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- The Valley of Vision - 4/31 -
and last of all, the house where the half-dozen disorderly women are confined, surrounded by a double fence of barbed wire and guarded by a sentry.
Poor, wretched creatures! You are sorry for them. Why not put the disorderly men into a house of confinement, too?
"Ah," says the commandant bluntly, "we find it easier and better to send the disorderly men to jail or hospital in some near town. We are easier with the women. I pity them. But they are full of poison. We can't let them go loose in the camp for fear of infection."
How many of the roots of human nature are uncovered in a place like this! The branches and the foliage and the blossoms, too, are seen more clearly in this air where all things are necessarily open and in common.
The men are generally less industrious than the women. But they work willingly at the grading of roads and paths, the laying out and planting of flower-beds, the construction of ornamental designs, of doubtful taste but unquestionable sincerity.
You read the names which they have given to the different streets and barracks, and the passageways between the cubicles, and you understand the strong, instinctive love which binds them to their native Belgium. "Antwerp Avenue," "Louvain Avenue," "Malines Street," "Liege Street," and streets bearing the names of many ruined towns and villages of which you have never heard, but which are forever dear to the hearts of these exiles. The names of the hero-king, Albert, and of his brave consort, Queen Elizabeth, are honored by inscriptions, and their pictures, cut from, newspapers, decorate the schoolrooms and the little family cubicles.
The brutal power which reigns at Berlin may drive the Belgians out of Belgium by terror and oppression. But it cannot drive Belgium out of the hearts of the Belgians. While they live their country lives, and Albert is still their King.
But think of the unnatural conditions into which these thousands of human beings--yes, and hundreds of thousands like them, torn from their homes, uprooted, dispersed, impoverished--are forced by this bitter, cruel war. Think of the cold and ruined hearthstones, the scattered families, the shelterless children, the desolate and broken hearts. This is what Germany has inflicted upon mankind in order to realize her robber-dream!
Yet the City of Refuge, being human, has its bright spots and its bits of compensation. Here is one, out of many.
The chief nurse, a young Dutch lady of charming face and manners, serving as a volunteer under the sacred sign of the Red Cross, comes in, one morning, to make her report to the commandant.
"Well," he says, disguising in his big voice of command the warm admiration which he feels for the lady, "what is the trouble to-day? Speak up."
"Nothing, sir," she answers calmly. "Everything is going on pretty well. No new cases of measles--those in hospital improving. The only thing that bothers me is the continual complaint about that Mrs. Van Orley--you remember her, a thin, dark little person. She is melancholy and morose, quarrels all the time, says some one has stolen her children. The people near her in the barracks complain that she disturbs them at night, moans and talks aloud in her sleep, jumps up and runs down the corridor laughing or crying: 'Here they are!' They don't believe she ever had any children. They think she is crazy and want her put out. But I don't agree with that. I think she has had children, and now she has dreams."
"Send her away," growls the commandant; "send her to a sanatorium! This camp is not a lunatic asylum."
"But," interposes the nurse in her most discreet voice, "she is really a very nice woman. If you would allow me to take her on as a housemaid in the general hospital, I think I could make something out of her; at least I should like to try."
"Have your own way," says the commandant, relenting; "you always do. Now tell me the next trouble. You have something more up your sleeve, I'm sure."
"Babies," she replies demurely; "two babies from Amsterdam. Lost, somehow or other, in the flight. No trace of their people. A family in Zaandam has been taking care of them, but can't afford it any longer. So the Amsterdam committee has sent them here."
The commandant has listened, his cheeks growing redder and redder, his eyes rounder and more prominent. He springs up and paces the floor in wrath.
"Babies!" he cries stormily. "By all the gods, da--those Amsterdammers! Excuse me, but this is too much. Do they think this is a foundling asylum? or a nursing home? Babies! What in Heaven's name am I to do with them? Babies! Where are those babies?"
"Just outside, and very nice babies indeed," says the nurse, opening the hall door and giving a soft call.
Enter a slim black-haired boy of about three and a half years and a plump golden-haired girl about a year younger. They toddle to the nurse and snuggle against her blue dress and white apron.
Smiling she guides them toward the commandant and says: "Here they are, sir. How do you like them?"
That terrific personage has been suddenly transformed from haircloth into silk. He beams, and pulling out his fat gold watch, coos like a hoarse dove: "Look here, _kinderen_, come and hear the bells in my tick-tock!"
Presently he has one of them leaning against the inside of each knee, listening ardently to the watch.
"What do you think of that!" he says. "What is your name, youngster?"
"Hendrik," answers the boy, looking up.
"Hendrik _what?_ You have another name, haven't you?"
The boy shakes his head and looks puzzled, as if the thought of two names were too much for him. _"Hendrik,"_ he repeats more clearly and firmly.
"And what is her name?" asks the commandant, patting the little girl.
_"Sooss,"_ answers the boy. "Mama say _'ickle angel.'_ Hendrik say _Sooss."_
All effort to get any more information from the children was fruitless. They were too small to remember much, and what they did remember was of their own size--only very little things, of no importance except to themselves. The commandant looks at the nurse quizzically.
"Now, miss, you have unloaded these vague babies on me. What do you propose that I should do with them? Adopt them?"
"Not yet, anyhow," she answers, smiling broadly. "Let us take them up to the camp. I'll bet we can find some one there to look after them. What do you say, sir?"
"Well, well," he sighs, "have your own way as usual! Just ring that bell for the automobile, _als't-Ublieft."_
In the busy sewing-room the two children are standing up on one of the tables. The commandant has an arm around each of them, for they are a little frightened by so much noise and so many eyes looking at them. The chatter dies down, as he speaks in his gruff authoritative voice, but with a twinkle in his eyes, rather like a middle-aged Santa Claus.
"Look here! I've got two fine babies."
A titter runs through the room.
_"Ja, Men'eer,"_ says one of the women, "congratulations! They are _lievelingen_--darlings!"
"Silence!" growls the commandant amiably. "None of your impudence, you women. Look here! These two children--I want somebody to adopt them, or at least to take care of them. I will pay for them. Their names are Hendrik and--"
A commotion at the lower end of the room. A thin, dark little woman is standing up, waving her piece of sewing like a flag, her big eyes flaming with excitement.
"Stop!" she cries, hurrying and stumbling forward through the crowd of women and girls. "Oh, stop a minute! They are mine--I lost them--mine, I tell you--lost--mine!"
She reaches the head of the table and flings her arms around the boy, crying: "My Hendrik!"
The boy hesitates a second, startled by the sudden wildness of her caress. Then he presses his hot little face in her neck.
_"Lieve moeder!"_ he murmurs. "Where was you? I looked."
But the thin, dark little woman has fainted dead away.
The rest we will leave, as the wise commandant does, to the chief nurse.
A SANCTUARY OF TREES
The Baron d'Azan was old--older even than his seventy years. His age showed by contrast as he walked among his trees. They were fresh and flourishing, full of sap and vigor, though many of them had been born long before him.
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