E-text prepared by A. Langley
A HILLTOP ON THE MARNE
By Mildred Aldrich
Being Letters Written June 3-September 8, 1914
Note To Tenth Impression
The author wishes to apologize for the constant use of the word English in speaking of the British Expedition to France. At the beginning of the war this was a colloquial error into which we all fell over here, even the French press. Everything in khaki was spoken of as "English," even though we knew perfectly well that Scotch, Irish, and Welsh were equally well represented in the ranks, and the colors they followed were almost universally spoken of as the "English flag." These letters were written in the days before the attention of the French press was called to this error of speech, which accounts for the mistake's persisting in the book.
La Creste, Huiry,
France, February, 1916.
To My Grandmother Judith Trask Baker That Staunch New Englander And Pioneer Universalist To The Memory Of Whose Courage And Example I Owe A Debt Of Eternal Gratitude
A HILLTOP ON THE MARNE
June 3, 1914
Well, the deed is done. I have not wanted to talk with you much about it until I was here. I know all your objections. You remember that you did not spare me when, a year ago, I told you that this was my plan. I realize that you—more active, younger, more interested in life, less burdened with your past—feel that it is cowardly on my part to seek a quiet refuge and settle myself into it, to turn my face peacefully to the exit, feeling that the end is the most interesting event ahead of me—the one truly interesting experience left to me in this incarnation.
I am not proposing to ask you to see it from my point of view. You cannot, no matter how willing you are to try. No two people ever see life from the same angle. There is a law which decrees that two objects may not occupy the same place at the same time—result: two people cannot see things from the same point of view, and the slightest difference in angle changes the thing seen.
I did not decide to come away into a little corner in the country, in this land in which I was not born, without looking at the move from all angles. Be sure that I know what I am doing, and I have found the place where I can do it. Some time you will see the new home, I hope, and then you will understand. I have lived more than sixty years. I have lived a fairly active life, and it has been, with all its hardships—and they have been many—interesting. But I have had enough of the city—even of Paris, the most beautiful city in the world. Nothing can take any of that away from me. It is treasured up in my memory. I am even prepared to own that there was a sort of arrogance in my persistence in choosing for so many years the most seductive city in the world, and saying, "Let others live where they will—here I propose to stay." I lived there until I seemed to take it for my own—to know it on the surface and under it, and over it, and around it; until I had a sort of morbid jealousy when I found any one who knew it half as well as I did, or presumed to love it half as much, and dared to say so. You will please note that I have not gone far from it.
But I have come to feel the need of calm and quiet—perfect peace. I know again that there is a sort of arrogance in expecting it, but I am going to make a bold bid for it. I will agree, if you like, that it is cowardly to say that my work is done. I will even agree that we both know plenty of women who have cheerfully gone on struggling to a far greater age, and I do think it downright pretty of you to find me younger than my years. Yet you must forgive me if I say that none of us know one another, and, likewise, that appearances are often deceptive.
What you are pleased to call my "pride" has helped me a little. No one can decide for another the proper moment for striking one's colors.
I am sure that you—or for that matter any other American—never heard of Huiry. Yet it is a little hamlet less than thirty miles from Paris. It is in that district between Paris and Meaux little known to the ordinary traveler. It only consists of less than a dozen rude farm-houses, less than five miles, as a bird flies, from Meaux, which, with a fair cathedral, and a beautiful chestnut-shaded promenade on the banks of the Marne, spanned just there bylines of old mills whose water-wheels churn the river into foaming eddies, has never been popular with excursionists. There are people who go there to see where Bossuet wrote his funeral orations, in a little summer-house standing among pines and cedars on the wall of the garden of the Archbishop's palace, now, since the "separation," the property of the State, and soon to be a town museum. It is not a very attractive town. It has not even an out-of-doors restaurant to tempt the passing automobilist.
My house was, when I leased it, little more than a peasant's hut. It is considerably over one hundred and fifty years old, with stables and outbuildings attached whimsically, and boasts six gables. Is it not a pity, for early association's sake, that it has not one more?
I have, as Traddles used to say, "Oceans of room, Copperfield," and no joking. I have on the ground floor of the main building a fair sized salon, into which the front door opens directly. Over that I have a long, narrow bed-room and dressing-room, and above that, in the eaves, a sort of attic work-shop. In an attached, one-story addition with a gable, at the west of the salon, I have a library lighted from both east and west. Behind the salon on the west side I have a double room which serves as dining and breakfast-room, with a guest-chamber above. The kitchen, at the north side of the salon, has its own gable, and there is an old stable extending forward at the north side, and an old grange extending west from the dining-room. It is a jumble of roofs and chimneys, and looks very much like the houses I used to combine from my Noah's Ark box in the days of my babyhood.
All the rooms on the ground floor are paved in red tiles, and the staircase is built right in the salon. The ceilings are raftered. The cross-beam in the salon fills my soul with joy—it is over a foot wide and a foot and a half thick. The walls and the rafters are painted green,—my color,—and so good, by long trial, for my eyes and my nerves, and my disposition.
But much as I like all this, it was not this that attracted me here. That was the situation. The house stands in a small garden, separated from the road by an old gnarled hedge of hazel. It is almost on the crest of the hill on the south bank of the Marne,—the hill that is the water-shed between the Marne and the Grand Morin. Just here the Marne makes a wonderful loop, and is only fifteen minutes walk away from my gate, down the hill to the north.
From the lawn, on the north side of the house, I command a panorama which I have rarely seen equaled. To me it is more beautiful than that we have so often looked at together from the terrace at Saint-Germain. In the west the new part of Esbly climbs the hill, and from there to a hill at the northeast I have a wide view of the valley of the Marne, backed by a low line of hills which is the water-shed between the Marne and the Aisne. Low down in the valley, at the northwest, lies lie de Villenoy, like a toy town, where the big bridge spans the Marne to carry the railroad into Meaux. On the horizon line to the west the tall chimneys of Claye send lines of smoke into the air. In the foreground to the north, at the foot of the hill, are the roofs of two little hamlets,—Joncheroy and Voisins,—and beyond them the trees that border the canal.
On the other side of the Marne the undulating hill, with its wide stretch of fields, is dotted with little villages that peep out of the trees or are silhouetted against the sky-line,—Vignely, Trilbardou, Penchard, Monthyon, Neufmortier, Chauconin, and in the foreground to the north, in the valley, just halfway between me and Meaux, lies Mareuil-on-the-Marne, with its red roofs, gray walls, and church spire. With a glass I can find where Chambry and Barcy are, on the slope behind Meaux, even if the trees conceal them.
