Belgian Refugees. The Vandenbergers. Alexandra Palace. Trafalgar Day
( Originally Published 1917 )
THIS chilly, misty evening, it is my privilege to entertain the Vandenberger family—or, rather, what remains of the Vandenberger family—in a corner of one of the refreshment-rooms of Waterloo Station. Five days have elapsed since they arrived in London from a ruined Belgian village. London, during those five days, has taken good care of the Vanden-bergers. And this evening, in half-an-hour's time, they are to travel to Exeter, as the guests of an English lady and her husband and daughter, in their calm, charming, old-fashioned country house.
Four Vandenbergers : the mother, a son aged fourteen, and two little girls of seven and nine. The father is " missing." Also a grandfather is " missing." Also a daughter is " missing." Also Madame Vandenberger's old mother is " missing." In fact, although the entire Vandenberger family fled their village side by side, only four of them wretchedly reached London. How, or where, or when they became separated, Madame Vandenberger cannot tell. At all events, somewhere or other, in the frantic rush to the Belgian coast, the stricken and distracted Vandenberger party was broken up.
A typical, sturdy peasant woman, Madame Vandenberger. Forty years of age, but her face previously weather-stained by hard work in the open fields, now further ravaged by distress and despair. Her fourteen-year-old son, brown of skin, lanky, restless and awkward. The two little girls—well, each clasps a doll tightly under her arm and a stick of chocolate in one hand, and there are blue ribbons in their hair, blonde hair that has been streaked and tarnished from past rural exposure to the fierce Belgian sun. So do the Vandenbergers sit in the refreshment-room at Waterloo (more shades of Belgium !), waiting for the Exeter train, eating sandwiches and chocolates and drinking café au lait. Coffee is the Belgian refugee's chief consolation. Since kindly English people have been sending our stricken visitors parcels of tea, I should like to quote the following warning from a letter that I have received from a distinguished Belgian lady :—" Faites moi le plaisir de dire en toute occasion qu'on leur donne toujours du café au lait, et pas de thé—car c'est leur réconfort et la base de leur soutien moral et physique, et le thé leur est une vraie drogue." Shades of dear, devastated Belgium again ! Amongst her peasantry, tea (as my correspondent points out) has ever been regarded as a strong, dangerous medicine ; a " drug." In villages, even in small towns, it was only procurable from the chemist. And the cautious chemist placed his tea high up on a shelf, in an ominous glass jar, amidst other sinister poisons.
So, coffee and milk (three large cups of it all round) for my guests in this corner of Waterloo Station. As they speak little French, and my own knowledge of Flemish is deplorable, conversation is difficult. Nor, I feel sure, is Madame Vandenberger in the least degree inclined to talk. The frantic flight from her village—the desperate exodus to Antwerp—the arrival at foreign Folkestone—then London—and now Exeter all these agonies, all these sudden, startling vicissitudes have left her dizzy and dazed. Here she sits at Waterloo, bareheaded, wrapped up in a shawl, with two bundles at her feet—silent and expressionless. Smaller bundles by the side of the son and the two little girls. Exeter ! I have assured Madame Vandenberger that she and her children will receive the most sympathetic of welcomes from the charming English lady, and her open-hearted husband, and their delightful children—and I know it well.
Exeter ! But what can Exeter, with all its hospitality and beauty, signify at the present moment, in Waterloo Station, to a dazed, broken Belgian peasant woman who has scarcely ever moved out of her own primitive native village ? Exeter—another journey, another long step into the unknown, farther and farther away from " missing " old Mother Vandenberger, and " missing," shaky Grandfather Vandenberger, and the " missing " seventeen-year-old daughter Vanden-berger, and --
Give me a kiss," says an English lady to the Vandenberger little girls, as she comes up into our corner and presents the blonde and stricken small Belgian sisters with a handsome box of chocolates. More gifts of chocolates follow. A stout gentleman presses half - a - sovereign into the limp, roughened hands of the mother. After that, a parcel of buns. After that . . . to the train. And there, on the cold, misty platform, I help bareheaded and ravaged Madame Vandenberger, and the tired young Vandenbergers, and their toys, chocolates and bundles into an empty third-class carriage, and the guard gives the signal, and the train leaves for Exeter.
As a result of the bombardment of Antwerp, behold Folkestone invaded every day by further contingents of homeless Belgians. A few hours later, picture scores of the new refugees established, with their bundles and their tired, brown-faced babies and children, in the innumerable halls, rooms and corridors of the vast, rambling Alexandra Palace. This afternoon it shelters over a thousand stricken Belgians. This afternoon, too, the Palace is eagerly approached by dozens of other visitors, also laden with parcels and bundles, but none of them is allowed to proceed farther than the lodge that stands at the entrance to the grounds.
" Can't let anyone pass without a permit," states the lodgekeeper.
Appeals, protests, exhortations from the visitors, but the lodgekeeper remains inflexible. Finally, the bundles and parcels are delivered into his charge, and the visitors turn away.
" People are very kind," the lodgekeeper in-forms me. " All day long they come up wanting to see the refugees, and nearly everyone brings a parcel. Clothes, boots, food, toys-I couldn't say what else. Apart from the presents, can't they do something to help ? Yes, there's no mistake about it, people are very kind."
Mainly ladies, the visitors. Nor did the lodge-keeper exaggerate when he stated that they and their kindly offerings "came up all day long." One visitor after another, some of them arrived from distant places. For instance, this grey-haired lady, with three parcels of clothing, and the hospitable intimation that she would " like to take in and care for no-fewer than six Belgian children, in her country house at Woking. A less prosperous lady—indeed, shabby and frail—anxious to help the Belgian mothers in " any way I can." And then, delightful apparition, a radiant English girl of eighteen, who informs the lodgekeeper that she wants to give the Belgian babies their nightly baths.
