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Betty

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



BY LEWIS BAUMER

THE SEARCH

BY BEATRICE HARRADEN

IT was about a week or so after the bombardment of Antwerp that an elderly couple, M. and Mme. S, and their little granddaughter, Marie, found themselves domiciled in an English family in one of the suburbs of London. Everything was done to alleviate their sorrow and make them feel that they were more than welcome in this land, strange to them, it is true, yet now to be their home until Belgium had been freed from the German yoke. But their sadness could find no consolation whilst their other grandchild, Jeanne, was still missing. She had been swept from them in the panic and bewilderment of that tragic day, and her case was but one of the many agonies of the selfsame kind endured by heartbroken Belgian parents and relatives. Every inquiry was set on foot in England, both by the Belgian Refugee Committee and by their hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Little Jeanne, aged seventeen, fair, delicate, sensitive, dreamy, was nowhere to be traced amongst the refugees in England, nor, as far as could be learnt, amongst the refugees in Holland. She had disappeared ; and those who loved her best hoped that a merciful death had overtaken her rather than a merciless dishonour.

But the old people grieved unceasingly. In the silence of the night, Peter Smith, the eldest son. whose bedroom was next to theirs, could hear the old lady sobbing out the name of little Jeanne. It got on his nerves first. He became irritable, and entirely disagreeable to his parents, his friends and himself. Then it got into his heart ; and the irritability passed gradually into a secret and settled determination to go in search of that missing little Jeanne, to rout amongst the Dutch refugee settlements, and make sure that she was not there. Peter did not believe much in Red Tape. Red Tape said a man was dead, and behold he turned up ; Red Tape said little Jeanne was not to be found, and why shouldn't she turn up ? Well, he would have a try. And if he failed, no one would know anything more except that having had no summer holiday, he had asked for his outing in December, and gone to Holland. And if he succeeded, well, he'd return with little Jeanne. That was simple enough as a plan.

It was not so simple in practice. But he moved mountains, got leave, secured letters of introduction, and what was more valuable than anything else, a personal interview with one of the representatives of the American Commission for Relief in Belgium ; and, to make a long story short, he landed in Holland and began his search.

In Flushing no one had heard of little Jeanne S.

He passed amongst the refugees there, and visited a huge railway shed in which hundreds of men, women and children were herded together without privacy of any kind, and without any precautions for health and morale. This was the last remaining " mixed " camp, the Dutch having been continuously and indefatigably engaged in dealing with the proper sheltering and housing and feeding of the thousands of Belgians who had overwhelmed the country in their vast numbers. And the next week this camp, too, was to be broken up, and separated into families, and suitable groups.

But meantime it was a terrible spectacle of misery and degradation. Peter, turning away with a shudder, was almost glad that no one answering to little Jeanne's description was to be found there.

Then a Canadian journalist, with whom he had fore-gathered, and who had planned to write about the refugee camps, suggested that Peter should go with him to Rotterdam, and thence to Rosendaal and Bergen-op-Zoom ; and by this time Peter had become keenly interested not only in the search for his little unknown friend, but in the whole question of the refugees, and the terrible burden of responsibility so bravely and generously borne by the kind Dutch, who were doing everything in their power to cope with the colossal task. He laughed when he thought of our Belgian refugee problem in England. As compared with the immensity and complexity of the situation in Holland, it simply didn't exist.

At Rosendaal the refugees were quartered in a huge building which had once been a granary. At the time when Peter and his friend arrived, the people were crowded together in a large room on the ground floor, waiting for dinner. So he went amongst them with the Commandant and a woman overseer, who did all in their power to help him ; but no trace could he find of little Jeanne. There were babies and little children and aged women and young wives and young women ; but no one answered to the name of Jeanne S nor to her description. Then Peter was taken upstairs to an enormous loft, to the sleeping and living quarters, where separate arrangements had been made for the men and women, and special care was being taken to give each family a. private little compartment of its own. Before leaving, he looked into the dining-room to say good-bye, to greet an old white-haired woman, to speak a few broken Flemish words here and there, and shake hands with tiny children who were bidden to " gi polk " (give the hand). The Commandant, a very kind Dutch officer, told Peter almost with tears in his eyes that there were no toys for the children not a single toy except one old rag rabbit that was a rabbit no longer ! Peter and his friend reported this sad fact to the American Commission for Relief, and very soon a consignment of toys from the Santa Claus ship " Jason " reached the Rosendaal settlement. And it cheered him when he heard the news. For the sight of those homeless, stunned exiles, hounded from their own country, with no hopes, no prospects, no occupation, and no toys even for the little children, haunted him day and night. He wondered how the old frail women had survived the terrible exodus from Belgium into Holland, the shock of bombardment, the tragedy of the scenes, the physical fatigue. Yet they had survived somehow. And very dignified was their bearing, and very brave and uncomplaining were their brief remarks.

