The Kingdom of the Blind
Surgeon-Major Thomson awoke about twelve hours later with a start. He had been
sleeping so heavily that he was at first unable to remember his whereabouts. His mind
moved sluggishly across the brief panorama of his hurried journey--the special train from
Victoria to Folkestone; the destroyer which had brought him and a few other soldiers
across the Channel, black with darkness, at a pace which made even the promenade deck
impossible; the landing at Boulogne, a hive of industry notwithstanding the darkness; the
clanking of waggons, the shrieking of locomotives, the jostling of crowds, the occasional
flashing of an electric torch. And then the ride in the great automobile through the misty
night. He rubbed his eyes and looked around him. A grey morning was breaking. The car
had come to a standstill before a white gate, in front of which was stationed a British
soldier, with drawn bayonet. Surgeon-Major Thomson pulled himself together and
answered the challenge.
"A friend," he answered,--"Surgeon-Major Thomson, on his Majesty's service."
He leaned from the car for a moment and held out something in the hollow of his hand.
The man saluted and drew back. The car went along a rough road which led across a
great stretch of pastureland. On the ridge of the hills on his right, little groups of men
were at work unlimbering guns. Once or twice, with a queer, screeching sound, a shell,
like a little puff of white smoke, passed high over the car and fell somewhere in the grey
valley below. In the distance he could see the movements of a body of troops through the
trees, soldiers on the way to relieve their comrades in the trenches. As the morning broke,
the trenches themselves came into view--long, zig-zag lines, silent, and with no sign of
the men who crawled about inside like ants. He passed a great brewery transformed into a
canteen, from which a line of waggons, going and returning, were passing all the time
backwards and forwards into the valley. Every now and then through the stillness came
the sharp crack of a rifle from the snipers lying hidden in the little stretches of woodland
and marshland away on the right. A motor-omnibus, with its advertisement signs still
displayed but a great red cross floating above it, came rocking down the road on its way
to the field hospital in the distance. As yet, however, the business of fighting seemed
scarcely to have commenced.
They passed several small houses and farms, in front of each of which was stationed a
sentry. Once, form the hills behind, a great white-winged aeroplane glided over his head
on its way to make a reconnaissance. Queerest sight of all, here and there were peasants
at work in the fields. One old man leaned upon his spade and watched as the car passed.
Not a dozen yards from him was a great hole in the ground where a shell had burst, and a
little further away a barn in ruins. The car was forced to stop here to let a cavalcade of
ammunition waggons pass by. Surgeon-Major Thomson leaned from his seat and spoke
to the old man.
"You are not afraid of the German shells, then?" he asked.