Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Family in Belgium

A beautiful character sketch of King Albert I, Queen Elisabeth, and their children during the First World War, by Mrs. Arthur Gleason, an American lady who helped to direct a field hospital at the front. For her bravery under fire, she was decorated by King Albert with the Order of Leopold.
The finest thing about this royal group is that it is a real family. They are not friendly for reasons of state only; they care for one another. They are simple people, with the affection and the strength of simple natures.
In the eyes of the mother there are tears close to the surface. Her own children are still safe, but the peasant children- she knows of their suffering. We have seen her talk with each little tot of a group of fifty, and send him off with a mother's pat and a sweet tucked in his wee hands. Her interests are without end. She visits a maternity hospital; she helps to arrange a creche, named after her daughter Marie José, for the tiniest of her people; she is a frequent caller in the hospital wards, and always with that gift of caring for each individual person, pausing at each cot to hearten those broken ones. From a sobbing, wounded peasant she listens to a story. His wife is being carried to her rest without a coffin because he is unable to make it. That coffin is furnished, and the grief of one peasant is lessened. A certain fever patient needs fresh milk. A liter a day reaches him. This gracious lady dislikes publicity; she does all things quietly and without pomp. Sometimes for a few minutes we sat upon a low stone wall listening to the music of a band playing in her garden. When she was walking there with a friend, she would nod and smile across the way to those passing. One day she came unannounced and on foot to my friend's villa. Could one help loving this king and queen and their three children?
The eldest, Leopold, is tall and fair and sensitive, like his father, and one feels that, like his father, he also would wish for his own life. He joined The Twelfth and went into the trenches with the men. We have seen him on the march and we have seen him on horseback. Once he came running with the crowd to examine one of the aeroplanes that used to float down easily upon the beach.
His father goes about as simply as other soldiers, walking with a companion to visit the hospital and to pin a decoration on a shattered boy before he dies. At the end of the hospital hall lay a boy facing the sea. He smiled as we entered. He was not well enough to smile much, but was he not a boy, and did n't he have a secret hidden under his pillow? The blue ribbon on his shirt glistened to be noticed. True, it was on the chest of only part of a boy,—half of his limbs had been blown away,—but the ribbon was new and the lad so proud.
"May I show it to Madame, Emile?" The quick hand of the nurse reached to the very spot under the pillow; it had found the place before. Emile needed to see the silver star and wreath pendant and to touch it more often than he needed fresh dressings. The tall gentleman had pinned it on the day before. He and the boy had enjoyed a talk together, all about how it had happened.
The figure of the tall gentleman is unmistakable. He is straight and fair, with fine blue eyes that look directly at one while he is speaking. His voice is low. He is so shy that the color comes and goes swiftly in his face. On a misty spring day sixty men in three lines stood facing the sea in front of a plain brick villa. The officers were dressy, the men groomed beyond recognition, with rifles shining and the Yser mud scraped from their uniforms and boots. They waited the coming of the shy gentleman. Soon he came, in dark uniform, gloves, and cap with several bands of gold braid adding inches to it. I watched him pin on each man a decoration, some blue, some garnet, and noticed with what concern and gentleness he talked with each man, asking questions, listening courteously. He is to his people what he is to his children, a father who cares that they suffer. There on the lonely beach of the last strip of his land he paid tribute to his soldiers individually, as man to man.
The president of France, with his minister of war and a large group of officers, made an inspection of the front and a visit to our hospital one day. In their look around, the doctors and the president, busily talking, had a way of hastening on ahead, going through doorways first, but the tall, shy gentleman followed, always alone. He is the most lonely figure in all that country. Only a simple nature can be so careless of his own dignity. And not only by that prominence is he a leader; he is a soldier-comrade with his people, and always a man.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is such a beautiful tribute.