I came down from London sitting beside a Sister
from another ward, who held her hand to her ear and shifted in her
She told me she had earache, and I felt sorry for her.
As she had earache we didn't talk, and I sat huddled in my corner
and watched the names of the shops, thinking, as I was more or less
forced to do by her movements, of her earache.
What struck me was her own angry bewilderment before the fact of her
pain. But it hurts.... You've no idea how it hurts! She was
Many times a day she hears the words, Sister, you're hurtin' me....
Couldn't you shift my heel? It's like a toothache, and similar
sentences. I hear them in our ward all the time. One can't pass down
the ward without some such request falling on one's ears.
She is astonished at her earache; she is astonished at what pain can
be; it is unexpected. She is ready to be angry with herself, with her
pain, with her ear. It is monstrous, she thinks....
The pain of one creature cannot continue to have a meaning for
another. It is almost impossible to nurse a man well whose pain you do
not imagine. A deadlock!
One has illuminations all the time!
There is an old lady who visits in our ward, at whom, for one or two
unimportant reasons, it is the custom to laugh. The men, who fall in
with our moods with a docility which I am beginning to suspect is a
mask, admit too that she is comic.
This afternoon, when she was sitting by Corrigan's bed and talking
to him I saw where her treatment of him differed from ours. She treats
him as though he were an individual; but there is more in it than
that.... She treats him as though he had a wife and children, a house
and a back garden and responsibilities: in some manner she treats him
as though he had dignity.
I thought of yesterday's injection. That is the difference: that is
what the Sisters mean when they say the boys....
The story of Rees is not yet ended in either of the two ways in
which stories end in a hospital. His arm does not get worse, but his
courage is ebbing. This morning I wheeled him out to the awful sleep
againfor the third time.
They will take nearly anything from each other. The only thing that
cheered Rees up as he was wheeled away was the voice of Pinker crying,
Jer want white flowers on yer coffin? We'll see to the brass 'andles!
From Pinker, a little boy from the Mile End Road, they will stand
anything. He is the servant of the ward (he says), partly through his
good nature and a little because he has two good arms and legs. I
ain't no skivvy, he protests all the time, but every little odd job
Rees, when he wakes, wakes sobbing and says, Don' go away,
nurse.... He holds my hand in a fierce clutch, then releases it to
point in the air, crying There's the pain! as though the pain filled
the air and rose to the rafters. As he wakes it centralizes, until at
last comes the moment when he says, Me arm aches cruel, and points to
it. Then one can leave him.
It was the first time I had heard a man sing at his dressing. I was
standing at the sterilizer when Rees's song began to mount over the
screen that hid him from me. (Whatever is that? Rees's tubes going
It was like this: Ah ... ee ... oo, Sister! and again: Sister ...
oo ... ee ... ah! Then a little scream and his song again.
I heard her voice: Now then, Rees, I don't call that much of a
song. She called me to make his bed, and I saw his left ear was full
O visitors, who come into the ward in the calm of the long
afternoon, when the beds are neat and clean and the flowers out on the
tables and the V.A.D.'s sit sewing at splints and sandbags, when the
men look like men again and smoke and talk and read ... if you could
see what lies beneath the dressings!
When one shoots at a wooden figure it makes a hole. When one shoots
at a man it makes a hole, and the doctor must make seven others.
I heard a blackbird sing in the middle of the night last nighttwo
bars, and then another. I thought at first it might be a burglar
whistling to his mate in the black and rustling garden.
But it was a blackbird in a nightmare.
Those distant guns again to-night....
Now a lull and now a bombardment; again a lull, and then batter,
batter, and the windows tremble. Is the lull when they go over
I can only think of death to-night. I tried to think just now, What
is it, after all! Death comes anyway; this only hastens it. But that
won't do; no philosophy helps the pain of death. It is pity, pity,
pity, that I feel, and sometimes a sort of shame that I am here to
write at all.
Summer.... Can it be summer through whose hot air the guns shake and
tremble? The honeysuckle, whose little stalks twinkled and shone that
January night, has broken at each woody end into its crumbled flower.
Where is the frost, the snow?... Where are the dead?
Where is my trouble and my longing, and the other troubles, and the
happiness in other summers?
Alas, the long history of life! There is that in death that makes
the throat contract and the heart catch: everything is written in
We talk of tablets to the dead. There can be none but in the heart,
and the heart fades.
There are only ten men left in bed in the ward. Sometimes I think,
Will there never be another convoy?
And then: Is not one man alone sufficient matter on which to
reflect? One can find God in a herring's head.... says a Japanese
When there is not much to do in the ward and no sound comes from
behind the screens, when there has not been a convoy for weeks, when
the little rubber tubes lie in the trolley-drawer and the syringe gives
place to the dry dressingthen they set one of us aside from the work
of the ward to sit at a table and pad splints.
It isn't supposed to be a job we care for, and I am keeping up the
delusion, but all the time I run my seams straight, pull the horsehair
out to the last fine shred, turn in my corners as the corners of a
leather book are turned, so that I may be kept at it, although out of
cunning I appear to grumble and long to be released.
