Yes, I was indeed switched into the past by Mr. Bones, Massa Jawns’n and the rest. And yet the present might have seemed more emphatic and more poignant. One felt, rather than saw, an audience of several hundred persons in the dim rows of chairs. And laughing at the broad witticisms of the niggers, or enjoying their choruses and orchestral accompaniments, one forgot just what that half-glimpsed audience consisted of; what it meant, and how it came to be here assembled.
Of course when the lights were turned up in the interval, one beheld the usual spectacle: stretchers, wheeled chairs, crutches, bandaged heads, arms in splints, blind men, men with one arm, men with one leg: rank on rank of war’s flotsam and jetsam, British, Australians, New Zealanders, Newfoundlanders, Canadians, come to make merry over the minstrels: in the front row the Colonel and the Matron, with officer patients; here and there an orderly or a V.A.D.; here and there a Sister with her “boys.” It was a family gathering. I descried no strangers, and no one not in uniform—unless you count the men too ill to don their blue slops: these had been brought in dressing-gowns or wrapped in blankets. No mere haphazard audience, this, of anybody and everybody who chooses to pay at a turnstile! Entrance to this hall is free ... but the price is beyond money, all the same.
A family party it was, decidedly. Thick fumes of tobacco smoke uprose from it. (Shall we ever abandon the cigarette habit, now?) Orderlies continued to arrive and stow themselves discreetly in corners: by some strange providence each orderly had found that for a while he could be spared from ward or office. Staff-Sergeants, Sergeants, Corporals—mysteriously they made time to leave their various departments. Even a bevy of masseuses (those experts eternally on the rush from ward to ward) had peeped in to see the nigger minstrels. And everybody was pleased: every jest and every conundrum got its laugh, every ballad its applause. Not that we ever “give the bird” to those who come to amuse us. Offer us skill in any shape or form—pierrots, niggers, pianist, violinist, conjurer, ventriloquist, dancer, reciter: any or all of these will be appreciated warmly.
Yesterday, for the nigger minstrels, there were no empty chairs. Until, in the midst of Part II ("A Laughable Sketch”—vide the programme—wherein female roles were doubly coy by reason of the masculinity of their falsetto dialogue and remarkable ankles) a messenger stole hither and thither, whispering to the orderlies, who promptly tiptoed from the room.
A convoy of new arrivals demanded our presence.
The silent ambulances were gliding up to the entrance of the hospital. Orderlies, fetched from their jobs and from the entertainment, lined up in the rain to take their places in the quartettes of bearers who lifted out the stretchers. The Assistant Matron, standing in the shelter of the door, checked her list; the Medical Officer handed out the ward tickets; the lady clerks from the Admission and Discharge Office took the patients’ particulars. And the bathroom became very busy.