AS I look back upon these last two years, there are innumerable visions I see, visions of war-time, with their accompaniment of dread and hope. A whole volume could I write, perhaps I shall do so one day, but it must be a little later. Some things are still too near, a certain distance is needed to see them in their right proportions; they must crystallize, become clear and transparent before one can dare go right down into them; for the moment I must remain on the brink, looking back towards a road that seems very dark and very thorny.
But out of the chaos of suffering that this year and a half has been, I may nevertheless gather certain pictures towards me, pictures that perhaps your hearts will remember with mine.
There are some that lie heavily on my soul and that even when my hair will be white, will still rise before me full of terror and mortal pain.
Snow and cold, mud and misery and long roads that thaw has turned into bottomless quagmires through which no vehicle can pass, belong to these pictures, and in the far distance, lost in a haze of nameless desolation, I see small villages where our troops have been quartered in wretched hovels, the only shelters available, after our forced and rapid retreat.
Misery so dark reigns in these centres of agglomeration, that it is only on my knees, my face hidden in my hands that I dare look back upon them, praying to God that all those sacrificed lives who died in glorious deaths, ignored and unassisted, going down by thousands into graves over which no priests said prayers, praying that those nameless ones who had the same right to live as you and I, should now have found rest and requittal in green places where the horrors of this world are effaced.
One and all of us in our books of history have read of the horrors of retreat; we see visions of ragged, stumbling, half-frozen men, wading through melting snow, driven by wind and terror, their haggard eyes fixed upon horizons they know they will never reach; we see scattered here and there along the interminable roads, small sinister heaps half buried in snow, over which the crows are gathering in swarms of black, heaps that have vaguely the form of man. Great artists have painted such scenes, great authors have put them into words, and as children, with distended pupils, we have listened to the voices that related us tales that seemed so fantastically fearful that we could not but hope that they were but hell-inspired dreams.
We never imagined that such realities might come into our sheltered lives, of which civilization had made soft nests of comfort and well-being. But war tore down the landmarks we were accustomed to and cast us with brutal suddenness into times we had thought belonging to the irrevocable past!
The past rose up gigantic, its pictures became realities, the cries of forgotten generations became the cries of our sons, and added to the horrors of ancient warfare, were the inventions of modern science, modern science which in the days of illusion had made us imagine that we were nearing the thrones of the gods! Besides, the armies of today are no more a horde of men whose trade was the trade of war, but entire nations, every man's son against every man's son; a sacrifice demanded from each home, each heart, one or more missing from around every table!
We had to learn to live with a reality we had never imagined could come our way, therefore have I had to see such pictures, which aghast, I am now reviewing in the silence of my room.
All were missing in those far-off villages where retreat had thrown our tired and hungering troops. Food was missing and clothing, shelter, fuel and soap. Strange unknown illness brought on by want, hunger and misery, like an invisible, stealthy enemy, began to steal through our exhausted ranks, and those brave men who had gone forth to meet quite another foe, found themselves facing cold, hunger and pestilence.
I t was only by degrees that I began to receive tidings of what was going on in those distant villages. In town my hands had been so full that. so to say, I had hardly had time to lift my head and look beyond. But when I tried to extend my activities towards those centres of desolation I found myself baffled over and over again by the chaotic condition of the roads. A motor could not pass, transports were nearly impossible, all the horses were dying for want of fodder. Every smallest help I wanted to send or bring was combined with difficulties which if described would be almost unbelievable. The cries for help became ever more pressing, something had to be done!
I remember, oh! so well, one visit I made to a village not so very far from the town, but which I reached with enormous difficulties. It was thawing. The world had taken on that aspect of dreary desolation, when everything looks hopeless, when all beauty seems wiped out of things forever. The great snow-fields were streaked with patches of dirty brown; all that had been mercifully concealed by the thick drifts was being brought to light in its most naked hideousness. Things which should have been buried lay about in ghastly medley over which swarms of crows gathered in sinister clouds of darkness. The sides of the long, long road were strewn with the bodies of dead horses, around which, like evil spirits, half-starved dogs were slinking about doing their gruesome work. They would raise their heads as we passed, baring their teeth, thus revealing their blood-stained jaws; they had an uncanny resemblance with hungry wolves.
At last we reached our destination, a large straggling village, composed of wretched huts, scattered about over a low hill-side. A crumbling wooden church looked down upon it from above, like a weary weatherbeaten shepherd, who, overcome with despair, can do no more for his abandoned and starving flock.
The huts seemed to be melting away with the snow, to be dissolving into mud, whilst the blackened maize-roofs dripped, dripped, weeping heavy tears of woe.
Here too, the ugly thaw was uncovering indescribable filth and hideousness, which no doubt ought to have been cleared away, but having cast a glance upon those yellow ghosts that were moving about through all this desolation, I understood why no work could be done!
These were not men! These were wandering spectres in the clutches of some nameless horror, haunted beings, with hollow cheeks and haggard eyes that stared uncomprehendingly at the woman who had come to try and relieve their distress!