One does not wash up when one makes splints, one does not change the
pillow-casesforcing the resentful pillow down, down till the corners
of the case are fillednor walk the ward in search of odd jobs.
But these are not the reasons....
Just as I liked the unending laying of the trays in the corridor, so
making splints appears to me a gentle work in which one has time to
look at and listen to the ward with more penetrating eyes, with wider
earsa work varied by long conversations with Pinker about his girl
and the fountain-pen trade.
But I ought not to have asked if she were pretty.
At first he didn't answer and appeared to be thinking very
seriouslyof a way out, perhaps.
Does fer me all right, he presently said.
The defence of his girl occupied his attention, for after a few
minutes he returned to it: Sensible sort of girl. She ain't soft. Can
cook an' all that.
I went on sewing my splint.
Almost reluctantly he pursued: Got 'er photograph 'ere. But he did
not get up at once, and we turned to the fountain-pens. Any nib, he
said, crossed ever so, I could mend it. Kep' the books too; we
was always stocktaking.
Now I think of it, fountain-pen shops always are stocktaking.
They do it all down the Strand, with big red labels across the front.
He rose suddenly and crossed to his locker to look for her
photograph, returning after a few minutes with a bundle of little
cardboards. The first I turned over was that of a pretty fair-haired
girl. Is that her? I asked. She's pretty! That's 'er young
sister, he answered. I turned over the rest, and he pointed out his
family one by onelast of all his girl.
There are some men who are not taken in by a bit of fair hair.
One knows what these cheap photographs are, how they distort and
blacken. The girl who looked at me from this one appeared to be a
She had an enormous face, enormous spectacles, bands of galvanized
iron drawn across her forehead for hair....
Ther's just them two, 'er an 'er sister. 'Er sister ain't got a
I praised his girl to Pinker, and praised Pinker to myself.
A girl friend, he said, keeps yer straighter than a man. Makes
So she won't wait for you when you are late?
Not a minute over time, he said with pride. I used to be a terror
when I first knew 'er; kep' 'er waitin' abaht. She soon cured me, did
You are a funny little bird, Pinker, said the Sister, passing.
Lil bird, am I? He tucked his cardboards carefully into his locker
and followed her up the ward firing repartee.
I sewed my splint. In all walks of life men keep one waiting. I
should like to ask the huge and terrible girl about her cure.
Monk is the ugliest man I have ever seen. He has a squint and a
leer, his mouth drops at both sides, he has no forehead, and his
straight, combed hair meets his eyebrowsor rather, his left eyebrow,
since that one is raised by a cut. He has the expression of a
cut-throat, and yet he is quite young, good-tempered, and shy.
When Monk was working at a woollen belt Pinker said: Workin' that
for yer girl?... You got a girl, Monk?
Monk squinted sidelong at Pinker and rubbed his hands together like
a large ape.
'E ain't got no girl, shrilled Pinker. Monk ain't got no girl.
You don' know what a girl is, do yer, Monk?
Although they do much more to help each other than I ever saw done
in the officers' ward, yet one is always saying things that I find
myself praying the other hasn't heard.
In the next bed to Monk lies Gayner, six foot two, of the
Expeditionary Force. Wounded at Mons, he was brought home to England,
and since then he has made the round of the hospitals. He is a
good-looking, sullen man who will not read or write or sew, who will
not play draughts or cards or speak to his neighbour. He sits up,
attentive, while the ulcers on his leg are being dressed, but if one
asks him something of the history of his wound his tone holds such a
volume of bitterness and exasperation that one feels that at any moment
the locks of his spirit might cease to hold.
... ever since Mons, these ulcers, on and off?
Oh well, we must cure them now.
Her light tone is what he cannot endure. He does not believe in cure
and will not believe in cure. It has become an article of faith: his
ulcers will never be cured. He has a silent scorn of hospitals. He can
wind a perfect bandage and he knows the rules; beyond that he pays as
little attention as possible to what goes on.
When his dressing is over he tilts his thin, intelligent face at the
ceiling. Don't you ever read? I asked him.
I haven't the patience, he replied. But he has the patience to lie
like that with his thin lips compressed and a frown on his face for
hours, for days ... since Mons....
I have come to the conclusion that he has a violent soul, that he
dare not talk. It is no life for a man.
I said to Pinker this morning, I wish you'd hurry up over your
bath; I've got to get it scrubbed out by nine.
Don't you hurry me, nurse, said Pinker, it's the on'y time I can
think, in me bath.
I should like to have parried with Pinker (only my language is so
much more complicated than it ought to be) that thinking in one's bath
is a self-deception. I lay in my own bath last night and thought very
deep thoughts, but often when we think our thoughts are deep they are
only vague. Bath thoughts are wonderful, but there's nothing to them.
We had a heated discussion to-day as to whether the old lady who
leaves a tract beneath a single rose by each bedside could longer be
She is a nuisance, said the Sister; the men make more noise
afterwards because they set her hymns to ragtime.
What good does it do them? said the V.A.D., ... and I have to
put the roses in water!
I rode the highest horse of all: Her inquiries about their souls
are an impertinence. Why should they be bothered?