But these are all little villages of which you may never have heard. No guidebook celebrates them. No railroad approaches them. On clear days I can see the square tower of the cathedral at Meaux, and I have only to walk a short distance on the route nationale,—which runs from Paris, across the top of my hill a little to the east, and thence to Meaux and on to the frontier,—to get a profile view of it standing up above the town, quite detached, from foundation to clock-tower.
This is a rolling country of grain fields, orchards, masses of black-currant bushes, vegetable plots,—it is a great sugar-beet country,—and asparagus beds; for the Department of the Seine et Marne is one of the most productive in France, and every inch under cultivation. It is what the French call un paysage riant, and I assure you, it does more than smile these lovely June mornings. I am up every morning almost as soon as the sun, and I slip my feet into sabots, wrap myself in a big cloak, and run right on to the lawn to make sure that the panorama has not disappeared in the night. There always lie—too good almost to be true—miles and miles of laughing country, little white towns just smiling in the early light, a thin strip of river here and there, dimpling and dancing, stretches of fields of all colors—all so, peaceful and so gay, and so "chummy" that it gladdens the opening day, and makes me rejoice to have lived to see it. I never weary of it. It changes every hour, and I never can decide at which hour it is the loveliest. After all, it is a rather nice world.
Now get out your map and locate me.
You will not find Huiry. But you can find Esbly, my nearest station on the main line of the Eastern Railroad. Then you will find a little narrow-gauge road running from there to Crecy-la-Chapelle. Halfway between you will find Couilly-Saint-Germain. Well, I am right up the hill, about a third of the way between Couilly and Meaux.
It is a nice historic country. But for that matter so is all France. I am only fifteen miles northeast of Bondy, in whose forest the naughty Queen Fredegonde, beside whose tomb, in Saint-Denis, we have often stood together, had her husband killed, and nearer still to Chelles, where the Merovingian kings once had a palace stained with the blood of many crimes, about which you read, in many awful details, in Maurice Strauss's "Tragique Histoire des Reines Brunhaut et Fredegonde," which I remember to have sent you when it first came out. Of course no trace of those days of the Merovingian dynasty remains here or anywhere else. Chelles is now one of the fortified places in the outer belt of forts surrounding Paris.
So, if you will not accept all this as an explanation of what you are pleased to call my "desertion," may I humbly and reluctantly put up a plea for my health, and hope for a sympathetic hearing?
If I am to live much longer,—and I am on the road down the hill, you know,—I demand of Life my physical well-being. I want a robust old age. I feel that I could never hope to have that much longer in town,—city-born and city-bred though I am. I used to think, and I continued to think for a long time, that I could not live if my feet did not press a city pavement. The fact that I have changed my mind seems to me, at my age, a sufficient excuse for, as frankly, changing my habits. It surely proves that I have not a sick will—yet. In the simple life I crave—digging in the earth, living out of doors—I expect to earn the strength of which city life and city habits were robbing me. I believe I can. Faith half wins a battle. No one ever dies up on this hill, I am told, except of hard drink. Judging by my experience with workmen here, not always of that. I never saw so many very old, very active, robust people in so small a space in all my life as I have seen here.
Are you answered?
Yet if, after all this expenditure of words, you still think I am shirking—well, I am sorry. It seems to me that, from another point of view, I am doing my duty, and giving the younger generation more room— getting out of the lime-light, so to speak, which, between you and me, was getting trying for my mental complexion. If I have blundered, the consequences be on my own head. My hair could hardly be whiter—that's something. Besides, retreat is not cut off. I have sworn no eternal oath not to change my mind again.
In any case you have no occasion to worry about me: I've a head full of memories. I am going to classify them, as I do my books. Some of them I am going to forget, just as I reject books that have ceased to interest me. I know the latter is always a wrench. The former may be impossible. I shall not be lonely. No one who reads is ever that. I may miss talking. Perhaps that is a good thing. I may have talked too much. That does happen.
Remember one thing—I am not inaccessible. I may now and then get an opportunity to talk again, and in a new background. Who knows? I am counting on nothing but the facts about me. So come on, Future. I've my back against the past. Anyway, as you see, it is too late to argue. I've crossed the Rubicon, and can return only when I have built a new bridge.
June 18, 1914.
That's right. Accept the situation. You will soon find that Paris will seem the same to you. Besides, I had really given all I had to give there.
Indeed you shall know, to the smallest detail, just how the material side of my life is arranged,—all my comforts and discomforts,—since you ask.
I am now absolutely settled into my little "hole" in the country, as you call it. It has been so easy. I have been here now nearly three weeks. Everything is in perfect order. You would be amazed if you could see just how everything fell into place. The furniture has behaved itself beautifully. There are days when I wonder if either I or it ever lived anywhere else. The shabby old furniture with which you were long so familiar just slipped right into place. I had not a stick too little, and could not have placed another piece. I call that "bull luck."
I have always told you—you have not always agreed—that France was the easiest place in the world to live in, and the love of a land in which to be a pauper. That is why it suits me.
Don't harp on that word "alone." I know I am living alone, in a house that has four outside doors into the bargain. But you know I am not one of the "afraid" kind. I am not boasting. That is a characteristic, not a quality. One is afraid or one is not. It happens that I am not. Still, I am Very prudent. You would laugh if you could see me "shutting up" for the night. All my windows on the ground floor are heavily barred. Such of the doors as have glass in them have shutters also. The window shutters are primitive affairs of solid wood, with diamond-shaped holes in the upper part. First, I put up the shutters on the door in the dining-room which leads into the garden on the south side; then I lock the door. Then I do a similar service for the kitchen door on to the front terrace, and that into the orchard, and lock both doors. Then I go out the salon door and lock the stable and the grange and take out the keys. Then I come into the salon and lock the door after me, and push two of the biggest bolts you ever saw.
After which I hang up the keys, which are as big as the historic key of the Bastille, which you may remember to have seen at the Musee Carnavalet. Then I close and bolt all the shutters downstairs. I do it systematically every night—because I promised not to be foolhardy. I always grin, and feel as if it were a scene in a play. It impresses me so much like a tremendous piece of business—dramatic suspense—which leads up to nothing except my going quietly upstairs to bed.
When it is all done I feel as I used to in my strenuous working days, when, after midnight, all the rest of the world—my little world—being calmly asleep, I cuddled down in the corner of my couch to read;—the world is mine!
