Saint Dympna's Miracle

PIERRE, the chauffeur, launched a savage kick at the newly punctured tire and swore into the patient night. ‘Three quarters of an hour, monsieur, to repair it,’ he said reluctantly, switching off the motor. ‘Do you wish —’

Into the sudden silence stole the slow incessant roar of the Yser cannon. The level stretches of the Campine, alternating black vistas of scrub evergreens with little fields, peat bogs, and kitchen gardens, lay fragrant and silent in the moonlight. Heather was in bloom, nightingales were nesting and so were no longer singing, and the narrow Flemish road before and behind the automobile lay like a placid silver river, inviting one to quiet thoughts.

‘Yes,’ I answered Pierre’s unfinished query. ‘I’ll go for a stroll toward the next farm-house. Take your time, Pierre. There’s no hurry to-night.’

We had just left the town of Gheel, one of the most remarkable places in Belgium, a town where more than a thousand insane folk live quiet and useful lives, parceled out among the peasants, but under the supervision of district doctors. The insane are treated as if they were normal beings, are given work according to their strength, mental and physical, and find companionship among a peasantry noted for industry and stubborn independence. This is originally due to certain miracles of Saint Dympna, one of the guardian saints of the insane — an Irish princess, converted to Christianity, and martyred at Gheel by her pagan father on the 30th of May in the year of Our Lord 600.

Under the bright moon the land seemed singularly like Ireland, and a little old man stepping toward me down the silvery road, his pipe in his mouth, his eyes screwed up, his bent legs wrapped in ill-fitting trousers, his feet in wooden shoes, might have been the fabled leprechaun, or Wee Hughie Gallagher of Donegal. He wore a brassard on his right sleeve, for he was one of the village watch, guarding the telephone and telegraph wires so that no accident might happen to them to give the Germans an excuse for crushing the commune with an exorbitant fine.

‘Goe’n avond, mynheer,’ I called cheerfully.

‘Avond, mynheer,’ he answered in a weak voice.

‘I am the American delegate of the Komiteit voor Hulp en Voeding,’ I explained.

‘Mynheer is American?’ he asked doubtfully, taking his pipe from his mouth and scratching his head as if to recall where or what America could be.

‘Ja wel. Have you a cup of milk at your house?’

He turned and faced back down the road, still scratching his head.

‘Als ’t U belieft, mynheer,’ I added ceremoniously.

My superlative courtesy seemed to decide him, and he gave a gesture of assent. Side by side and in silence then we walked down the silver road to the first farm-house. A black mass of protecting trees hung close over the chimney, and low thatch swept down like the back of some prehistoric monster, gray-green in the clear moonlight. The walls were lath, filled in with clay. Two little rectangular windows glowed dully, and the edges of the thick, ill-fitting door shone with faint light.

‘You live here, mynheer?’ I asked.

‘Ja, mynheer.’

‘You own it? ’

‘I rent it.’

‘I may enter?’

‘You may enter, mynheer.’

He thrust open the door without knocking. I stumbled into the dimly lighted room, hardly knowing what I expected to find. Peasants’ cottages were invariably interesting to me, and invariably they contained surprises. But this was older and more primitive than any I had yet visited — a relic of long-gone days. It was like opening an ancient tomb or a buried city. I entered expectantly, and lo! the centuries rolled backward, and I stood with people of Froissart’s day, with peasants who had scarcely altered since the Middle Ages, whose feet were hardly on the threshold of modernity.

The room was square. At one end was a brick fireplace, rude as if aborigines had built it, with an iron frame squatting in the ashes, a thick pot suspended by a chain, a broiling rack, a heavy iron fork, a charred stick for a poker, and a rude crane. In the smoke of a tiny turf-fire on the hearth hung rows of drying vegetables and skins of meat. The floor was beaten earth, hard as brick. The walls were whitewashed. The ceiling was low and strung with onions and other roots and vegetables, and the only touch of modern things was a hanging lamp in the centre. In a corner hung a man’s suit of Sunday clothes, like a creature which has been hanged. A ladder beside it went up to the blind loft overhead. A picture of the Virgin hung on one wall, and a plaster statuette of Saint Anthony and Saint Joseph gleamed from a shelf over the fireplace, drawing one’s eye to a row of plates and dishes. An odor of smoke and cooking and manure heaps and the foul smells of unwashed human beings crowded the little room, and the air droned with the sleepy buzzing of innumerable flies.