These are the sort of things they say in debating societies. But
Life talks differently....
Pinker said, Makes the po'r ole lady 'appy!
As one bends one's head low over the splint one sits unnoticed, a
part of the furniture of the ward. The sounds of the ward rise and fill
the ears; it is like listening to a kettle humming, bees round a bush
of flowers, the ticking of a clock, the passing of life....
Now and then there are incidents, as just now. Two orderlies came in
with a stretcher to fetch Mr. Smith (an older man than Smiff and a more
dignified) away to a convalescent home. Mr. Smith has never been to
France, but walked into our ward one day with a sore on his foot which
had to be cut. He was up and dressed in his bedraggled khaki uniform
when the stretcher-bearers came for him.
He looked down his nose at the stretcher. I don't much like the
look of that, he said. The stretcher-bearers waited for him.
He stood irresolute. I never bin in one of them, and I don't want
to make a start.
Its bad luck to be our name, called out Smiff, waving his
amputated ankle. Better get your hand in!
Mr. Smith got in slowly and departed from the ward, sitting bolt
upright, gripping the sides with his hands.
Some of the wards and the Sisters' bunks are charming at this time
of the year, now that larkspur and rambler-roses are cheap in the
But the love of decoration is not woman's alone. Through the
dispensary hatchway I saw three empty poison-bottles, each with a poppy
stuck in its neck.
Everything in the dispensary is beautifulits glasses, its flames,
its brass weights, its jars and globes; but much more beautiful because
it is half a floor higher than the corridor in which we stand and look
up into it, through a hatchway in the wall. There is something in that:
one feels like Gulliver.
No woman has ever been into this bachelors' temple.
On tapping at a small square panel set in the wall of the corridor
the panel flies up and a bachelor is seen from the waist to the knees.
If he feels well and my smile is humble he will stoop, and I see
looking down at me a small worn face and bushy eyebrows, or a long
ascetic face and bleached hair, or a beard and a pair of bearded
Between them the three old things, priests in their way, measure and
weigh and mix and scold and let up the panel and bang it down through
the long day, filling the hospital with their coloured bottles, sealed
packets of pills, jars and vaccines, and precious syringes in boxes
marked To be returned at once (I never knew a Sister fail to toss her
head when she saw this message).
It is a very social spot outside the panel of the dispensary: each
V.A.D. goes there each morning as one might do one's marketing, and,
meeting there, puts down her straw basket, taps at the panel, and
listens to the scolding of the old men with only half an ear.
For the bachelors amuse themselves when they are not mixing and
weighing by inventing odd rules and codes of their own, and, reaching a
skinny arm through the hatchway, they pin them on, little scraps of
paper which fall down and are swept to heaven in the charwomen's pails.
And the V.A.D.'s, who are not at all afraid, because one cannot be
afraid of a man of whom one has never seen more than half, turn a blind
eye to the slips and a deaf ear to the voices, bringing their bottles
and their jars just in the manner they were taught to do when first
they entered the hospital. And they gossip! They have just seen the
morning papers on all the beds; they have just heard about the
half-days for the week; they have collected little rags and ends of
news as they came along the corridor.
They gossip. And once a bearded bachelor thumped the panel down
almost on my finger, leaving three startled faces staring at a piece of
painted wood. But a little dark girl worked the panel up an inch with
her nails and cajoled through the crack.
I have said before that the long corridor is wonderful. In the
winter afternoons and evenings, when the mist rolled up and down over
the tiles like the smoke in a tunnel, when one walked almost in
darkness and peered into the then forbidden wards, when dwarfs coming
from the G block grew larger and larger till the A block turned them
into beings of one's own size, the corridor always made a special
impression on me.
But in the summer mornings it is remarkable too. Then regiments of
charwomen occupy it, working in close mass formation. Seven will work
abreast upon their knees, flanked by their pails, their hands moving
backwards and forwards in so complicated a system that there appears to
be no system at all.
Patches of the corridor are thick with soapsuds; patches are dry.
The art of walking the corridor in the morning can be learnt, and for a
year and five months I have done it with no more than a slip and a
But yesterday I stepped on a charwoman's hand. It was worse than
stepping on a puppy: one knows that sickening lift of the heart, as
though the will could undo the weight of the foot....
The stagger, the sense of one's unpardonable heaviness.... I slipped
on her hand as on a piece of orange-peel, and, jumping like a chamois,
sent the next pail all over the heels of the front rank.
It was the sort of situation with which one can do nothing.
I met a friend yesterday, one of the old Chelsea people. He has
followed his natural development. Although he talks war, war, war, it
is from his old angle, it wears the old hall-mark.
He belongs to a movement which believes it feels the war. Personal
injury or personal loss does not enter the question; the heart of this
movement of his bleeds perpetually, but impersonally. He claims for it
that this heart is able to bleed more profusely than any other heart,
individual or collective, in ... let us limit it to England!
In fact it is the only blood he has noticed.
When the taxes go up he says, Well, now perhaps it will make people
feel the war! For he longs that every one should lose their money so
that at last they may feel the war, stop the war (interchangeable!)