Never in my life—anywhere, under any circumstances—have I been so well taken care of. I have a femme de menage—a sort of cross between a housekeeper and a maid-of-all-work. She is a married woman, the wife of a farmer whose house is three minutes away from mine. My dressing-room window and my dining-room door look across a field of currant bushes to her house. I have only to blow on the dog's whistle and she can hear. Her name is Amelie, and she is a character, a nice one, but not half as much of a character as her husband—her second. She is a Parisian. Her first husband was a jockey, half Breton, half English. He died years ago when she was young: broke his neck in a big race at Auteuil.
She has had a checkered career, and lived in several smart families before, to assure her old age, she married this gentle, queer little farmer. She is a great find for me. But the thing balances up beautifully, as I am a blessing to her, a new interest in her monotonous life, and she never lets me forget how much happier she is since I came here to live. She is very bright and gay, intelligent enough to be a companion when I need one, and well-bred enough to fall right into her proper place when I don't.
Her husband's name is Abelard. Oh, yes, of course, I asked him about Heloise the first time I saw him, and I was staggered when the little old toothless chap giggled and said, "That was before my time." What do you think of that? Every one calls him "Pere Abelard," and about the house it is shortened down to "Pere." He is over twenty years older than Amelie—well along in his seventies. He is a native of the commune—was born at Pont-aux-Dames, at the foot of the hill, right next to the old abbaye of that name. He is a type familiar enough to those who know French provincial life. His father was a well-to-do farmer. His mother was the typical mother of her class. She kept her sons under her thumb as long as she lived. Pere Abelard worked on his father's farm. He had his living, but never a sou in his pocket. The only diversion he ever had was playing the violin, which some passer in the commune taught him. When his parents died, he and his brothers sold the old place at Pont-aux-Dames to Coquelin, who was preparing to turn the historic old convent into a maison de retraite for aged actors, and he came up here on the hill and bought his present farm in this hamlet, where almost every one is some sort of a cousin of his.
Oddly enough, almost every one of these female cousins has a history. You would not think it, to look at the place and the people, yet I fancy that it is pretty universal for women in such places to have "histories." You will see an old woman with a bronzed face—sometimes still handsome, often the reverse—in her short skirt, her big apron tied round where a waist is not, her still beautiful hair concealed in a colored handkerchief. You ask the question of the right person, and you will discover that she is rich; that she is avaricious; that she pays heavy taxes; denies herself all but the bare necessities; and that the foundation of her fortune dates back to an affaire du coeur, or perhaps of interest, possibly of cupidity; and that very often the middle-aged daughter who still "lives at home with mother," had also had a profitable affaire arranged by mother herself. Everything has been perfectly convenable. Every one either knows about it or has forgotten it. No one is bothered or thinks the worse of her so long as she has remained of the "people" and put on no airs. But let her attempt to rise out of her class, or go up to Paris, and the Lord help her if she ever wants to come back, and, French fashion, end her days where she began them. This is typically, provincially French. When you come down here I shall tell you tales that will make Balzac and De Maupassant look tame.
You have no idea how little money these people spend, It must hurt them terribly to cough up their taxes. They all till the land, and eat what they grow. Amelie's husband spends exactly four cents a week—to get shaved on Sunday. He can't shave himself. A razor scares him to death. He looks as if he were going to the guillotine when he starts for the barber's, but she will not stand for a beard of more than a week's growth. He always stops at my door on his way back to let his wife kiss his clean old face, all wreathed with smiles—the ordeal is over for another week. He never needs a sou except for that shave. He drinks nothing but his own cider: he eats his own vegetables, his own rabbits; he never goes anywhere except to the fields,—does not want to—unless it is to play the violin for a dance or a fete. He just works, eats, sleeps, reads his newspaper, and is content. Yet he pays taxes on nearly a hundred thousand francs' worth of real estate.
But, after all, this is not what I started to tell you—that was about my domestic arrangements. Amelie does everything for me. She comes early in the morning, builds a fire, then goes across the field for the milk while water is heating. Then she arranges my bath, gets my coffee, tidies up the house. She buys everything I need, cooks for me, waits on me, even mends for me,—all for the magnificent sum of eight dollars a month. It really isn't as much as that, it is forty francs a month, which comes to about a dollar and eighty cents a week in your currency. She has on her farm everything in the way of vegetables that I need, from potatoes to "asparagras," from peas to tomatoes. She has chickens and eggs. Bread, butter, cheese, meat come right to the gate; so does the letter carrier, who not only brings my mail but takes it away. The only thing we have to go for is the milk.
To make it seem all the more primitive there is a rickety old diligence which runs from Quincy—Huiry is really a suburb of Quincy—to Esbly twice a day, to connect with trains for Paris with which the branch road does not connect. It has an imperial, and when you come out to see me, at some future time, you will get a lovely view of the country from a top seat. You could walk the four miles quicker than the horse does,—it is uphill nearly all the way,—but time is no longer any object with me. Amelie has a donkey and a little cart to drive me to the station at Couilly when I take that line, or when I want to do an errand or go to the laundress, or merely to amuse myself.
If you can really match this for a cheap, easy, simple way for an elderly person to live in dignity, I wish you would. It is far easier than living in Paris was, and living in Paris was easier for me than the States. I am sorry, but it is the truth.
You ask me what I do with the "long days." My dear! they are short, and yet I am out of bed a little after four every morning. To be sure I get into bed again at half past eight, or, at latest, nine, every night. Of course the weather is simply lovely. As soon as I have made sure that my beloved panorama has not disappeared in the night I dress in great haste. My morning toilette consists of a long black studio apron such as the French children wear to school,—it takes the place of a dress,—felt shoes inside my sabots, a big hat, and long gardening-gloves. In that get-up I weed a little, rake up my paths, examine my fruit trees, and, at intervals, lean on my rake in a Maud Muller posture and gaze at the view. It is never the same two hours of the day, and I never weary of looking at it.
My garden would make you chortle with glee. You will have to take it by degrees, as I do. I have a sort of bowing acquaintance with it myself—en masse, so to speak. I hardly know a thing in it by name. I have wall fruit on the south side and an orchard of plum, pear, and cherry trees on the north side. The east side is half lawn and half disorderly flower beds. I am going to let the tangle in the orchard grow at its own sweet will—that is, I am going to as far as Amelie allows me. I never admire some trailing, flowering thing there that, while I am admiring it, Amelie does not come out and pull it out of the ground, declaring it une salete and sure to poison the whole place if allowed to grow. Yet some of these same saletes are so pretty and grow so easily that I am tempted not to care. One of these trials of my life is what I am learning to know as liserone—we used to call it wild morning-glory. That I am forbidden to have—if I want anything else. But it is pretty.
