Grace Harlow - Chapter 5
ILL LUCK FOLLOWS THE OVERTON GIRLS
Who was the fellow who was so solicitous in brushing us off when we were getting into the car!" asked
Elfreda as they were whirled away on their journey to the evacuation hospital.
"Monsieur, you mean ?"
"I shouldn't dignify him by that handle. I have seen him about the field hospital since we moved there, but I never knew who or what he was. He certainly is a polite old man. These Frenchmen do know how to be polite to women," observed Miss Briggs.
"Monsieur, as he is called at the field hospital, doesn't happen to be French. He is a Belgian, an old fellow who does odd jobs about the place, a sort of half-witted fellow in some ways, and in others rather too knowing. His name is Ferrot. Why are you so interested!" questioned Grace.
"I'm not. His attention to us rather roused my curiosity regarding him, that's all," replied J. Elfreda.
"War makes strange bedfellows," reflected Grace. "I suppose there are many who think we are queer, and I am inclined to believe they are not far wrong in their estimate of us."
"Not in my case," interjected Miss Briggs. "Whatever I am, I'm not queer, I am just an average normal human being, eating and sleeping and moving about like any other sane person. Don't include me in your class, Mrs. Grace Harlowe Gray."
"No indeed, I shouldn't think of such a thing," retorted Grace laughingly. "Not, at
least, after last night."
J. Elfreda did not reply, though her nose went up a little.
"Anne will be surprised to see us in Paris. I'm so glad she has her two weeks leave now, while we are to be in Paris," continued Grace. "Hasn't Anne proved herself since she has been in hospital work in France?"
''Yes, she has. But Anne always was a real woman. Next to yourself she is the finest bit of humanity I've ever known," declared Elfreda.
"Now, now! First you abuse then compliment me. Which am I to take as your real meaning?" begged Grace laughingly.
"In other words I am, in your estimation, a
sort of No Man's Land, being nothing but a blank space between the lines. Thank you."
"You should have been a lawyer," chuckled Miss Briggs. "I defy any human being to get the better of you in an argument. Somehow you would manage to have the last word, the rebuttal, no matter which side you were on."
"Isn't it a woman's prerogative to have the last word, dear?" questioned Grace sweetly.
"Some women," agreed the young lawyeress, whereupon both girls burst out laughing.
The drive to the evacuation hospital was made very quickly despite the fact that the roads were greatly congested with men and equipment being moved up toward the front, preparatory to the great drive on Germany's "impregnable" line of defense. Arriving at the evacuation hospital the two Overton women reported to the officer in charge and were briefly instructed in what they were to do. They were to be in charge of the wounded men and to be held responsible for them. Sending a woman out in charge of evacuated soldiers was something new, he told them, but it was the opinion of the commanding officer that they might prove better in this work than if they were men.
"An orderly will accompany you and will be under your orders, Mrs. Gray," he informed her. "He will attend to keeping the cars in order and perform such other duties as may be required."
"Will the men be provided with sufficient rations to see them through, sir!" questioned Grace.
"Yes. One day's rations will be sufficient.
You will draw for yourselves an equal amount.
The train for Paris is scheduled to leave in an
hour, and the men are being put aboard now.
Grace took her orders, saluted and walked out.
"Paris to-night! If they make it they will break the record for war-time trains. If we see the French metropolis to-morrow I shall feel that we have made most excellent time," ~he told herself as she strolled over to the station, where she had left her companion. Grace bad provided herself with sufficient rations for two days, and at her suggestion Elfreda had done the same. The two girls now repaired to the commissary and drew other rations, as directed by the commanding officer of the hospital. These they packed in their grips and car-fled them into the car to the small compartment that had been assigned to them.
There were two hospital cars on the train, the orderly having a bunk in the forward car of the two. After depositing their belongings Grace
and Miss Briggs went out to stroll about the village of St. Emilie, which also was the headquarters of the division commander, General O 'Ryan. There would be nothing for them to do until the train started, for hospital attendants were taking care of the patients, and women nurses were passing chocolates and cigarettes to the men who were able or cared to smoke or eat chocolate.
The time for departure came and passed, but still the train did not move, and it was nearly nightfall before all hands were ordered aboard and the train crawled from the station, the two evacuation cars being coupled to an already overloaded train. The train was drawn by a real American locomotive, which encouraged the Overton women and made them almost believe that they were going to make excellent time. But alas for French railroads and wartime conditions! Five miles from St. Emilie the train came to a grinding stop and there it stuck. At nine o'clock that night it dragged out a few more weary miles, then took to a siding, where the engine left them.