He forgets that even in England a great many quite stupid people
would rather lose their money than their sons.
How strange that these people should still picture the minds of
soldiers as filled with the glitter of bright bayonets and the glory of
war! They think we need a vision of blood and ravage and death to turn
us from our bright thoughts, to still the noise of the drum in our
ears. The drums don't beat, the flags don't fly....
He should come down the left-hand side of the ward and hear what the
I 'ates it, nurse; I 'ates it. Them 'orses'll kill me; them
drills.... It's no life for a man, nurse.
The dairyman hasn't been to the Front; you needn't go to the Front
to hate the war. Sometimes I get a glimpse from him of what it means to
the weaklings, the last-joined, feeble creatures.
Me 'ead's that queer, nurse; it seems to get queerer every day. I
can't 'elp worryin'. I keep thinkin' of them 'orses.
Always the horses....
I said to Sister, Is No. 24 really ill?
There's a chance of his being mental, she said. He is being
Was he mental before the war took him, before the sergeant used to
whip the horses as they got to the jumps, before the sergeant cried out
Cross your stirrups!?
It isn't his fault; there are strong and feeble men.
A dairyman's is a gentle job; he could have scraped through life all
right. He sleeps in the afternoon, and stirs and murmurs: Drop your
reins.... Them 'orses, sergeant! I'm comin', sergeant; don't touch 'im
this time! And then in a shriller voice, Don't touch 'im.... Then he
Poor mass of nerves.... He nods and smiles every time one looks at
him, frantic to please.
There are men and men. Scutts has eleven wounds, but he doesn't
mind the war. God made many brands of men, that is all; one must
But war finds few excuses; and there are strange minnows in the
fishing-net. Sometimes, looking into the T.B. ward, I think: It almost
comes to this: one must spit blood or fight....
Why don't you refuse? my friend would say to the dairyman. Why
should you fight because another man tells you to?
It isn't so simple as that, is it, dairyman? It isn't even a
question of the immense, vague machinery behind the sergeant, but just
the sergeant himself; it isn't a question of generals or politicians of
great wrongs or fierce beliefs ... but of the bugle which calls you in
the morning and the bugle which puts you to bed at night.
Well, well.... The dairyman is in hospital, and that is the best
that he can hope for.
I read a book once about a prison. They too, the prisoners, sought
after the prison hospital, as one seeks after one's heaven.
It is so puffed up of my friend to think that his and his
movement's are the only eyes to see the vision of horror. Why, these
others are the vision!
This afternoon I was put at splints again.
I only had an inch or two to finish and I spun it out, very happy.
Presently the foot of a bed near me began to catch my attention: the
toe beneath the sheets became more and more agitated, then the toes of
the other foot joined the first foot, beating a frenzied tattoo beneath
the coverings. I looked up.
Facing me a pair of blue eyes were bulging above an open mouth, the
nostrils were quivering, the fingers were wrung together. It was
Gayner, surely seeing a ghost.
I rose and went to his bed.
My jaws want to close, he muttered. I can't keep them open.
I jumped and went for Sister, who took the news in a leisurely
fashion, which reproved me for my excitement. Feeling a fool, I went
and sat down again, taking up my splint. But there was no forgetting
I tried to keep my eyes on my work, but first his toes and then his
hands filled all my mind, till at last I had to look up and meet the
Still looking as though he had seen a ghosta beast of a ghost...!
In hospital since Mons.... I wonder how many men he has seen die of
tetanus? I thought.
He's got the jumps, I thought.
So had I. Suppose Sister was wrong! Suppose the precious minutes
were passing! Suppose...! She was only the junior Sister.
Shall I get you some water? I said at last. He nodded, and gulped
in a horrible fashion. I got him the mug, and while he drank I longed,
but did not dare, to say, Are you afraid of ... that? I thought if
one could say the word it might break down that dumb fright, draw the
flesh up again over those bulging eyes, give him a sort of anchor, a
confessional, even if it was only me. But I didn't dare. Gayner is one
of those men so pent up, so rigid with some inner indignation, one
cannot tamper with the locks.
Again I went and sat down.
When next I looked up he was sweating. He beckoned to me: Ask
Sister to send for the doctor. I can't stand this.
I went and asked her.
She sucked her little finger thoughtfully.
Give him the thermometer, she said. He couldn't take it in his
mouth, ... for if I shut my lips they'll never open. I put it under
his arm and waited while his feet kicked and his hands twisted. He was
normal. Sister smiled.
But by a coincidence the doctor came, gimlet-eyed.
Hysteria.... he said to Sister in the bunk.
Is no one going to reassure Gayner? I wondered. And no one did.
Isn't the fear of pain next brother to pain itself? Tetanus or the
fear of tetanusa choice between two nightmares. Don't they admit
So, forbidden to speak to him, I finished my splint till tea-time.
But I couldn't bring myself to sit down to it, for fear that the too
placid resumption of my duties should outrage him. I stood up.
Which helped me, not him.
After the dressings are over we scrub the dishes and basins in the
In the annexe, except that there is nothing to sit on, there is
leisure and an invitation to reflection.