I remember years ago to have heard Ysolet, in a lecture at the Sorbonne, state that the "struggle for life" among the plants was fiercer and more tragic than that among human beings. It was mere words to me then. In the short three weeks that I have been out here in my hilltop garden I have learned to know how true that was. Sometimes I am tempted to have a garden of weeds. I suppose my neighbors would object if I let them all go to seed and sow these sins of agriculture all over the tidy farms about me.
Often these lovely mornings I take a long walk with the dog before breakfast. He is an Airedale, and I am terribly proud of him and my neighbors terribly afraid of him. I am half inclined to believe that he is as afraid of them as they are of him, but I keep that suspicion, for prudential reasons, to myself. At any rate, all passers keep at a respectful distance from me and him.
Our usual walk is down the hill to the north, toward the shady route that leads by the edge of the canal to Meaux. We go along the fields, down the long hill until we strike into a footpath which leads through the woods to the road called "Paves du Roi" and on to the canal, from which a walk of five minutes takes us to the Marne. After we cross the road at the foot of the hill there is not a house, and the country is so pretty—undulating ground, in every tint of green and yellow. From the high bridge that crosses the canal the picture is—well, is French-canally, and you know what that means—green-banked, tree-shaded, with a towpath bordering the straight line of water, and here and there a row of broad long canal-boats moving slowly through the shadows.
By the time I get back I am ready for breakfast. You know I never could eat or drink early in the morning. I have my coffee in the orchard under a big pear tree, and I have the inevitable book propped against the urn. Needless to say I never read a word. I simply look at the panorama. All the same I have to have the book there or I could not eat, just as I can't go to sleep without books on the bed.
After breakfast I write letters. Before I know it Amelie appears at the library door to announce that "Madame est servie"—and the morning is gone. As I am alone, as a rule I take my lunch in the breakfast-room. It is on the north side of the house, and is the coolest room in the house at noon. Besides, it has a window overlooking the plain. In the afternoon I read and write and mend, and then I take a light supper in the arbor on the east side of the house under a crimson rambler, one of the first ever planted here over thirty years ago.
I must tell you about that crimson rambler. You know when I hired this house it was only a peasant's hut. In front of what is now the kitchen—it was then a dark hole for fuel—stood four dilapidated posts, moss-covered and decrepit, over which hung a tangle of something. It was what I called a "mess." I was not as educated as I am now. I saw—it was winter—what looked to me an unsightly tangle of disorder. I ordered those posts down. My workmen, who stood in some awe of me,—I was the first American they had ever seen,—were slow in obeying. They did not dispute the order, only they did not execute it.
One day I was very stern. I said to my head mason, "I have ordered that thing removed half a dozen times. Be so good as to have those posts taken down before I come out again."
He touched his cap, and said, "Very well, madame."
It happened that the next time I came out the weather had become spring-like.
The posts were down. The tangle that had grown over them was trailing on the ground—but it had begun to put out leaves. I looked at it—and for the first time it occurred to me to say, "What is that?"
The mason looked at me a moment, and replied, "That, madame! That is a 'creamson ramblaire'—the oldest one in the commune."
Poor fellow, it had never occurred to him that I did not know.
Seven feet to the north of the climbing rose bush was a wide hedge of tall lilac bushes. So I threw up an arbor between them, and the crimson rambler now mounts eight feet in the air. It is a glory of color to-day, and my pride. But didn't I come near to losing it?
The long evenings are wonderful. I sit out until nine, and can read until almost the last minute. I never light a lamp until I go up to bed. That is my day. It seems busy enough to me. I am afraid it will—to you, still so willing to fight, still so absorbed in the struggle, and still so over-fond of your species—seem futile. Who knows which of us is right ?—or if our difference of opinion may not be a difference in our years? If all who love one another were of the same opinion, living would be monotonous, and conversation flabby. So cheer up. You are content. Allow me to be.
June 20, 1914.
I have just received your letter—the last, you say, that you can send before you sail away again for "The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave," where you still seem to feel that it is my duty to return to die. I vow I will not discuss that with you again. Poverty is an unpretty thing, and poverty plus old age simply horrid in the wonderful land which saw my birth, and to which I take off my sun-bonnet in reverent admiration, in much the same spirit that the peasants still uncover before a shrine. But it is the land of the young, the energetic, and the ambitious, the ideal home of the very rich and the laboring classes. I am none of those—hence here I stay. I turn my eyes to the west often with a queer sort of amazed pride. If I were a foreigner—of any race but French—I 'd work my passage out there in an emigrant ship. As it is, I did forty-five years of hard labor there, and I consider that I earned the freedom to die where I please.
I can see in "my mind's eye" the glitter in yours as you wrote—and underscored—I'll wager you spend half your days in writing letters back to the land you have willfully deserted. As well have stayed among us and talked—and you talk so much better than you write. "Tut! tut! That is nasty." Of course I do not deny that I shall miss the inspiration of your contradictions—or do you call it repartee? I scorn your arguments, and I hereby swear that you shall not worry another remonstrance from me.
You ask me how it happens that I wandered in this direction, into a part of the country about which you do not remember to have ever heard me talk, when there were so many places that would have seemed to you to be more interesting. Well, this is more interesting than you think. You must not fancy that a place is not interesting because you can't find it in Hare, and because Henry James never talked about it. That was James's misfortune and not his fault.
The truth is I did look in many more familiar directions before fortunate accident led me here. I had an idea that I wanted to live on the heights of Montmorency, in the Jean Jacques Rousseau country. But it was terribly expensive—too near to Enghien and its Casino and baccarat tables. Then I came near to taking a house near Viroflay, within walking distance of Versailles. But at the very mention of that all my French friends simply howled. "It was too near to Paris"; "it was the chosen route of the Apaches"; and so on and so forth. I did not so much care for the situation. It was too familiar, and it was not really country, it was only suburbs. But the house attracted me. It was old and quaint, and the garden was pretty, and it was high. Still it was too expensive. After that I found a house well within my means at Poigny, about an hour, by diligence, from Rambouillet. That did attract me. It was real country, but it had no view and the house was very small. Still I had got so tired of hunting that I was actually on the point of taking it when one of my friends accidentally found this place. If it had been made to order it could not have suited me better—situation, age, price, all just to my taste. I put over a year and a half into the search. Did I keep it to myself well?