During this short journey Grace and Elfreda had occupied their time in talking to the men, making them comfortable, giving a drink of water here, easing a wounded leg there, adjusting a pillow, stroking the head of a suffering'doughboy and lulling some to sleep, Grace with a low-pitched lullaby which she sang as a mother sings to her child.
"Keep it up, sister," called a soldier. "I was dreaming that I was in heaven. When you stopped you woke me up."
"People ordinarily wake up when I begin, not when I stop," retorted the Overton girl just
loudly enough for him to hear. She did not wish to disturb the other sleepers, but the laugh that
followed from those who had not gone to sleep awakened all the others.
"Now you have 'done it, Buddy!" she chided. "Will you children please go to sleep while the train is not running "
"French trains never run," observed a deep voice from the far end of the car. "They belong to the creeping, crawling things of earth."
Grace laughed heartily, and then sharply ordered the men to make an effort to go to sleep.
"If anything is wanted push the button over your berth and one of us will be with you instantly. We must get some sleep, but we shall not go to our room until every mother's son of you is sound asleep. I'll sing one more song and that will be the end of my vocal exercising for to-night."
No one spoke. She did not give them time to so, for Grace was crooning a lullaby again,
Elfreda, sitting on the edge of a berth holding the hand of a suffering man, gazing soulfully at Grace. The lullaby was strung out for the better part of an hour. Grace then paused and tiptoed to the other end of the car and back, then placed a finger on her lips.
"All is well, Elfreda," she whispered. "Turn in. I must look up the orderly and give him my orders."
Grace went to the other car and found the men restless there, so she sang to them, and it was long after midnight before she found an opportunity to go to her own berth. She left orders with the orderly to make a tour of the cars every thirty minutes, but to be cautious not to awaken the men.
"Call me the moment anything is not moving right," she directed.
"The train isn't moving right," retorted the man. "I beg your pardon, Miss," he added as he observed the glint of disapproval in her eyes "It was very fresh of me, but I didn't mean it that way."
"I know that," replied Grace smiling sweetly. "Good night."
Both girls lay down on their bunks without having removed their clothing, for it would not be convenient to go out in wrappers should there be a call from a patient. Grace told Elfreda that it might be advisable, if they were on the road another night, for them to take turns on night watch. She said she did not like the idea of leaving the care of the men to the or-. deny. So much concerned was she over his care of the patients, that two hours after she had turned in Grace got up and walked through her own car, then- forward into the second car. She nearly fell over a man asleep on the floor at the end of the car. It was the orderly.
Grace shook him and beckoned to him to follow her.
"How long have you been asleep?" she demanded when they had reached the corridor.
"I don't know, Miss. I think it must have been a long time. I haven't any apology to make, but it was this way. I sat down in the only place I could find where I could get my back against something, and that's about the last thing I remember till you woke me up. I'm ~ sorry. It won't happen again. I deserve to be called down."
"Did you sleep last night?"
"I haven't had any sleep in three nights-' that's what made me drop off to-night."
"There is an empty berth in the rear car. you get right in there and go to sleep. I will
call you early in the morning and finish my sleep after you get up," she directed.
"I beg pardon, Miss-"
"Mrs. Gray," corrected Grace. "It's all right, however. You do as I tell you, and be careful that you do not waken any of the men. They are having a fine night's rest."
The orderly obeyed the order with reluctance, though his admiration for his woman commander went up several degrees.
Grace sat the rest of the night through, occupying the place on the floor that the orderly had used for his nap. She called him at five in the morning after her last round for the night. The air was heavy in the cars, heavy from lack of circulation, and pungent from the odor of antiseptics. For the next three hours Grace slept soundly. When she awakened Elfreda was missing, the latter having gone out quietly without awakening her companion.
The train was running, or rather it was under motion, and Grace smiled at the recollection of the doughboy's remark regarding French trains. At ten o'clock they stopped at a small town where there was a "Y" canteen presided over by a woman, from whom out of lien own pocket the Overton girl bought cigarettes, chocolates and some canned goods for her charges, taking all that the woman could spare. That reduced her ready money to a single franc piece, which condition did not alarm Grace, for
she had a substantial bank account in Paris from which she could draw when she arrived there.