" We have the little ones safe," they said, pointing to the little heads around them.

That seemed to sum up everything for them.

After Rosendaal, Peter and the Canadian journalist put in a day or two at Rotterdam, and by way of change from these scenes of sadness, saw the Food Relief ships arriving from Canada and the United States, and watched the barges destined for Liège, Antwerp, Malines, Brussels, Namur and elsewhere being loaded with their cargoes of rice, flour, salt, beans, peas, wheat and condensed milk. They dashed about, too, up and down the River Maas, in and out of the different harbours, conveyed hither and thither by a little steam launch flying the American flag of the Commission for Relief.

Then, one day, in company with two members of the Commission, who were in any case going there, they motored to Bergen-op-Zoom, and were on the very road where the avalanche of refugees had in their first terror broken away from Belgium into Holland. Bergen-op-Zoom, the city of camps, produced a much happier effect on Peter than any refugee quarters he had yet seen. It was situate on high ground carefully chosen by the military for this very reason. The sight of the thousands of tents was exceedingly picturesque. The children seemed free and happy, and it was evident that they were getting here a good chance of health and growth. Some of the tents were nicely kept and surrounded by some attempt at a sand garden. Most of them had a fire, and the families gathered together round it were evidently thankful to have their own private corner. In several Peter saw the family refugee dog, quite content and proprietary ! The tents were for the most part the abode of the better class. They could take their choice of the tents or the barracks ; but most chose the tents because of the privacy. The second class of refugees on the whole preferred the one-storied barracks, which were arranged in partitions for separate families, two or three families being quartered in each building. The barracks, were steaming hot and close, but none the less popular for that.

The third grade of refugees were housed, chiefly by their own desire, in one huge tent, like an enormous circus tent, with separate little establishments not screened off at all : a communal life, in fact ; and these people actually had their own Burgomaster. All the separate little fires and the lights, and the groups of people presented a very curious and interesting sight, like a scene out of a play. There were little pathways and roads arranged, as in a toy village. The refugees in this quarter looked positively happy, though, of course, here and there sat solitary figures, numbed and hopeless and dazed.

The fourth grade were housed in caravans, and these were separated off from the rest of the community by barbed wire : a sorry spectacle, though probably an unavoidable one, since these refugees belonged to the lower depths of social life, and precautions had to be taken even in these sad times. Bath houses were being erected, and a school house, library and church were in contemplation. And there was a building set apart where the mothers nursing their babies went for milk and white bread. A doctor and a nurse were in attendance all day long. This department was run and financed by an outside committee, with the consent of the military authorities.

All this Peter saw, and much more. He learnt, too, that all the concentration camps were now on the model of Bergen-op-Zoom ; and he, as many others who have had the chance of studying the refugee question in Holland, was profoundly impressed by the kindness, resourcefulness and deep sense of responsibility with which the splendid little Dutch nation accepted its duty towards a stricken neighbour.

But no success whatsoever had attended his search for little Jeanne. And the more he learnt of the overwhelming tragedy of Belgium, the less he expected that any search for any missing girl member of a family could possibly have happy results. Little Jeanne had disappeared. For once Red Tape had been right. Red Tape had said there was no record of her and that was the end of it. Or would have been, but for a curious and unexpected chance.

Peter's leave was up. He parted most reluctantly from the group of war workers amongst whom he had moved with that easy comradeship and instant friendliness born of a world crisis. It had been a thrilling time, and his mind was crammed full to overflowing with memories of the scenes he had witnessed and the people he had met, for that letter to the American Commission for Relief in Belgium had taken him into the very arena of war-work activity in Rotterdam. Sea captains, shipping agents, refugees, American business men, Salvation Army workers, journalists, writers of books, spies what a jumble ! But always at the back of his brain the haunting thought of a nation hounded out of its thousands of homes, dispossessed, desecrated, outraged.

" My God," he said to himself, " if such a fate should overtake my country."

It was borne in on him then and there that he must throw up his post and enlist.