Besides, the country here had a certain novelty to me. I know the country on the other side of the Petit Morin, but all this is new to me except Meaux. At first the house did not look habitable to me. It was easily made so, however, and it has great possibilities, which will keep me busy for years.
Although you do not know this part of the country, it has, for me, every sort of attraction—historical as well as picturesque. Its historical interest is rather for the student than the tourist, and I love it none the less for that.
If ever you relent and come to see me, I can take you for some lovely walks. I can, on a Sunday afternoon, in good weather, even take you to the theater—what is more, to the theater to see the players of the Comedie Francaise. It is only half an hour's walk from my house to Pont-aux-Dames, where Coquelin set up his maison de retraite for aged actors, and where he died and is buried. In the old park, where the du Barry used to walk in the days when Louis XVI clapped her in prison on a warrant wrung from the dying old king, her royal lover, there is an open-air theater, and there, on Sundays, the actors of the Theatre Francais play, within sight of the tomb of the founder of the retreat, under the very trees—and they are stately and noble—where the du Barry walked.
Of course I shall only take you there if you insist. I have outgrown the playhouse. I fancy that I am much more likely to sit out on the lawn and preach to you on how the theater has missed its mission than I am—unless you insist—to take you down to the hill to listen to Moliere or Racine.
If, however, that bores you,—it would me,—you can sit under the trees and close your eyes while I give you a Stoddard lecture without the slides. I shall tell you about the little walled town of Crecy, still surrounded by its moat, where the tiny little houses stand in gardens with their backs on the moat, each with its tiny footbridge, that pulls up, just to remind you that it was once a royal city, with drawbridge and portcullis, a city in which kings used to stay, and in which Jeanne d'Arc slept one night on her way back from crowning her king at Rheims: a city that once boasted ninety-nine towers. Half a dozen of these towers still stand. Their thick walls are now pierced with windows, in which muslin curtains blow in the wind, to say that to-day they are the humble homes of simple people, and to remind you of what warfare was in the days when such towers were a defense. Why, the very garden in which you will be sitting when I tell you this was once a part of the royal estate, and the last Lord of the Land was the Duke de Penthievre. I thought that fact rather amusing when I found it out, considering that the house I came so near to taking at Poigny was on the Rambouillet estate where his father, the Duke de Toulouse, one of Louis XIV's illegitimate sons, died, where the Duke de Penthievre was born, and where he buried his naughty son, the Duke de Lamballe.
Of course, while I am telling you things like this you will have to bring your imagination into play, as very few vestiges of the old days remain. I still get just as much fun out of Il y avait une fois, even when the "once on a time" can only be conjured up with closed eyes. Still, I can show you some dear little old chapels, and while I am telling you about it you will probably hear the far-off, sad tolling of a bell, and I shall say to you "Ca sonne a Bouleurs." It will be the church bells at Bouleurs, a tiny, tree-shaded hamlet, on another hilltop, from which, owing to its situation, the bells, which rarely ring save for a funeral, can be heard at a great distance, as they have rung over the valley for years. They sound so sad in the still air that the expression, Ca sonne a Bouleurs, has come to mean bad luck. In all the towns where the bell can be heard, a man who is having bad luck at cards, or has made a bad bargain, or has been tricked in any way, invariably remarks, "Ca sonne a Bouleurs."
I could show you something more modern in the way of historical association. For example, from the road at the south side of my hill I can show you the Chateau de la Haute Maison, with its mansard and Louis XVI pavilions, where Bismarck and Favre had their first unsuccessful meeting, when this hill was occupied by the Germans in 1870 during the siege of Paris. And fifteen minutes' walk from here is the pretty Chateau de Conde, which was then the home of Casimir-Perier, and if you do not remember him as the President of the Republic who resigned rather than face the Dreyfus case, you may remember him as the father-in-law of Madame Simone, who unsuccessfully stormed the American theater, two years ago.
You ask me how isolated I am. Well, I am, and I am not. My house stands in the middle of my garden. That is a certain sort of isolation. There is a house on the opposite side of the road, much nearer than I wish it were. Luckily it is rarely occupied. Still, when it is, it is over-occupied. At the foot of the hill—perhaps five hundred yards away—are the tiny hamlet of Joncheroy and the little village of Voisins. Just above me is the hamlet of Huiry—half a dozen houses. You see that is not sad. So cheer up. So far as I know the commune has no criminal record, and I am not on the route of tramps. Remember, please, that, in those last winters in Paris, I did not prove immune to contagions. There is nothing for me to catch up here—unless it be the gayety with which the air is saturated.
You ask me also how it happens that I am living again "near by Quincy?" As true as you live, I never thought of the coincidence. If you please, we pronounce it "Kansee." When I read your question I laughed. I remembered that Abelard, when he was first condemned, retired to the Hermitage of Quincy, but when I took down Larousse to look it up, what do you think I found? Simply this and nothing more: "Quincy: Ville des Etats-Unis (Massachusetts), 28,000 habitants."
Isn't that droll? However, I know that there was a Sire de Quincy centuries ago, so I will look him up and let you know what I find.
The morning paper—always late here—brings the startling news of the assassination of the Crown Prince of Austria. What an unlucky family that has been! Franz Josef must be a tough old gentleman to have stood up against so many shocks. I used to feel so sorry for him when Fate dealt him another blow that would have been a "knock-out" for most people. But he has stood so many, and outlived happier people, that I begin to believe that if the wind is tempered to the shorn lamb, the hides, or the hearts, of some people are toughened to stand the gales of Fate.
Well, I imagine that Austria will not grieve much—though she may be mad—over the loss of a none too popular crown prince, whose morganatic wife could never be crowned, whose children cannot inherit, and who could only have kept the throne warm for a while for the man who now steps into line a little sooner than he would have had this not happened. If a man will be a crown prince in these times he must take the consequences. We do get hard-hearted, and no mistake, when it is not in our family that the lightning strikes. The "Paths of Glory lead but to the grave," so what matters it, really, out by what door one goes?
This will reach you soon after you arrive in the great city of tall buildings. More will follow, and I expect they will be so gay that you will rejoice to have even a postal tie with La Belle France, to which, if you are a real good American, you will come back when you die—if you do not before.
July 16, 1914.