Beneath the windows legions of white butterflies attack the
cabbage-patch which divides us from the road; beyond the road there is
a camp from which the dust flows all day.
When the wind is from the north the dust is worse than ever and
breaks like a surf over the cabbages, while the butterflies try to rise
above it; but they never succeed, and dimly one can see the white wings
beating in the whirlpool.
I shall never look at white butterflies again without hearing the
sounds from the camp, without seeing the ring of riders, without
thinking, perhaps, of the dairyman and of the other dairymen.
The butterflies do not care for noise. When, standing beside the
cabbage-patch, the bugler blows the dinner-bugle, they race in a cloud
to the far corner and hover there until the last note is sounded.
I think it is I who am wrong when I consider the men as citizens, as
persons of responsibility, and the Sister right when she says the
Taken from their women, from their establishments, as monks or boys
or even sheep are housed, they do not want, perhaps, to be reminded of
an existence to which they cannot return; until a limb is off, or the
To what a point they leave their private lives behind them! To what
a point their lives are suspended....
On the whole, I find that in hospital they do not think of the
future or of the past, nor think much at all. As far as life and growth
goes it is a hold-up!
There is really not much to hope for; the leave is so short, the
home-life so disrupted that it cannot be taken up with content. Perhaps
it isn't possible to let one's thoughts play round a life about which
one can make no plans.
They are adaptable, living for the minutetheir present hope for
the cup of tea, for the visiting day, for the concert; their future
hope for the drying of the wound, for the day when the Sister's fingers
may press, but no drop be wrung from the long scar.
Isn't it curious to wish so passionately for the day which may place
them near to death again?
But the longing for health is a simple instinct, undarkened by
Yet some of them have plans. Scutts has plans.
For a fortnight now he has watched for the post. Parcel come for
me, Sister? Small parcel?
Or he will meet the postman in the corridor. Got my eye yet? he
What will it be like, Scutts? we ask. Can you move it? Can you
sleep in it? Did he match your other carefully?
You'll see, he says confidently. It's grand.
When I get my eye.... he says, almost with the same longing with
which he says When I get into civies....
Scutts is not one of those whose life is stopped; he has made plans.
When I get into civies and walk out of here.... His plans for six
months' holiday are all writ down in me notebook.
But what shall you do, Scutts? Go to London?
London!... No towns fer me!
He will not tell us what he is going to do. Secretly I believe it is
something he wanted to do as a boy but thought himself a fool to carry
out when he was a man: perhaps it is a sort of walking tour.
Among his eleven wounds he has two crippled arms. I'm safe enough
from death, he says (meaning France), till it fetches me in a proper
Perhaps he means to live as though life were really a respite from
I had a day on the river yesterday.
I seed yer with yer bit of erdy-furdy roun' yer neck an' yer
little attachy-case, said Pinker.
A nurse's life is one roun' of pleasure, said Pinker to the ward.
We had two operations yesterdayone on a sergeant who has won the
D.C.M. and has a certificate written in gold which hangs above his bed,
telling of his courage and of one particular deed; the other on a Welsh
I wonder what the sergeant was like before he won his D.C.M....
There is something unreal about him; he is like a stage hero. He has
a way of saying, Now, my men, who is going to volunteer to fetch the
dinners? which is like an invitation to go over the top.
The men gape when he says that, then go on with their cards. It is
like a joke.
Before his operation he was full of partially concealed boastings as
to how he would bear it, how he would come to saying, Let me get up!
I can walk....
I felt a sneaking wish that he should be undone and show unusual
When the moment came he did as he had said he would dohe laughed
and waved good-bye as he was wheeled away; and in the afternoon when I
came on duty I found him lying in his bed, conscious, looking brown and
strong and unconcerned.
But he can't let well alone....
As I passed up the ward to the bedside of the Welsh private I was
called by the sergeant, and when I stood by his bed he whispered, Is
that chap making a fuss over there?
Chap as has had an operation the same as me....
He's very bad.
You don't find me making a fuss and my leg isn't half giving me
We're not all alike, sergeant.
Why should one make a fuss and another say nothing?
Is your leg hurting you a lot?
Yes, it is, and he screwed up his face into a grimace.
After all, he was a child. Try to go to sleep, I said, knowing
that it was his jealousy that was hurting him most.
I went to Evan.
He could do nothing with his pain, but in its tightest embraces, and
crying, he lay with his large red handkerchief over his eyes.
Oh, Evan...! I said. I couldn't do anything either.
Oh dear, dear, dear, dear, dear.... he wailed in his plaintive
Welsh voice. Oh, my dear leg, my poor leg.... He looked about
nineteen. Couldn't I lie on my side?
No, it would make it bleed.
Would it? He was so docile and so unhappy. The tears had run down
and marked his pillow; I turned it, although the sergeant couldn't see.
Will they give me something to make me sleep to-night?
Yes, Evan, at eight o'clock.
I said that because I was so sure of it, I had always seen it done.
But oh, I should have made more sure...!
He built on it, he leant all his hopes upon it; his little clenched
hands seemed to be holding my promise as firmly as though it had been
And Sister said, No, no ... it would be better not. Oh, Sister,
why not...? (I, the least of mortals, had made a promise belonging
only to the gods....)