Well, he had reached Flushing, and was taking a meal at the Zeeland Hotel before going on board, when a young woman, bright and attractive in appearance, but at this moment evidently greatly overcome by some emotion, came and sat at his table, where there was the only vacant seat in the room. She pushed her food away, and leaned back in the chair.

" I can't manage it," she said involuntarily. " I'm so upset with what I've seen this evening. I can't forget it." She broke off, glanced at Peter, was reassured by his kind face, and went on :

" In all my work here amongst the refugees I've never seen anything to beat the desolation of that little last remaining group in the hold of the barge, and that young girl rocking herself to and fro, and moaning softly. You can't imagine how it has torn my heart. Gone wrong in the head, you know her memory gone—alone—lost—no one knowing who she is and where she comes from. We thought she belonged to the people with her. But she doesn't. So young and gentle and shrinking and absolutely alone. I'm going to ask the Committee to let me have her. I can't leave her there. I simply can't."

Peter bent forward suddenly.

" Look here," he said eagerly. " I want to go to that barge. And I'll tell you why. I must go to it. You'll see for yourself I must."

And he told her the story of little Jeanne, and of those old people mourning for their lost one in his mother's home in Dulwich. She scarcely waited to hear his name, to glance at his card, to look at his credentials. She signed to him to follow, and led him in the dark along the railway lines to-wards some sheds, and then further down to an office where she knocked up an official, a Dutchman of course, who seemed charmed to do her bidding. He brought a lantern, and guided the way to the wharf, whence they clambered on to a barge, groped their way over it somehow, and landed on to a second barge which she told Peter had brought five thousand refugees from Antwerp on the day of the bombardment. They descended into the hold. And there in a corner Peter saw about nine or ten people, several women of varying ages, and three or four men. A lamp lit up the dreary darkness and showed a young girl sitting alone hugging her knees and moaning. She stopped for a moment as the visitors entered, looked at them with unseeing eyes and continued her plaint. She was young and fair. If she had once been pretty and charming, there was now no trace of good looks on her bewildered face. But her wild appearance and her posture of despair would have touched the hardest heart by its unconscious appeal of pathos.

Could this be little Jeanne ? And how was Peter to know ? He stood by her in great perplexity, and spoke the name of her little sister Marie Henriette. But she gave no sign of interest or recognition. Then he tried her own name, Jeanne S---. Still there was no sign. Then he spoke the name of the street in Antwerp where Jeanne's grandparents lived. For one almost imperceptible moment she left off moaning. But Peter's companion, alert, intent as only a woman can be with sympathies aroused, saw a slight change of expression on her face. And she whispered :

" Try something more. Try anything you can think of. It doesn't matter what it is—any trifle—any detail."

Peter shook his head. He had nothing else to try. And it struck him that he had been a fool to come on such an errand equipped with such meagre items of identification. Why on earth hadn't he told the old people? By Jove, what an ass he'd been. Better have risked their disappointment than have missed this chance. But, suddenly, he thought of the name of the dog which Jeanne's little sister Marie was always bewailing. ' Fido ' was the name. And Peter had the wonderful inspiration to call it out in a perfectly natural manner, as if he were in very truth summoning the dog.

" Fido, Fido, Fido," he cried.

And then a miracle took place. The moaning ceased. The girl got up, advanced a few steps, looked around, and called out :

" Fido, Fido, Fido,"

Then she burst into tears.

That was all they had to go on. But Peter's unknown woman comrade, who was herself one of the group of refugee organisers, and therefore part of the Red Tape, technically, though not spiritually, laid the case before her Committee; and the end of it all was that she was allowed to ship the girl over to England, provided that she herself took responsibility for her. She said, of course, she would. And if the old people in Peter's home were not the girl's relatives, then she would find her a suitable haven through the London Committee, and watch over her welfare. But leave her there alone and desolate, she could not and would not.

So they brought her over, and Peter went to fetch the old Belgian couple whilst his comrade stayed with the girl in one of the Belgian Hostels in London.

She proved to be little Jeanne, in very truth, and as the weeks went on her mind and memory returned, and the past misery was blotted out. Peter had the joy of seeing the successive changes in her when he came back to his home for his occasional hours of leave. For he had immediately enlisted on his return. He could not rest until he had done so. The scenes he had witnessed had made a deep impression on him, and he said, over and over again :

" My God, if such a fate should overtake my country."

Eight months later Peter was killed at Ypres, one of the many thousands of heroes, unnamed in despatches, unknown, undistinguished, yet helping to make an imperishable record of our country's honour.

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