Your Fourth of July letter came this morning. It was lively reading, especially coming so soon after my first quatorze de juillet in the country. The day was a great contrast to the many remembrances I have of Bastille Day in Paris. How I remember my first experience of that fete, when my bedroom window overlooked one of the squares where the band played for the three nights of dancing. That was a fierce experience after the novelty of the first night had worn off, when hour after hour the dance music droned on, and hour after hour the dancing feet on the pavement nearly drove me frantic. To offset it I have memories of the Champs-Elysees and the Place de l'Hotel de Ville turned into a fairyland. I am glad I saw all that. The memory hangs in my mind like a lovely picture. Out here it was all as still as—I was going to say Sunday, but I should have to say a New England Sunday, as out here Sunday is just like any other day. There was not even a ringing of bells. The only difference there was to me was that Amelie drove Pere over to Coutevroult, on the other side of the valley of the Grand Morin, where he played for the dance, and did not get back until long after daylight. I did put out my flags in honor of the day. That was the extent of my celebrating.
In the evening there was a procession at Voisins, and from Meaux and the other towns on the hill there was an occasional rocket. It was not really an exciting day.
The procession at Voisins was a primitive affair, but, to me, all the prettier for that. It looked so quaint with its queer lanterns, its few flags, its children and men in blouses, strolling through the crooked, hilly streets of the old town, to the tap of the drum. No French procession, except it be soldiers, ever marches. If you ever saw a funeral procession going through the street, or one going about a church, you do not need to be told that.
I was glad that this little procession here kept so much of its old-time character, but I was sorry it was not gayer. Still, it was so picturesque that it made me regret anew, what I have so many times regretted of late years, that so many of the old habits of country life in France are passing away, as they are, for that matter, all over Europe, along with ignorance and national costumes.
I must tell you that up to three years ago it was the custom in this commune, which, simply because it is not on a railroad, has preserved its old-days air and habits, for wedding and baptismal parties to walk in procession through the streets from the house to the church and back again. Pere Abelard used to head the procession, playing on his violin. There has been but one event of that kind since I came, and I am afraid it will be the last. That was for the baptism of the first grandchild of a French officer who had married a woman born in this commune, and the older members of the family had a desire to keep up the old traditions. The church is at Quincy, just a step off the route nationale to Meaux. Pere walked ahead,—he could not be accused of marching,—fiddling away for dear life. The pretty young godmother carried the baby, in its wonderful christening finery, walking between the grandmother and the father, and the guests, all in their gayest clothes, followed on as they liked behind, all stepping out a little on account of the fiddle ahead. They came back from the church in the same way, only father carried the baby, and the godmother scattered her largesse among the village children.
It is a pity that such pretty customs die out. Wedding parties must have looked so attractive going along these country roads. The fashion that has replaced it is unattractive. To-day they think it much more chic to hire a big barge and drive down to Esbly and have a rousing breakfast and dance in the big hall which every country hotel has for such festivities. Such changes are in the spirit of the times, so I suppose one must not complain. I should not if people were any happier, but I cannot see that they are. However, I suppose that will come when the Republic is older. The responsibility which that has put on the people has made them more serious than they used to be.
I don't blame you for laughing at the idea of me in a donkey cart. You would laugh harder if you could see the cart and me. I do look droll. But this is the land where nothing astonishes any one, thank Heaven. But you wait until I get my complet de velours—which is to say my velveteens. I shall match up with the rig then, never fear. Rome was not built in a day, nor can a lady from the city turn into a country-looking lady in the wink of an eye. By the time you have sufficiently overcome your prejudices as to come out and see me with your own eyes, I'll fit into the landscape and the cart in great style.
Absolutely no news to write you, unless you will consider it news that my hedge of dahlias, which I planted myself a month ago, is coming up like nothing else in the world but Jack's Beanstalk. Nothing but weeds ever grew so rank before. Pere says I was too generous with my biogene—the latest French thing in fertilizers. But I did want them to be nourished in a rich soil—and come up quick. They did. I can actually see them grow. I am almost afraid to tell you that they are over two feet high now. Of course you won't believe me. But it is not a fairy tale. I would not have believed it myself if I had not seen it.
Alas! I find that I cannot break myself of reading the newspapers, and reading them eagerly. It is all the fault of that nasty affair in Servia. I have a dim recollection that I was very flippant about it in my last letter to you. After all, woman proposes and politics upset her proposition. There seems to be no quick remedy for habit, more's the pity. It is a nasty outlook. We are simply holding our breaths here.
This will be only a short letter—more to keep my promise to you than because I feel in the mood to write. Events have broken that. It looks, after all, as if the Servian affair was to become a European affair, and that, what looked as if it might happen during the Balkan War is really coming to pass—a general European uprising.
It is an odd thing. It seems it is an easy thing to change one's environment, but not so easy to change one's character. I am just as excited over the ugly business as I should have been had I remained near the boulevards, where I could have got a newspaper half a dozen times a day. I only get one a day, and this morning I got that one with difficulty. My "Figaro," which comes out by mail, has not come at all.
Well, it seems that the so-called "alarmists" were right. Germany has NOT been turning her nation into an army just to divert her population, nor spending her last mark on ships just to amuse herself, and keep Prince Henry busy.
I am sitting here this morning, as I suppose all France is doing, simply holding my breath to see what England is going to do. I imagine there is small doubt about it. I don't see how she can do anything but fight. It is hard to realize that a big war is inevitable, but it looks like it. It was staved off, in spite of Germany's perfidy, during the Balkan troubles. If it has to come now, just imagine what it is going to mean! It will be the bloodiest affair the world has ever seen—a war in the air, a war under the sea as well as on it, and carried out with the most effective man-slaughtering machines ever used in battle.
I need not tell you—you know, we have so often talked about it—how I feel about war. Yet many times since I came to France to live, I have felt as if I could bear another one, if only it gave Alsace and Lorraine back to us—us meaning me and France. France really deserves her revenge for the humiliation of 1870 and that beastly Treaty of Frankfort. I don't deny that 1870 was the making of modern France, or that, since the Treaty of Frankfort, as a nation she has learned a lesson of patience that she sorely needed. But now that Germany is preparing—is really prepared to attack her again—well, the very hair on my head rises up at the idea. There have been times in the last ten years when I have firmly believed that she could not be conquered again. But Germany! Well, I don't know. If she is, it will not be for lack of nerve or character. Still, it is no secret that she is not ready, or that the anti-military party is strong,—and with that awful Caillaux affair; I swore to myself that nothing should tempt me to speak of it. It has been so disgraceful. Still, it is so in the air just now that it has to be recognized as pitifully significant and very menacing to political unity.