" What, all of them ! " exclaims the lodge-keeper, at once admiringly and humorously.
" I can come every day from five o'clock to eight," says the charming girl. " Shall I bring towels ?
I should have liked to know it was settled ! But the dear girl and the lady from Woking are referred to the Belgian Refugee Society in London.
Up come more and more visitors. A stout, fussy lady, accompanied by a ten-year-old son, who carries (or rather struggles with) a large card-board box, containing handkerchiefs, stockings, three flannel petticoats and six cakes of Pears' soap, so the stout lady announces breathlessly to the lodgekeeper. After that, two pounds of tea. " They can't stand tea ; they only take coffee," the keeper informs me in a whisper. A nun, with a parcel. A white-headed English clergyman, with three substantial packets of chocolate. A lady, with two sofa cushions. Another lady who, after borrowing my pencil, writes on her visiting-card : " Vive la Belgique, Pays des Héros," and pins it on a pillow-case full of toys. Out of the pillow-case protrudes the red, genial face of Mr Punch. . . .
" People are very kind ; very, very kind," repeats the lodgekeeper.
When I take leave of him it is five o'clock, England's comfortable tea-time. A minute or two's walk brings me into a spruce little street, lined with spruce little villas. Spruce nurse-maids wheel home spruce perambulators containing spruce suburban babies. Spruce housemaids appear on spruce doorsteps to answer the call of the muffin man's bell. Spruce little wooden balconies are decked with autumn-tinted ivy. Happy, spruce school-children dance and romp homewards, swinging their satchels. Tea and muffins and crumpets, the villa windows reflecting the glow from cheerful fires—return of menfolk from business—dinner and gossip, card-playing and music, bed and repose. Such a comfortable, and contented, and homely London suburb ! But, in the midst of it, the homelessness, the hopelessness, and the helplessness, of the dazed and devastated Belgian refugees.
Why didn't the Kaiser send Zeppelins, accompanied by Taubes, to ruin this most memorable of Trafalgar Days ? He could not have forgotten, whatever and wherever his present wanderings, our annual English celebration of the 21st day of October. He could not but have known that the " mercenary," evil English, supported by their honoured and stricken visitors from Belgium and France, would this year solemnise the 109th anniversary of Trafalgar with unprecedented vigour and enthusiasm. He must have foreseen that Trafalgar Square would be packed and crammed and hopelessly jammed—a solid, indivisible mass, a wonderful " target." But never a Zeppelin, not the shadow of a Taube, not a lurid, hectic shaft of the slightest tint or degree from the Kaiser.
Au contraire, hawkers gaily sell the Last Will and Testament of the German Emperor. The lions around the plinth of Nelson's towering Column hold wreaths of laurels in their indomitable, massive jaws. The very first edition to be published in London of the venerable Indépendance Belge, with its graceful message from Mr Asquith, sells like wildfire. The newly born Echo de France and Le Cri de Londres, printed in or about our own British journalistic Fleet Street, also enjoy a fine circulation. Collection boxes rattle with copper and silver. The twopenny Life of Admiral Jellicoe finds any number of buyers. Equal success for a humorous, " spoof " newspaper, entitled The Daily Liar, which announces the fall of Berlin and the destruction of no fewer than 20,000 Zeppelins.
Then, all of a sudden, in response to the favourite, eternal demand of " Are we down-hearted? " Trafalgar Square roars forth : "No." And the Allies, in their French and Belgian accents, also contrive to shout forth : " No." And khaki shouts It's a Long Way to Tipperary, and Bluejackets chant Rule, Britannia, and some-body starts the glorious and incomparable Marseillaise, and there, amidst all the enthusiasm and din, under the dark and sullen skies, grinning small sailor-boys literally dance about on the plinth of Nelson's Column, noisily shaking their money-boxes and deftly catching (but sometimes missing) the showers of coins that are cast at them from this emotional and incomparable crowd of veritable Allies.
What a scene ! Apart from the vast crowd surrounding the Column, thousands of spectators stationed on the terraces of the Square, on the steps of the National Gallery, on the top of the congested array of motor omnibuses, on the balcony of Morley's Hotel, on the roofs of lofty buildings—and everybody in every taxi-cab standing up, and odd, frail ladies in open, old-fashioned carriages on their feet. Result of all this traffic-sheer, delirious congestion. But this congestion is admirable, because it permits of the taxi-cabs of wounded French, Belgian and English soldiers being admiringly and affectionately, and intimately " saluted by the crowd. The wounded—only slightly wounded—have been allowed out from their hospitals to " have a look at " Trafalgar Square. But they see little of the scenes around the plinth of the Column. For the Allies make a rush for their taxis, and cry out " H0000ray ! " and " Vive l'Angleterre ! " and throw chocolates and cigarettes into the vehicles.
And poor women, from dim, obscure neighbour-hoods, with babies in arms, bring those babies up to the taxis and say to the babies : " Shake 'ands with the poor, wounded soldiers and say ` God bless 'em "—and so the babies offer limp little hands, and the wounded soldiers warmly respond, and the enthusiasm and humanity and nobility of the scene continues until long after nightfall. Out go the lights. Still, however, the Allies linger. The Marseillaise, Rule, Britannia, God Save the King, Tipperary. Darkness. Nelson, a shadow. The Allies in Trafalgar Square also a shadowy but dense mass. What a " target " ! But never a Zeppelin.