In groups they sat about anywhere, upon the cracked door-steps, upon the heaps of refuse, or leaning their tired backs against the crumbling, slimy walls of the houses, while the melting snow from the roofs, dripped down in large black drops upon their hanging heads.
Others covered with rags, dragged themselves about aimlessly, their torn boots splashing in the fetid mire. One, leaning upon a tall stick, stood still to stare at me, his sunken eyes having a light of folly in their depths. His face was more a skull than a human visage; every bone could be distinctly seen beneath the dried and stretched skin which had the colour of old parchment spotted with ghastly shades of blue.
All these men were sick, sick with a sickness that we had only begun to recognize and which it was impossible to cope with, as everything needed was wanting.
"Where is your doctor?" I asked. "He is down with the fever," was their answer. "And your officers?" "Nearly all our officers are sick." And thus it was; nearly all those who could have helped were felled down by the same illness, leaving those unfortunate creatures to look after themselves and therefore they died, died . . .died by hundreds.
When I began entering within the dilapidated huts, the sights I saw were even worse. Here the sick were huddled together with the dying, upon indescribable pallets of straw, often a corpse with open eyes staring at the cracked and leaking ceiling lay beside those who had not yet entered the Great Shadow. Awful spectacles of want and misery that war brings in its train, real nightmare visions out of the forgotten past, arising to thrust themselves upon our appalled consciousness that was accustomed to cleaner sights.
As spring came on, releasing our roads from snow, I was able to circulate about more freely, but the spring was late and mud was produced by the melting snow, often knee-deep, so that I could never count upon reaching my destination; more than once it was on foot that I finally entered the villages.
Everywhere I went, I found misery, sickness, destitution; I helped where I could and others helped, working with all their hearts and strength, and yet in spite of all our efforts there came an awful moment when I thought that I had no army left! Death had so cruelly thinned our ranks that our regiments seemed to have melted away and with growing horror I contemplated the many, many wooden crosses that filled to overflow every churchyard I passed; sometimes whole fields had to be added so as to harbour all the dead!
Even in the streets of the town we became accustomed to see terrible sights. Our hospitals were overfull, for that reason the invalids had to be released before they were in a condition to affront the1atigues of the road. We had no houses in which we could harbour this class of sufferer and the organization of transports being absolutely insufficient, the unfortunate men could generally not get away by train, nor were carts or carriages available, so these wretched creatures had to drag on foot, through cold, snow and mud, upon endless roads. Often they did not reach their destination, but fell like lost sheep by the way-side, many, alas! dying, and nearly all had to drag themselves wearily back to the hospitals where they often lay three in one bed!
Never shall I forget those carts we invariably met bringing the sick and dying into town; it was a sinister sight, which I never passed without stopping to offer what small aid or comfort I could.
I took to driving about through the streets or slums and along the roads leading to town, my motor full of provisions and warm clothing, trying to succour or pick up those wretched waifs. I had great cans of warm tea and rhum always with me, and many a touching blessing has been showered down on my head.
I broke my heart over these sights and my cruel impotence to help. The misery was too vast, came from too many sources at once! Jassy was so crowded that no large buildings were available, besides the hordes of Russians in town had taken possession of three quarters of our more important houses. I searched in vain, there was no place—nowhere was there any place! And because of the difficulty of transport we were unable to get any boards with which to build barracks as we did upon a later date.
Disaster when it falls heavily upon a country disorganizes everything and our case was complicated by the Russian invasion! Our cruelly hit country that could hardly suffice for itself had to maintain as well the innumerable legions of alien soldiers that, alas! did not do their duty towards us as they should. But one thing the Russians had, inexhaustible provisions of every kind. The Russians have many faults and grievously did they sin against us, but even those who accuse them most can but admit that the Russian is generous, he gives easily and in great proportions when he does; it is true that he was extraordinarily rich, but he was never miserly with his riches. Most of my provisions of that first winter were of Russian origin. But although my hands were full, it was, oh! so little I could do to ease the too great misery that met me on every side. It seemed to me that I had no more soldiers, only ghaunt ragged ghosts whose clothes hung upon their wasted bodies like the rags on a scare-crow!
At last we ended organizing great camps for convalescents. We had them in different parts of the country. Never did I see anything so melancholy; I visited them continually and made tremendous efforts to send them extra food, always very difficult in those days of want.
One camp was quite near the town and I often went there on horseback. The men had been concentrated in small but neat dugouts two in each wee hut. When spring came at last, they would wander about all day, offering their skeleton-like bodies to the healing rays of the sun which had forsaken us for so long. Sometimes they would dance in great circles. A weird and pathetic sight, such as I hope never more to see. Verily it might have been compared to those sinister old engravings of the Middle-Ages representing "the dance of death." Hand in hand those pale-faced, yellow-skinned spectres with their sunken eyes and shaved heads would dance by the hour with a sort of morbid ecstasy to the sound of two squeaky violins, played by some gypsy comrades, themselves, poor ghosts that had just crawled back from the brink of the grave. They seemed to be performing some strange rite in honour of the sun that had dawned at last to shine down again upon their misery.
Never had spring been more welcome and never in any year of my life do I remember such a feeling of renovation and resurrection.