The tension here is terrible. Still, the faces of the men are stern, and every one is so calm—the silence is deadly. There is an absolute suspension of work in the fields. It is as if all France was holding its breath.
One word before I forget it again. You say that you have asked me twice if I have any friend near me. I am sure I have already answered that—yes! I have a family of friends at Voulangis, about two miles the other side of Crecy-en-Brie. Of course neighbors do not see one another in the country as often as in the city, but there they are; so I hasten to relieve your mind just now, when there is a menace of war, and I am sitting tight on my hilltop on the road to the frontier.
August 2, 1914.
Well, dear, what looked impossible is evidently coming to pass.
Early yesterday morning the garde champetre—who is the only thing in the way of a policeman that we have—marched up the road beating his drum. At every crossroad he stopped and read an order. I heard him at the foot of the hill, but I waited for him to pass. At the top of the hill he stopped to paste a bill on the door of the carriage-house on Pere Abelard's farm. You can imagine me,—in my long studio apron, with my head tied up in a muslin cap,—running up the hill to join the group of poor women of the hamlet, to read the proclamation to the armies of land and sea—the order for the mobilization of the French military and naval forces—headed by its crossed French flags. It was the first experience in my life of a thing like that. I had a cold chill down my spine as I realized that it was not so easy as I had thought to separate myself from Life. We stood there together—a little group of women—and silently read it through—this command for the rising up of a Nation. No need for the men to read it. Each with his military papers in his pocket knew the moment he heard the drum what it meant, and knew equally well his place. I was a foreigner among them, but I forgot that, and if any of them remembered they made no sign. We did not say a word to one another. I silently returned to my garden and sat down. War again! This time war close by—not war about which one can read, as one reads it in the newspapers, as you will read it in the States, far away from it, but war right here—if the Germans can cross the frontier.
It came as a sort of shock, though I might have realized it yesterday when several of the men of the commune came to say au revoir, with the information that they were joining their regiments, but I felt as if some way other than cannon might be found out of the situation. War had not been declared—has not to-day. Still, things rarely go to this length and stop there. Judging by this morning's papers Germany really wants it. She could have, had she wished, held stupid Austria back from the throat of poor Servia, not yet recovered from her two Balkan wars.
I imagine this letter will turn into a sort of diary, as it is difficult to say when I shall be able to get any mail matter off. All our communications with the outside world—except by road—were cut this morning by order of the War Bureau. Our railroad is the road to all the eastern frontiers—the trains to Belgium as well as to Metz and Strasbourg pass within sight of my garden. If you don't know what that means—just look on a map and you will realize that the army that advances, whether by road or by train, will pass by me.
During the mobilization, which will take weeks,—not only is France not ready, all the world knows that her fortified towns are mostly only fortified on the map,—civilians, the mails, and such things must make way for soldiers and war materials. I shall continue to write. It will make me feel in touch still; it will be something to do: besides, any time some one may go up to town by road and I thus have a chance to send it.
August 3, 1914.
Well—war is declared.
I passed a rather restless night. I fancy every one in France did. All night I heard a murmur of voices, such an unusual thing here. It simply meant that the town was awake and, the night being warm, every one was out of doors.
All day to-day aeroplanes have been flying between Paris and the frontier. Everything that flies seems to go right over my roof. Early this morning I saw two machines meet, right over my garden, circle about each other as if signaling, and fly off together. I could not help feeling as if one chapter of Wells's "War in the Air" had come to pass. It did make me realize how rapidly the aeroplane had developed into a real weapon of war. I remember so well, no longer ago than Exposition year,—that was 1900,—that I was standing, one day, in the old Galerie des Machines, with a young engineer from Boston. Over our heads was a huge model of a flying machine. It had never flown, but it was the nearest thing to success that had been accomplished—and it expected to fly some time. So did Darius Green, and people were still skeptical. As he looked up at it, the engineer said: "Hang it all, that dashed old thing will fly one day, but I shall probably not live to see it."
He was only thirty at that time, and it was such a few years after that it did fly, and no time at all, once it rose in the air to stay there, before it crossed the Channel. It is wonderful to think that after centuries of effort the thing flew in my time—and that I am sitting in my garden to-day, watching it sail overhead, like a bird, looking so steady and so sure. I can see them for miles as they approach and for miles after they pass. Often they disappear from view, not because they have passed a horizon line, but simply because they have passed out of the range of my vision-? becoming smaller and smaller, until they seem no bigger than a tiny bird, so small that if I take my eyes off the speck in the sky I cannot find it again. It is awe-compelling to remember how these cars in the air change all military tactics. It will be almost impossible to make any big movement that may not be discovered by the opponent.
Just after breakfast my friend from Voulangis drove over in a great state of excitement, with the proposition that I should pack up and return with her. She seemed alarmed at the idea of my being alone, and seemed to think a group of us was safer. It was a point of view that had not occurred to me, and I was not able to catch it. Still, I was touched at her thoughtfulness, even though I had to say that I proposed to stay right here. When she asked me what I proposed to do if the army came retreating across my garden, I instinctively laughed. It seems so impossible this time that the Germans can pass the frontier, and get by Verdun and Toul. All the same, that other people were thinking it possible rather brought me up standing. I just looked at the little house I had arranged such a little time ago—I have only been here two months.
She had come over feeling pretty glum—my dear neighbor from Voulangis. She went away laughing. At the gate she said, "It looks less gloomy to me than it did when I came. I felt such a brave thing driving over here through a country preparing for war. I expected you to put a statue up in your garden 'To a Brave Lady.'"
I stood in the road watching her drive away, and as I turned back to the house it suddenly took on a very human sort of look. There passed through my mind a sudden realization, that, according to my habit, I had once again stuck my feet in the ground of a new home—and taken root. It is a fact. I have often looked at people who seem to keep foot-free. I never can. If I get pulled up violently by the roots, if I have my earthly possessions pruned away, I always hurry as fast as I can, take root in a new place, and proceed to sprout a new crop of possessions which fix me there. I used, when I was younger, to envy people who could just pack a bag and move on. I am afraid that I never envied them enough to do as they did. If I had I should have done it. I find that life is pretty logical. It is like chemical action—given certain elements to begin with, contact with the fluids of Life give a certain result. After all I fancy every one does about the best he can with the gifts he has to do with. So I imagine we do what is natural to us; if we have the gift of knowing what we want and wanting it hard enough we get it. If we don't, we compromise.
I am closing this up rather hurriedly as one of the boys who joins his regiment at Fontainebleau will mail it in Paris as he passes through. I suppose you are glad that you got away before this came to pass.