A barefooted, prematurely aged woman, bent with too much child-bearing, gave me a chair, wiping it ceremoniously with her apron. The man spat on the floor behind us and scraped the spittle with his sabot. Three children were asleep in a recess on a pile of litter curtained from sight in the day-time. But the most striking person in the room was a young woman, sitting before the turf-fire with a fourth child — evidently the youngest — in her lap. She wore stockings, leather shoes, and a simple, black bombazine dress. Her face was turned from me, but I saw that her hair was neatly coiled about her head and pinned with a shell comb.

The older woman sprang to the hanging lamp and turned it high until it smoked. ‘Good evening, mynheer,’ she called in a panic of fear and pleasure. ‘Be seated, if it please your Excellency.’

She dragged the chair beside the lamp and the table in the centre of the room. During the next five minutes she was feverishly busy offering me beer, milk, and everything else that her mean little house afforded.

I stared at the woman beside the fireplace, and my host — who refused to seat himself in my presence — at last touched his head significantly. ‘ Ah, monsieur,’ he sighed. (He had been one of the franksmannen, migratory laborers who work for several months of the year in France, and he spoke tolerable French. Indeed he was much better informed and quicker of wit than his person or his home would indicate.) ‘She is mad: like all the world, she is mad. All the world is mad.’

‘You mean the war?’

‘Yes, monsieur. Saint Dympna has received thousands of mad ones, and of those who are mad, but whom she has not received, there are millions. When the war broke out two men went mad in this village. They were carried away to Gheel, raving. Their eyes stared, their lips frothed, and they twitched all over. When the Germans came here, certain ones went mad at sight of them. I have seen it with my eyes, monsieur. They say that when the Germans came into France they sent whole long trainloads of mad ones back into their own land. When the big shells burst in the forts, all the garrison goes mad. When the aviator flies over the trench, men go mad. You have seen there are always two German sentries together? It is so that if one goes mad the other will be at hand. For they go mad, monsieur, by dozens, by hundreds, by thousands. Have you seen their eyes? They are mad. And their lips? They work like the lips of men always talking to themselves. When the war began, I too was mad. I dreamed terrible dreams. For two months I was mad — like all the world.’

‘But the woman there?’ I asked, pointing to the figure beside the turf glow.

The man clattered over to her and laid his hand gently on her shoulder. ‘Madame,’ he said, ‘there is a gentleman here to speak with you.’

‘Nay, mynheer,’she answered quietly, ‘not until midnight.’

‘He is not the doctor, madame.’

She turned and gave me a searching glance. The movement revealed that her breast was uncovered, and that she held the sleeping child against her heart. ‘Nay,’ she said again, ‘not until midnight.’

He came slowly back. ‘ When a child is sick, she knows it and she comes,’ he explained apologetically. ‘At midnight she goes back to the doctor’s house.’

‘Alone?’

‘Alone, monsieur. God and the Devil alike love the mad. God and the Devil alike watch over them. This one,’ he pointed to the woman with the child, ‘ was a lady of Louvain, of the Krakenstraat; she was rich; she had a husband and two children. They were killed by the Germans, and she was wounded in the shoulder. Her house was burned; her money lost. She went mad. She was taken to Duffel, I think; then to Antwerp, then to Hoogstraeten, then she was brought to Gheel, screaming for her children and her husband — mad — mad and soon to die. Then, monsieur, Saint Dympna wrought a miracle through the love of a little child, a little sick boy in the doctor’s house where madame was confined, and she became well after a fashion. And now in whatever house a child is ill, madame by the grace of God knows of it, and she comes and nurses it back to health. The first madness is of the Devil, monsieur, violent and bloody; the second is of God, and it is kind.’

In the midst of his prattle the woman rose slowly, holding the sleeping child in the hollow of her right, arm and buttoning the bosom of her dress with her left hand. ‘Hush!’ she admonished softly. ‘Listen, mynheeren!’ From some instinct of courtesy, I rose to my feet. She raised her hand warningly, but did not turn her head. ‘ Listen,’ she repeated, staring toward the fireplace.

