IT was a warm summer’s day in late August. No men were visible in the Belgian hamlet. The women reaped in the fields; the insects hummed in the dry warm air; the house doors stood open. On a bed in a room in one of the cottages lay a woman. Beside her sat a small boy. He was still, but alert. His eyes followed the buzzing flies. With a bit of paper he drove the intruders from the bed. His mother slept. It was evident from the pale, drawn face that she was ill.
Suddenly the dreaming, silent summer day was broken by the sound of clattering hoofs. Some one was riding hurriedly through the town.
The woman moved uneasily. Her eyes opened. She smiled at the little boy.
‘What is it, dear?’
The boy went to the window. Women were gathering in the street. He told his mother and hurried from the room. Her eyes grew troubled. In a few minutes the child was back, breathless and excited.
‘O, mother, mother, the Germans are coming!’
The woman braced herself against the shock. At first she hardly grasped the news. Then her face whitened, her body quivered and became convulsed. Pain sprang to her eyes, driving out fear; beads of perspiration stood on her forehead; a little animal cry of pain broke from her lips. The boy gazed at her paralyzed, horrified; then he flung himself down beside the bed and seized his mother’s hand.
‘What is it, mother, what is it?’
The paroxysm of pain passed; the woman’s body relaxed, her hand reached for the boy’s head and stroked it. ‘It’s all right, my son.’ Then as the pain began again, ‘Quick, sonny, bring auntie.’
The boy darted from the room. Auntie was the woman doctor of B. He found her in the Square. The townspeople were wildly excited. The Germans were coming. But the boy thought only of his mother. He tugged at auntie’s sleeve. His frenzied efforts at last caught her attention. She saw he was in need and went with him.
Agonizing little moans issued from the house as they entered. In an instant the midwife understood. She wanted to send the boy away, but she must have help. Who was there to fetch and carry? The neighbors, terrified at their danger, were making plans for departure. She let the boy stay.
Through the succeeding hour a white-faced little boy worked manfully. His mother’s cries wrung his childish heart. Why did babies come this way? He could not understand. Would she die? Had his birth given such pain? If only she would speak! And once, as if realizing his necessity, his mother did speak.
‘It’s all right, my son; it will soon be over.’
That message brought comfort; but his heart failed when the end came. He rushed to the window and put his little hands tight over his ears. It was only for a moment. He was needed. His mother’s moans had ceased and a baby’s cry broke the stillness.
The drama of birth passed, the midwife grew restless. She became conscious of the outer world. There were high excited voices; wagons clattered over stones; moving day had descended on the town. She turned to the window. Neighbors with wheelbarrows and carts piled high with household possessions hurried by. They beckoned to her.
For a moment the woman hesitated. She looked at the mother on the bed, nestling her babe to her breast; then the panic of the outside world seized her. Quickly she left the room.
The small boy knelt at his mother’s bedside, his little face against hers. Softly he kissed the pale cheek. The boy’s heart had become a man’s. He tried by touch and look to speak his love, his sympathy, his admiration. His mother smiled at him as she soothed the baby, glad to be free from pain. But presently the shouted order of the departing townspeople reached her ears. She stirred uneasily. Fear crept into her eyes. Passionately she strained her little one to her.
‘How soon, little son, how soon?’
The lad, absorbed in his mother, had forgotten the Germans. With a start, he realized the danger. His new-born manhood took command. His father was at the front. He must protect his mother and tiny sister. His mother was too ill to move, but they ought to get away. Who had a wagon? He hurried to the window, but already even the stragglers were far down the road. All but three of the horses had been sent to the front. Those three were now out of sight with their overloaded wagons. The boy stood stupefied and helpless. The woman on the bed stirred.
‘My son,’ she called. ‘My son.’
He went to her.
‘You must leave me and go on.’
‘I can’t, mother.’
The woman drew the boy down beside her. She knew the struggle to come. How could she make him understand that his life and the baby’s meant more to her than her own. Lovingly she stroked the soft cheek. It was a grave, determined little face with very steady eyes.
‘Son, dear, think of little sister. The Germans won’t bother with babies. There isn’t any milk. Mother hasn’t any for her. You must take baby in your strong little arms and run—run with her right out of this land into Holland.’
But he could not be persuaded. The mother understood that love and a sense of duty held him. She gathered the baby in her arms and tried to rise, but the overtaxed heart failed and she fell back half-fainting. The boy brought water and bathed her head until the tired eyes opened.
‘Little son, it will kill mother if you don’t go.’
The boy’s shoulders shook. He knelt by the bed. A sob broke from him. Then there came the faint far-distant call of the bugle. Frantically the mother gathered up her baby and held it out to the boy.
‘For mother’s sake, son, for mother.’
In a flash, the boy understood. His mother had risked her life for the tiny sister. She wanted the baby saved more than anything in the world. He dashed the tears from his eyes. He wound his arms about his mother in a long passionate embrace.
‘I’ll take her, mother; I’ll get her there safely.’
The bugle grew louder. Through the open window on the far-distant road could be seen a cloud of dust. There was not a moment to lose. Stooping, the boy caught up the red squirming baby. Very tenderly he placed the little body against his breast and buttoned his coat over his burden.
The sound of marching feet could now be heard. Swiftly he ran to the door. As he reached the threshold he turned. His mother, her eyes shining with love and hope, was waving a last good-bye. Down the stairs, out the back door, and across the fields sped the child. Over grass and across streams flew the sure little feet. His heart tugged fiercely to go back, but that look in his mother’s face sustained him.