The next jaunt of ten miles was done in an hour and a half. Once more their train was side-tracked to permit the passage of supply trains on their way to the front, and there they lay all day long and up until after midnight, when another start was made.
The train stopped, lay for a long time, then began backing.
"We are on a side-track again," announced Grace to her companion, who had just finished her watch. "I suppose this means another wait of several hours. Are we at a station?"
"I think we are near one. I saw a settlement just ahead of us when the train slowed down. No lights are showing."
"Of course not. Go to sleep, 'dear. Are the men resting well?"
"Yes. You have made a great hit with those~ poor maimed fellows, Loyalheart. One of them said that were you to die and go to heaven, you would 'put it over the angels up there like a pup-tent.' Did you ever hear anything so perfectly ridiculous!"
Grace laughed heartily.
"Isn't that just like a Yankee doughboy! They are soldiers and men first, and the most
original of all human beings next. 'Good night!'"
Grace stepped out to make her tour of inspection. Elfreda had left an outside door open and a cool refreshing breeze was now circulating through the car. Most of the men were sleeping soundly, only now and then did she hear anything like a moan. The car ahead the orderly was on the job, awake and alert. He saluted as she entered, which Grace returned in kind.
"Men sleeping all right?" she inquired.
"Yes, Mrs. Gray, but we shall never get them through at this rate. Dressings will have to be changed on some of them to-morrow morning. What shall we do about it?"
"I'll talk with you about that in the morning.
If there is any probability of our reaching
Paris by night it will be better to let them wait.
Otherwise we shall have to do the changing
Blam! Cr-a-a-a-s-h! Bang! Bang!
The car shook and rocked on its wheels.
"Long range artillery!" cried the orderly.
"No, bombs I" answered Grace briefly. "Stick to your men. Don't let them get up. Joke with them if you can and keep them occupied. I must get back to the other car."
Grace ran in, bumping into Elfreda, who,
with her hair down about her shoulders, her face pale, was just emerging from their stateroom.
"Are we hit?" cried Miss Biggs.
"Neither of our cars is. I think the train has been struck somewhere up forward."
"Oh this is terrible! I knew it, I knew it!" Grace placed a firm grip on her companion's arm.
"Remember, Elfreda, we have wounded soldiers here. They are getting excited already, so we must be calm and smiling and act as if there were nothing to fear. Can you do it?"
"I will do it, Grace. You may depend upon me.
"Good! Let's go! You take the other car and I will remain here. If anything happens and you are able to move or speak, remember the men must have first consideration. Beyond that you and I don't count."
"I understand," responded Miss Biggs, nodding.
"See that the orderly does his duty, and for goodness sake get some color in those cheeks. You look ghastly."
Elfreda hurried away to the forward car of their outfit, Grace then walking down the aisle passing out cigarettes to the men, most of whom lay rigidly waiting for the next explosion.
"This is Jerry's busy night, Buddies but don't let that worry you. If he hits us we're hit; if he doesn't we aren't. That is good logic, isn't it?"
"You bet it is, Little Sunshine," spoke up a doughboy.
Grace stepped over and peered down into the face of the speaker.
"Buddy, where did you get that name?"
"I was in the hospital at Neuilly when you were there a long time ago."
"And you went back to the lines and got it again? You poor baby!"
"Sing!" they shouted.
"Join in the chorus, you who can, but don't strain yourselves. You don't have to sing loud, you know, just hum. 'Oh say can you see-'"
Every wounded man hi the car was humming the refrain before she had finished the first line of the American anthem. Grace swayed her body as she sang, to mark time for them, singing in a clear high soprano, accompanied by -a rich chorus of hums that went straight to the heart of the Overton girl. Two bombs exploded near by, but the singing and the humming continued without a visible tremor anywhere down the line or in her own voice.
Grace staggered, but grabbed a berth stanchion to save herself from falling over on a wounded man. She knew that the car ahead had been hit because she felt it wrenched from its couplings. A few seconds of hesitation and once more the song was resumed, the chorus, a little unsteady at first, soon growing in volume and rolling out strong and resonant.
It stopped suddenly.
The floor of the car seemed to rise up under the Overton girl's feet. Breaking woodwork, the sound of shattering glass and the grind of metal against metal were the terrifying sounds that smote her ears.
"St-e-a-d-y! St-e-a-d-y, Buddies!" she urged as she felt the car going over. "Hold fast!" Her voice sounded weak and puny in the crashing and rending, then over they went, a new sound, resounding through the hospital car.