Oh, Sister, why not?
Her reason was a good one: He will want it more later in the night,
and he can't have it twice.
I ran back to tell him so quicklybut one can't run back into the
It is wonderful to talk to men affectionately without exciting or
implying love. The Utopian dreams of sixteen seem almost to be
When I sew splints they come and talk to me. Scutts will sometimes
talk for an hour. At first I was so proud that I dared hardly stir a
finger for fear that I should frighten him away; now I am more sure of
him. He never says What? to me, nor any longer jumps when I speak to
him as though my every word must carry some command. When I sew splints
and listen to Scutts or the old Scotch grocer or Monkthat squinting
child of whom Pinker said, Monk got a girl! He don' know what a girl
is!I think, We cannot all be efficient, but ... this serves some
For they are complaining that I am not efficient. At first it hurt
my pride; but it depends upon the point of view. Does one go into a
ward primarily to help the patients or to help the Sister? It is not
always the same thing, but one must not question discipline....
To-day nine of the patients went convalescent. They departed,
hobbling and on stretchers, at two o'clock, with bursts of song,
plastered hair, bright buttons, and not a regret. You'll be able to
hear a pin fall to-night, nurse, said one of them.
I know we shall. And a tear too, I added.
But they won't listen to any such nonsense. They are going off to
the little convalescent hospitals, they are going away to be treated
like men; and I must laugh and shake hands and not dream of adding,
Perhaps we shall see you back again.
No more route-marching...! was the last cry I heard from the Nine.
How they hate route-marchingespecially the City men, most
especially Pinker! March down the silly road, he grumbles, sit on
the silly grass and get heat-bumps.
Sometimes I think that sewing splints will be my undoing. If I
listen much longer I shall see crooked.
To-day they had some small bottles of stout to help us say good-bye
to the Nine.
Happiness is cheap. Last night at dinner a man said as he refilled
his glass with champagne, It makes me sad to think how much happiness
there is in a bottle....
The attack has begun.
At 3.15 this morning ... on a front of two miles....
So that is why the ward is so empty and the ambulances have been
hurrying out of the yard all day. We shall get that convoy for which I
When the ward is empty and there is, as now, so little work to do,
how we, the women, watch each other over the heads of the men! And
because we do not care to watch, nor are much satisfied with what we
see, we want more work. At what a price we shall get it....
Scutts and Monk talk to me while I sew, but what about the Monks,
Scutts, Gayners, whose wounds will never need a dressing or a tubewho
lie along a front of two miles, one on his face, another on his back?
Since 3.15 this morning a lot of men have died. Thank God one cannot
go on realizing death.
But one need not think of it. This is a ward; here are lucky ones.
Even when I look at Rees, even when I look at the grocer, even when I
look at the T.B. ward, I know that anything, anything is better
than death. But I have known a man here and there who did not think
soand these men, close on death it is true, were like strangers in
For one can be close on death and remain familiar, friendly,
I used to think, It is awful to die. But who knows what compliance
the years will bring? What is awful is to die young.
A new V.A.D. came into the ward yesterdaya girl straight from
home, who has never been in a hospital before.
Rees told me, She turned her head away when she saw me arm.
I did once, Rees.
He looked down at the almost unrecognizable twelve inches which we
call Rees's wound, and considered how this red inch had paled and the
lips of that incision were drawing together. 'Tisn' no more me arm,
he said at length, than.... he paused for a simile. 'Tisn' me arm,
it's me wound, he finally explained.
His arm is stretched out at right angles from his bed in an iron
cradle, and has been for six months.
Last night, he said, I felt me arm layin' down by me side, an' I
felt the fingers an' tried to scratch me knee. It's a feeling that's
bin comin' on for some time, but last night it seemed real.
The pain of the dressing forces Rees's reason to lay some claim to
his arm, but when it ceases to hurt him he detaches himself from it to
such a point that the ghost-arm familiar to all amputations has
arrived, as it were, by mistake.
The new V.A.D. doesn't talk much at present, being shy, but to-night
I can believe she will write in her diary as I wrote in mine: My feet
ache, ache, ache.... Add to that that she is hungry because she hasn't
yet learnt how to break the long stretches with hurried gnawings behind
a door, that she is sick because the philosophy of Rees is not yet her
philosophy, that her hands and feet grow cold and her body turns to
warm milk, that she longs so to sit on a bed that she can almost
visualize the depression her body would make on its counterpane, and I
get a glimpse of the passage of time and of the effect of custom.
With me the sickness and the hunger and the ache are barely
remembered. It makes me wonder what else is left behind.... The old
battle is again in my mindthe struggle to feel pain, to repel the
Here they come!
One convoy last night and another this morning. There is one great
burly man, a sort of bear, whose dried blood has squeezed through
bandages applied in seven places, and who for all that mumbles I'm
well if one asks him how he feels.
Long before those wounds are healed he will diagnose himself better
I'm well.... That's to say: I'm alive, and I have reached this
bed, and this bit of meat, and this pudding in a tin! He answers by
But in a few days he will think, I am alive, but I might be
better...; and in a few weeks, Is this, after all, happiness?