The winter had been so long, so cruel and murderous that this rebeginning of life had within it something of the miracle, to all hearts it came this year as an almost holy joy.
I would come galloping across the great field over the new-sprouting grass, and when those dancing spectres became aware of my approach, they would all run towards me with shouts of welcome. My horse seemed to feel the joy of spring coursing through his thorough-bred veins, and the sky above seemed to race with us, enjoying our speed.
But my horse loved not at all my poor haggard convalescents; he trembled with apprehension at their approach.
They used to crowd around me, cheering loudly, throwing their caps in the air, their pale haggard faces expressing a pathetic and touching joy.
I had the greatest trouble to teach my horse to stand those loyal effusions, he would snort and swerve round again and again, his eyes wide with fear, every nerve in his body quivering as though in his splendid strength he was overcome by horror at the approach of so much misery.
Of course I never came empty-handed; wine, tobacco, sugar, and often more substantial provisions would I divide amongst them, and then in sign of joyful gratitude all those ragged spectres would begin again to dance—dance, to the sound of the violins which pretended to be gay, but which in reality was but a long series of wails mounting to the blue sky above.
Then I would gallop off again, accompanied by the sound of their cheers, leaving them to their weird manifestations of pleasure.
My heart would be heavy and over and over again I would repeat to myself: I have no army . . . no army left . . . And yet there came a day . . . a day . . . It was the Tenth of May, our National Day, set apart since many a year, as a day of rejoicing and thanksgiving for events that had been glorious to the country.
In times of peace and plenty this was always a day of great festivities, a day of parades, a day when flags fluttered from every window, a day when even the most modest donned some bright colour to honour the Tenth of May.
My children had been taught to respect this date, to rejoice at its return, it was a day they awaited with impatience and each year anew was greeted with eager delight.
At all ages I remember their pleasurable excitement on that day. One after another, as God sent them into the world, however young they were, they took part in the festivities being taught at an early age to behave decorously in public. I can still see their big, astonished baby-eyes staring with rapture at the regiments of soldiers passing proudly in their bright uniforms, which in those days were of various hues. Almost before they could walk they had learned to salute the colours, the sight of the beautiful horses filled them with glee, the gay march-music fired their blood, they laughed and chattered and gaily clapped their hands.
Visions of brightness, visions of plenty, where the whole world seems impossibly happy, unconscious and frivolous; visions of crowded streets, decorated with many colours, visions of flowers in plenty, thrown down from balconies by hands that seem to bless . . . visions that have passed away. . . .
Different indeed were our feelings on this Tenth of May.
The streets we passed through had certainly been decorated, but meagerly, according to the means of the day. Eager crowds greeted us, but there was a hidden anxiety beneath each smile, something haunted hovered in the depth of nearly every eye. Few had donned bright colours, there was a sobriety about everyone's attire, which spoke of a new attitude towards life in general, and many a woman was clad in black. . . .
We drove to a large field beyond the town. I too felt that my eyes were haunted. Were they perhaps trying to look beyond the surface of things, trying to pierce the clouds that hung over our future, trying perhaps also to forget certain visions they had seen? . . .
I turned round to count my children . . . they were five-one was missing . . . there used to be six . . . surely there used to be six! The little one, the tiny little one is missing from out of the ranks and yet he was laughing up at me on the last Tenth of May.
It was a sunny day and the field to which we drove was vast and green.
No bright uniforms met one's eye, they were sober, all of one colour, mingling their greys and greens with the flags and they were in rags. . . .
My heart beat furiously within my breast, it seemed to me as though I hardly dared to look towards those rows upon rows of green-clad men waiting to be reviewed, I wondered what would meet my eye, I was accustomed to sights of such suffering that my soul had forgotten how to be glad. A joyful emotion was rising within me and yet I was struggling against blinding tears.
Then they began marching past! Line upon line of valiant youths clad in dull green-grey, more, always more of them, their faces all turned our way!
Where had they all come from, had they arisen from the dead! Where were their rags and tatters, how was it that eyes full of confidence met my anxious gaze, where were the poor ghosts of two months ago?
Was it possible! Could these be the same men? What superhuman efforts had given me back my army! Who had clad it, fed it, filled it with new energy and with a spirit that was quite other than at the beginning of the war?
I turned round to see what emotion was written upon the face of the King. I saw that he too was struggling with tears whilst a proud smile played about his lips. Our eyes understood each other but not a word did we say.
A great need was in me that all should join in with the holy emotion that was flooding my soul, so I turned also towards other faces to see if they too understood all that it meant. And there were many friends there of different races, some of which had helped in the rebuilding, who met my gaze with a look of comprehension, they understood the trembling of my lips and when they clasped my hand, we knew that it was as a bond that nothing could break.
Yes, they all understood that it was resurrection, that the troops that were filing past so proudly, one regiment after another, were precious lives that with infinite struggles had been torn from the very jaws of death.—Yes, it was resurrection, but one so recent, bought with so many tears, paid for by so many efforts that as yet it could be accepted but with clasped hands and bended knees. . . .
And though so different from every other, that Tenth of May will evermore remain in our minds as a Day of Resurrection. . . .