Going down Southampton Water on January 5th to meet the Aurania with her company of sick and wounded, one enjoyed a wonderful study of sober tints in land and sea under a winter sky. The little steamer clove light green waters that were hardly rippled by the breeze. This green sea she divided in two long curling lines that seemed to reach the shore on either hand, merging their light colour with a dark green of fields waiting for spring. The fields in their turn faded into the bluish black of leafless trees, and the trees bounded a sky of soft banks shading from blue to grey. The waters seemed almost deserted, except for a ship that now and then might meet us, stealing up on the tide and gently heeling to the breeze. Sometimes a yacht would pass us, sometimes a fishing-smack; but it was a lonely journey. The air was soft and sweet—not like that of spring, but like that of a world which lives in the promise of a coming spring and can wait. There were no sounds but one sweet and familiar—the whisper, swelling and diminishing but never dying, of foam at the cutwater.
Little Hythe seemed to have retired into itself for the winter. Its pier was deserted by boats and men when we passed. Lower down on the other side was Netley Hospital, with how many pains and agonies hidden behind its long, imposing front. Opposite Netley the sea eats and bites like an acid into a kind of mossy grass of rare and vivid green, making a wonderful coast-line on a small scale, with bays and channels and sounds.
We made for West Cowes, where the sea brims up to the streets and the spray sometimes sprinkles the shop windows. Here the telegraph was set in motion, asking Hurst Castle for news of the Aurania. But there was no news, so, as it would take her two hours to reach Southampton after passing the Castle, we went on past green promontories that dip into the sea, right up to where the trees clothe them, past the towers of Osborne, to Ryde. Again the telegraph asked the question, and again there was a negative answer. Then we cut across the Solent towards Southsea, watching the weird evolutions of a 35-knot torpedo-boat. It darted about, annihilating the small distances of the Solent and making a strange, buzzing noise like some foul fly. Vomiting flames and sparks, it trailed a cloud in the air and snow upon the water. While we were crawling across the river it had made a dozen journeys. Now it would be down near Cowes, and now half-way up Southampton Water, and when one looked again a few minutes afterwards it would be close astern, overtaking us with the speed of a nightmare. I escaped from it at Southsea, for there the wires told me something that sent me doubling to the railway station, and thanking my stars that I was in time for a fast train to Southampton. It arrived at half-past three, and at four the Aurania showed her nose round the corner of a dock shed. Ten minutes later she was alongside and berthed, and the disembarkation began.
The total absence of any kind of popular demonstration was most impressive. There was no crowd at all, and the barriers that had been provided were not needed. This neglect of a welcome seemed sadly to discount the value of the great hysterical demonstrations made when the troops departed. They were men who were perhaps going to suffer for their country. These invalids had suffered for it, and no one came to cheer them up. Of course some of the men's own friends were there, and the few strangers who were present shook hands with the men as they came limping and hopping and stumbling down the gangway. But it was all very quiet, very sad, very tame from a spectator's point of view, but deeply significant. One could hardly imagine a greater contrast than was presented by the same shed on a day of departure and on a day of arrival like this. In the one case great crowds hurrahing and shouting and cheering, bands playing, and bottles going busily round. In the other a great quietness, a few people standing in little knots and speaking almost in undertones. And the men themselves were very different. No excitement, of course; no drunkenness; no yelling for "Kroojer's whiskers." Oh, no!—something very different from that. About a hundred men with pain-worn faces, bandaged arms and legs, slings and splints everywhere, and talking, when they talked at all, of the horrors of the war, of the death of comrades, and of the seriousness of the news we gave them, in the light of their own experiences at the front. The men were speedily disembarked and taken into the dock shed where a train with some ambulance coaches was waiting, but they preferred to stand and talk for a little while before taking their seats. A really kind and useful work was done by members of the Southampton branch of the "Absent-minded Beggars" relief corps, who provided hot coffee and buns for the men, and in addition provided each with a stamped telegraph form, so that he might reassure his friends at home.
Of course there was another beside the serious aspect of this scene. Nothing could exceed the interest in their ailments displayed by the men who had partly recovered from them, and those whose wounds had healed could not tire of giving demonstrations to their friends and relations, or even to strangers. An illness or a wound is often the first view an ignorant man gets of Nature's ingenuity displayed in the construction of his own person, and when one of these invalids got hold of some medical or surgical word he would cherish and roll it on his tongue like a man tasting wine. One of them—a man who looked as strong as a horse—was explaining to an admiring group how he came to be alive at all. A bullet had passed through the rim of his helmet, entered his left temple, passed behind his nose, through the roof of his mouth, and out through the lower part of his right cheek. First he would show us the dent in his temple; then describe, with many strange words, the inward passage of the bullet; and then, emerging into the sphere of common things, wind up with, "and came out of my blooming cheek." Then he would show the dent in his cheek, and pass his helmet round for all to see, as a conjurer does. I moved round with this man and heard him recite his tale three times, and every time he used just the same form of words, which he repeated pat like a lesson. His corruption of "cerebral" was amusing. "Nearly scattered the cerveral nerve, so help me!" he said. One could have understood it if he had been in the Spanish-American war. Another soldier used a word which I cannot explain. He was showing a mate how a bullet had entered his shoulder, "and," said he, "it penetrated me agamemnon." What is an agamemnon? It has been puzzling me ever since.
Only a few of the more robust men were going on in this way, and there was enough of the pathetic even in the man with the "cerveral" nerve and him with the "agamemnon." The men looked tired and serious, and seemed to lack interest in anything but their own afflictions. It is almost a pity that the public will not witness such scenes as this, for I fear that it is still sadly in need of having even the most elementary fruits of war brought home to it. One might, of course, easily overdraw the picture of the men's condition; it is difficult to describe it faithfully. Many of them seemed happy and contented to be home again, and forgot past pains in present joy. As I turned away from the carriage window I heard a confused drone of conversation, in which such terms as "ligature," "suppuration," "cavity of the hear'ole," "styptic," and "prelatic" were prominent. The last thing I heard was—"He hadn't got no fraxur at all, leastways only a simple un. Mine was a compound fraxur." One can understand these things. But what is an "agamemnon"?
It was dark when the train went away, and there was nothing more for me to see on that day, but I had another sensation and a memorable one. After dinner a little group, composed mainly of naval and military officers on embarkation duty, was established round the smoke-room fire in the South Western Hotel. We were all talking about the war, and all wishing that we were out in the thick of it. In the midst of this chorus of aspiration a telegram was handed to me inviting me to go to South Africa as a war correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. The chorus continued while I read, but it sounded far away; I was trying to realise what acquiescence in the request contained on the pink paper might mean. When I had decided I handed the telegram to my neighbour, and in a moment it had made the circuit of the group, trailing exclamations in its wake and changing the melancholy chorus to one of whole-hearted envy. I went to bed in some doubt as to whether I had received congratulations or condolences. In a few hours I was on my way to London; in a few days the flying wheels had carried me back to Southampton; but I thought that the busy docks wore a different face.