He knew the road to Holland: it was straight to the north. But he kept to the fields. He didn’t want the baby discovered. Mile after mile, through hour after hour he pushed on, until twilight came. He found a little spring and drank thirstily. Then he moistened the baby’s mouth. The little creature was very good. Occasionally she uttered a feeble cry, but most of the time she slept. The boy was intensely weary. His feet ached. He sat down under a great tree and leaned against it. Was it right to keep a baby out all night? Ought he to go to some farmhouse? If he did, would the people take baby away? His mother had said, ‘Run straight to Holland.’ But Holland was twenty miles away. He opened his coat and looked at the tiny creature. She slept peacefully.
The night was very warm. He decided to remain where he was. It had grown dark. The trees and bushes loomed big. His heart beat quickly. He was glad of the warm, soft, live little creature in his arms. He had come on this journey for his mother, but suddenly his boy’s heart opened to the tiny clinging thing at his breast. His little hand stroked the baby tenderly. Then he stooped, and softly his lips touched the red wrinkled face. Presently his little body relaxed and he slept. He had walked eight miles. Through the long night the deep sleep of exhaustion held him. He lay quite motionless, head and shoulders resting against the tree-trunk, and the new-born babe enveloped in the warmth of his body and arms slept also. The feeble cry of the child woke him. The sun was coming over the horizon and the air was alive with the twitter of birds.
At first he thought he was at home and had awakened to a long happy summer’s day. Then the fretful little cries brought back memory with a rush. His new-born love flooded him. Tenderly he laid the little sister down. Stretching his stiff and aching body, he hurried for water. Very carefully he put a few drops in the little mouth and wet the baby’s lips with his little brown finger. This proved soothing and the cries ceased. The tug of the baby’s lips on his finger clutched his heart. The helpless little thing was hungry, and he too was desperately hungry. What should he do? His mother had spoken of milk. He must get milk. Again he gathered up his burden and buttoned his coat. From the rising ground on which he stood he could see a farmhouse with smoke issuing from its chimney. He hurried down to the friendly open door. A kindly woman gave him food. She recognized him as a little refugee bound for Holland. He had some difficulty in concealing the baby, but fortunately she did not cry. The woman saw that he carried something, but when he asked for milk, she concluded he had a pet kitten. He accepted this explanation. Eagerly he took the coveted milk and started on.
But day-old babies do not know how to drink. When he dropped milk into the baby’s mouth she choked and sputtered. He had to be content with moistening her mouth and giving her a milk-soaked finger.
Refreshed by sleep and food, the boy set off briskly. Holland did not now seem so far off. If only his mother were safe! Had the Germans been good to her? These thoughts pursued and tormented him. As before, he kept off the beaten track, making his way through open meadows, and patches of trees. But as the day advanced, the heat grew intense. His feet ached, his arms ached, and, worst of all, the baby cried fretfully.
At noon he came to a little brook sheltered by trees. He sat down on the bank and dangled his swollen feet in the cool, fresh stream. But his tiny sister still cried. Suddenly a thought came to him. Placing the baby on his knees he undid the towel that enveloped her. There had been no time for clothes. Then he dipped a dirty pocket handkerchief in the brook and gently sponged the hot, restless little body. Very tenderly he washed the little arms and legs. That successfully accomplished, he turned the tiny creature and bathed the small back. Evidently this was the proper treatment, for the baby grew quiet. His heart swelled with pride. Reverently he wrapped the towel around the naked little one, and administering a few drops of milk, again went on.
All through that long hot afternoon he toiled. His footsteps grew slower and slower; he covered diminishing distances. Frequently he stopped to rest, and now the baby had begun again to cry fitfully. At one time his strength failed. Then he placed the baby under a tree and rising on his knees uttered a prayer:—
‘O God, she’s such a little thing, help me to get her there.’
Like a benediction came the cool breeze of the sunset hour, bringing renewed strength.
In the afternoon of the following day, a wagon stopped before a Belgian Refugee camp in Holland. Slowly and stiffly a small boy slid to the ground. He had been picked up just over the border by a friendly farmer and driven to camp. He was dirty, dedraggled, and footsore. Very kindly the ladies’ committee received him. He was placed at a table and a bowl of hot soup was set before him. He ate awkwardly with his left hand. His right hand held something beneath his coat, which he never for a moment forgot. The women tried to get his story, but he remained strangely silent. His eyes wandered over the room and back to their faces. He seemed to be testing them. Not for an hour, not until there was a faint stirring in his coat, did he disclose his burden. Then, going to her whom he had chosen as most to be trusted, he opened his jacket. In a dirty towel lay a naked, miserably thin, three-days-old baby.
Mutely holding out the forlorn object, the boy begged help. Bit by bit they got his story. Hurriedly a Belgian Refugee mother was sent for. She was told what had happened, and she took the baby to her breast. Jealously the boy stood guard while his tiny sister had her first real meal. But the spark of life was very low.
For two days the camp concentrated its attention on the tiny creature. The boy never left his sister’s side. But her ordeal had been too great. It was only a feeble flicker of life at best, and during the third night the little flame went out. The boy was utterly crushed. He had now but one thought—to reach his mother. It was impossible to keep the news from him longer. He would have gone in search. Gently he was told of the skirmish that had destroyed the Belgian hamlet. There were no houses or people in the town that had once been his home.
‘That is his story,’ ended the friendly little Dutch woman.
‘And his father?’ I inquired.
‘Killed at the front,’ was the reply.
I rose to go, but I could not get the boy out of my mind. What a world! What intolerable suffering! Was there no way out? Then the ever-recurring phrase of the French and Belgian soldiers came to me. When I had shuddered at ghastly wounds, at death, at innumerable white crosses on a bloody battlefield, invariably, in dry, cynical, hopeless tones, the soldier would make one comment,—
‘C’est la guerre; que voulez-vous?’