How they sleep, the convoy men! Watching their wounds as we dress
them, almost with a grave pleasurethe passports to this wonderful
Then when the last safety-pin is in they lie back without making
themselves in the least comfortable, without drawing up a sheet or
turning once upon the pillow, and sleep just as the head falls.
How little women can stand! Even the convoy cannot mend the pains of
the new V.A.D. I dare not speak to her: she seems, poor camel, to be
waiting for the last straw.
But when we wash the bowls together we must talk. She and I together
this morning washed and scrubbed, rinsed, dried, and piled basins into
little heaps, and while we washed we examined each other.
She is a born slave; in fact, I almost think she is born to be
tortured. Her manner with the Sisters invites and entices them to put
upon her. Her spiritual back is already covered with sores.
I suppose she is hungry for sympathy, but it isn't really a case in
which sympathy can do as much as custom. I showed her the white
butterflies, without supposing them to be very solid food.
She reminds me of the man of whom the Sister said, He must stick it
out. I might have pointed to the convoy and suggested comparisons; but
one cannot rub a sore back.
Some one has applied the last straw in the night.
When I came on duty a brisk little war-hardened V.A.D. was brushing
a pile of dust along the long boards to the door. The poor camel whose
back is broken is as though she had never existed; either she is ill or
she is banished.
Such is the secret diplomacy of these establishments that nothing is
known of her except her disappearanceat least among those whom one
can ask. Matron knows, Sister knows.... But these are the inscrutable,
There is only one man in the ward I don't much care fora tall boy
with a lock of fair hair and broken teeth. He was a sullen boy whose
bad temper made his mouth repulsive. I say was, for he is different
Now he is feeble, gentle, grateful, and he smiles as often as one
looks at him.
Yesterday he went for his operation in the morning, and in the
afternoon when I came on duty he was stirring and beginning to groan.
Sister told me to sit beside him.
I went up to the little room of screens in which he lay, and taking
a wooden chair, I slipped it in between the screen and the bed and sat
Is it the ether which rushes up from between his broken teeth?is
it the red glare of the turkey-twill screens?but in ten minutes I am
altered, mesmerized. Even the size of my surroundings is changed. The
screens, high enough to blot out a man's head, are high enough to blot
out the world. The narrow bed becomes a field of whiteness. The naked
arm stretched towards me is more wonderful than any that could have
belonged to a boy with dirty fair hair and broken teeth; it has
sea-green veins rising along it, and the bright hairs are more silver
The life of the ward goes on, the clatter of cups for supper, the
shuffling of feet clad in loose carpet-slippers, but here within he and
I are living together a concentrated life.
Oh, me back!
I know, I know....
Do I know? I am getting to know. For while the men are drinking
their cocoa I am drinking ether. I know how the waves of the pain come
up and recede; how a little sleep just brushes the spirit, but never
absorbs it; how the arms will struggle up to the air, only to be
covered and enmeshed again in heat and blankets.
Was it in me lung? (He pronounces the ga Lancashire boy....)
He nods. I hold up the piece of metal which has lain buried in him
these past three weeks. It has the number 20 engraved on it. That
satisfies him. The blood which has come from between his lips is in a
bowl placed too high for him to see.
Through the crack in the screens the man in the bed opposite watches
Eight o'clock.... Here is Sister with the syringe: he will sleep now
and I can go home.
If one did not forget the hospital when one leaves it, life wouldn't
be very nice.
From pillar to post....
The dairyman, who has been gone to another hospital these five
weeks, returned to-day, saying miserably as he walked into the ward,
Me 'ead's queerer than ever. His eyes, I think, are larger too, and
he has still that manner of looking as though he thought some one could
do something for him.
I can'tbeyond raising the smallest of tablets to him with the
inscription, Another farthing spent....
Waker had a birthday yesterday and got ten post cards and a
telegram. But that is as nothing to another anniversary.
A year to-morrow I got my woundtwo o'clock to-morrow morning.
Shall you be awake, Waker?
How will he celebrate it? I would give a lot to know what will pass
in his mind. For I don't yet understand this importance they attach to
such an anniversary. One and all, they know the exact hour and minute
on which their bit of metal turned them for home.
Sometimes a man will whisper, Nurse.... as I go by the bed; and
when I stop I hear, In ten minutes it will be a twelvemonth! and he
fixes his eyes on me.
What does he want me to respond? I don't know whether I should be
glad or sorry that he got it. I can't imagine what he thinks of as the
minute ticks. For I can see by his words that the scene is blurred and
no longer brings back any picture. Did you crawl back or walk?
I ... walked. He is hardly sure.
I know that for some of them, for Waker, that moment at two o'clock
in the morning changed his whole career. From that moment his arm was
paralysed, the nerves severed; from that moment football was off, and
with it his particular ambition. And football, governing a kingdom, or
painting a picturea man's ambition is his ambition, and when it is
wiped out his life is changed.
But he knows all that, he has had time to think of all that. What,
then, does this particular minute bring him?
They think I know; for when they tell me in that earnest voice that
the minute is approaching they take for granted that I too will share
some sacrament with them.