It was an uncanny thing. We stood as if frozen. The heavy breathing of the peasant woman pulsed through the quiet room; the old man stared with all his eyes; a sleepy chicken chuckled from an adjoining shed, but there was no other sound from outside. A minute went by; another; a third, and still we stood stiffly in the centre of the room. At last madame beckoned to the peasant-mother, who stole across the floor toward her and paused at her side. Silently she gave the mother her child, her finger on her lips, her eyes still fixed on the spot near the fireplace.

Then she turned, and laying her hands on the head of the sleeping boy, she began in a strange, low, hissing voice, ‘This one shall be an avenger of Louvain, he shall be an avenger of Dinant, and Termonde, and Aerschot, and Andenne, and Liége, and Tamines, and Visé. He shall avenge our nation. He shall not forget. In the days of his happiness, he shall remember our sorrow; in the days of his prosperity, he shall remember our misery; in the days of his strength, ho shall remember our weakness. Go! Be healed!’ Then in her quiet, natural voice, pointing to the spot, on a level with her eyes at which she had stared, she added, ‘A sick child is there, mynheeren. Three, four kilometres away it is, and I must go to it.’

‘God!’ the old man breathed.

‘I must go now. The child is very ill. I must go now, or I shall be too late.’

The old man crossed himself again and again. ‘God! God!’ he repeated helplessly.

The young woman wheeled suddenly. ‘What is that noise?’ she exclaimed, pointing to the roadway.

The roar of an automobile resounded outside, and I knew Pierre was coming.

‘Is it the Germans?’

‘No, madame, it is my automobile, at your service.’

She showed no astonishment or perplexity. Her mind seemed wholly absorbed in the problem of the sick child. ‘Take me in your automobile to the child, monsieur,’ she replied rapidly, speaking in French. ‘Let us hurry, hurry! ’

‘But where, madame?’

‘ I do not know, monsieur, but I will show you. There! There!’ She waved her hand in the direction of Gheel.

We hurried like fugitives from the house and into the tonneau, leaving the awe-struck peasants standing with mouths agape. Pierre stared in consternation at our coming, but said no word. I did not try to explain. Our passenger sat tense, her head turned to one side as if she were listening closely.

We came quickly to a fork of the road. ‘Which way, monsieur?’ Pierre asked.

‘ I do not know. It is for madame to say,’ I answered.

She was quiet for an instant. ‘ To the right hand,’ she exclaimed suddenly.

‘ Make haste! — There! In that house! ’

The car jerked to a stop, and I leaped out to help madame to the ground. Now that we had arrived, to my astonishment she made no move to leave the car. Her head sank slowly forward to her breast, and she sat huddled listlessly, paying no attention to Pierre or me.

‘Is it this house, madame?’ I asked, hoping to arouse her.

‘This house,’ she said, ‘but we are too late.’

‘But no, madame!’ I exclaimed. ‘ Go quickly and help! ’ At the moment I believed in her supernatural powers as firmly as any peasant of the Campine.

She lifted her head. A sad light had come into her eyes. ‘ It is too late. The avenger of Belgium is not to come from this house,’ she muttered.

‘ But yes! Hurry! ’

The madness of my words did not occur to me until days afterward: the lunacy of thinking either that she could heal, or that the child of these poor peasant-folk when healed would avenge his nation on her enemies. God knows what wild thoughts were in my mind that night! God knows, and Saint Dympna!

‘I will go in then,’ she said, rising, giving her hand with a queenly gesture, and stepping from the car. ‘Thank you, monsieur. You need not wait; indeed you must not wait. I am here with friends. Adieu!’

She clutched my arm in a sudden spasm of fright.

‘Listen!’ she breathed.

A piercing wail rose from the quiet cottage; a dull lamp flared as it was borne hastily past a window; a man’s deep voice groaned horribly. Children in the loft, wakened by the outcry, began to scream, and a startled dog far away howled in terror.

Madame released my arm and walked slowly toward the house of death. At the door she turned and looked back at us as if she feared to go in. Her left hand fumbled for the latch; her right waved our dismissal. ‘Adieu, monsieur, adieu,’ she called in a strained, unhappy tone. And we drove quietly away and left her under the placid moon.