Waker is not everything a man should be: he isn't clever. But he is
so very brave.
After his tenth operation two days ago there was a question as to
whether he should have his pluggings changed under gas or not. The
discussion went on between the doctors over his bed.
But the anæsthetist couldn't be found.
He didn't take any part in the discussion such as saying, Yes, I
will stand it.... but waited with interest showing on his bony face,
and when they glanced down at him and said, Let's get it through now!
he rolled over to undo his safety-pin that I might take off his sling.
It was all very fine for the theatre people to fill his shoulder
chockful of pluggings while he lay unconscious on the table; they had
packed it as you might stuff linen into a bag: it was another matter to
get it out.
I did not dare touch his hand with that too-easy compassion which I
have noticed here, or whisper to him It's nearly over.... as the
forceps pulled at the stiffened gauze. It wasn't nearly over.
Six inches deep the gauze stuck, crackling under the pull of the
forceps, blood and puss leaping forward from the cavities as the steady
hand of the doctor pulled inch after inch of the gauze to the light.
And when one hole was emptied there was another, five in all.
Sometimes, when your mind has a grip like iron, your stomach will
undo you; sometimes, when you could say To-day is Tuesday, the fifth
of August, you faint. There are so many parts of the body to look
after, one of the flock may slip your control while you are holding the
other by the neck. But Waker had his whole being in his hands, without
so much as clenching them.
When we had finished and Sister told me to wipe the sweat on his
forehead, I did so reluctantly, as though one were being too exacting
in drawing attention to so small a sign.
I must say that the dairyman seems to me quite mad, and I only
wonder how little it is noticed. He will sit in a chair beside Palmer
for hours, raising and lowering his eyebrows and fitting imaginary
gloves on to his fingers.
An inspecting general, pausing at his bed this morning, said: A
dairyman, are you? Frightened of horses, are you? Then what do you do
about the cows?
He was pleased with his own joke, and the dairyman smiled too,
uncomprehendingly, his eyebrows shooting up and down like swallows'
wings. Such jokes mean nothing to him; he is where no joke but his own
will ever please him any more....
Palmer doesn't like sitting near him, but since it is too much
trouble to move he allows itpoor Palmer, who has a piece of metal
somewhere in his brain and is never seen without one long hand to his
aching head. He said to me yesterday when I asked him which
convalescent home he was going to, It doesn't matter. We both go to
the same kind before long.... jerking his thumb at the dairyman. As
for the latter, there surely can be no escape, but for Palmer....
They won't take it out; too risky. Seen my X-ray picture?
You look at it. Right in the middle of the brain. Seems funny that
if I say I'm willing to risk it, why they shouldn't be.
You're willing to risk it?
I'm only nineteen! What's the good of my head to me! I can't
remember the name of the last hospital I was at....
Ah, these hurried conversations sandwiched between my duties, when
in four sentences the distilled essence of bitterness is dropped into
Sister, what will they do with Palmer?
They are going to discharge him. They won't operate.
But what will happen to him?
I don't know.
But if he is willing to risk his life to save his brain, can they
They won't operate.
Pinker is full of grains of knowledge. He has just discovered a
wonderful justification for not getting up directly he is told off for
I never refuse a nurse, he said, as he thoughtfully picked over
the potatoes (Li'l men, li'l spuds! he says, to excuse himself for
taking all the sought-after small ones).... I never refuse a nurse.
But I like to finish me game of draughts firstlike Drake.
Pinker notices everything. He took the grocer for a ride on the tram
yesterday. 'E got so excited he got singing 'Tipperary,' an' the
blood-vessels on his neck goin' fit to burst. Weren't he, Bill?
He appealed to Monk, whose name is George.
(By the way, I wonder when people will stop calling them Tommy and
call them Bill. I never heard the word Tommy in a soldier's mouth:
he was a red-coated man. But every mate's called 'Bill,' ain't 'e,
From the camp across the road the words of command float in through
the ward window.
Halt! and Left wheel! and Right wheel!...
They float into the ward bearing the sense of heat and dust, and of
the bumping of the saddle. The dairyman has perhaps put me a bit
against the camp across the road.
When the dressings are finished and we scrub the enamel bowls in the
annexe, one can see all the dairymen and all the plumbers, chefs
and shopwalkers bumping up and down in a ring amid a cloud of dust,
while the voice of the sergeant cries out those things that my dairyman
used to think of in his sleep.
Then the jumps go up. Left wheel! Right wheel!... And now,
Cross your stirrups! One out of every four of them is clinging,
The seventh is off! It was a long fight.... He went almost round the
horse's neck before he fell.
We must win the war, win the war, win the war!
Every sort of price must be paid, every Mud of curious coinagethe
pennies and farthings of fear and despair in odd places, as well as the
golden coin of life which is spent across the water.
All day long the words of command come over the ward window-sills.
All day long they bump and shout and sweat and play that charade of
theirs behind the guns.
All day long little men training to fill just such another hospital
as ours with other little men.
But one does not say any longer, What a strange thing is life! for
only in rare moments does the divine astonishment return.
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