I have your cable asking me to come "home" as you call it. Alas, my home is where my books are—they are here. Thanks all the same.
It is a week since I wrote you—and what a week. We have had a sort of intermittent communication with the outside world since the 6th, when, after a week of deprivation, we began to get letters and an occasional newspaper, brought over from Meaux by a boy on a bicycle.
After we were certain, on the 4th of August, that war was being declared all around Germany and Austria, and that England was to back France and Russia, a sort of stupor settled on us all. Day after day Amelie would run to the mairie at Quincy to read the telegraphic bulletin—half a dozen lines of facts—that was all we knew from day to day. It is all we know now.
Day after day I sat in my garden watching the aeroplanes flying over my head, and wishing so hard that I knew what they knew. Often I would see five in the day, and one day ten. Day after day I watched the men of the commune on their way to join their classe. There was hardly an hour of the day that I did not nod over the hedge to groups of stern, silent men, accompanied by their women, and leading the children by the hand, taking the short cut to the station which leads over the hill, right by my gate, to Couilly. It has been so thrilling that I find myself forgetting that it is tragic. It is so different from anything I ever saw before. Here is a nation—which two weeks ago was torn by political dissension—suddenly united, and with a spirit that I have never seen before.
I am old enough to remember well the days of our Civil War, when regiments of volunteers, with flying flags and bands of music, marched through our streets in Boston, on the way to the front. Crowds of stay-at-homes, throngs of women and children lined the sidewalks, shouting deliriously, and waving handkerchiefs, inspired by the marching soldiers, with guns on their shoulders, and the strains of martial music, varied with the then popular "The girl I left behind me," or, "When this cruel war is over." But this is quite different. There are no marching soldiers, no flying flags, no bands of music. It is the rising up of a Nation as one man—all classes shoulder to shoulder, with but one idea—"Lift up your hearts, and long live France." I rather pity those who have not seen it.
Since the day when war was declared, and when the Chamber of Deputies—all party feeling forgotten—stood on its feet and listened to Paul Deschanel's terse, remarkable speech, even here in this little commune, whose silence is broken only by the rumbling of the trains passing, in view of my garden, on the way to the frontier, and the footsteps of the groups on the way to the train, I have seen sights that have moved me as nothing I have ever met in life before has done. Day after day I have watched the men and their families pass silently, and an hour later have seen the women come back leading the children. One day I went to Couilly to see if it was yet possible for me to get to Paris. I happened to be in the station when a train was going out. Nothing goes over the line yet but men joining their regiments. They were packed in like sardines. There were no uniforms—just a crowd of men—men in blouses, men in patched jackets, well-dressed men—no distinction of class; and on the platform the women and children they were leaving. There was no laughter, none of the gayety with which one has so often reproached this race—but neither were there any tears. As the crowded train began to move, bare heads were thrust out of windows, hats were waved, and a great shout of "Vive la France" was answered by piping children's voices, and the choked voices of women—"Vive l'Armee"; and when the train was out of sight the women took the children by the hand, and quietly climbed the hill.
Ever since the 4th of August all our crossroads have been guarded, all our railway gates closed, and also guarded—guarded by men whose only sign of being soldiers is a cap and a gun, men in blouses with a mobilization badge on their left arms, often in patched trousers and sabots, with stern faces and determined eyes, and one thought—"The country is in danger."
There is a crossroad just above my house, which commands the valley on either side, and leads to a little hamlet on the route nationale from Couilly to Meaux, arid is called "La Demi-Lune"—why "Half-Moon" I don't know. It was there, on the 6th, that I saw, for the first time, an armed barricade. The gate at the railway crossing had been opened to let a cart pass, when an automobile dashed through Saint-Germain, which is on the other side of the track. The guard raised his bayonet in the air, to command the car to stop and show its papers, but it flew by him and dashed up the hill. The poor guard—it was his first experience of that sort—stood staring after the car; but the idea that he ought to fire at it did not occur to him until it was too late. By the time it occurred to him, and he could telephone to the Demi-Lune, it had passed that guard in the same way—and disappeared. It did not pass Meaux. It simply disappeared. It is still known as the "Phantom Car." Within half an hour there was a barricade at the Demi-Lune mounted by armed men—too late, of course. However, it was not really fruitless,—that barricade,—as the very next day they caught three Germans there, disguised as Sisters of Charity—papers all in order—and who would have got by, after they were detected by a little boy's calling attention to their ungloved hands, if it had not been for the number of armed old men on the barricade.
What makes things especially serious here, so near the frontier, and where the military movements must be made, is the presence of so many Germans, and the bitter feeling there is against them. On the night of August 2, just when the troops were beginning to move east, an attempt was made to blow up the railroad bridge at lie de Villenoy, between here and Meaux. The three Germans were caught with the dynamite on them—so the story goes—and are now in the barracks at Meaux. But the most absolute secrecy is preserved about all such things. Not only is all France under martial law: the censorship of the press is absolute. Every one has to carry his papers, and be provided with a passport for which he is liable to be asked in simply crossing a road.
Meaux is full of Germans. The biggest department shop there is a German enterprise. Even Couilly has a German or two, and we had one in our little hamlet. But they've got to get out. Our case is rather pathetic. He was a nice chap, employed in a big fur house in Paris. He came to France when he was fifteen, has never been back, consequently has never done his military service there. Oddly enough, for some reason, he never took out his naturalization papers, so never did his service here. He has no relatives in Germany—that is to say, none with whom he has kept up any correspondence, he says. He earns a good salary, and has always been one of the most generous men in the commune, but circumstances are against him. Even though he is an intimate friend of our mayor, the commune preferred to be rid of him. He begged not to be sent back to Germany, so he went sadly enough to a concentration camp, pretty well convinced that his career here was over. Still, the French do forget easily.
Couilly had two Germans. One of them—the barber—got out quick. The other did not. But he was quietly informed by some of his neighbors—with pistols in their hands—that his room was better than his company.
The barber occupied a shop in the one principal street in the village, which is, by the way, a comparatively rich place. He had a front shop, which was a cafe, with a well-fitted-up bar. The back, with a well-dressed window on the street, full of toilette articles, was the barber and hairdressing-room, very neatly arranged, with modern set bowls and mirrors, cabinets full of towels, well-filled shelves of all the things that make such a place profitable. You should see it now. Its broken windows and doors stand open to the weather. The entire interior has been "efficiently" wrecked. It is as systematic a work of destruction as I have ever seen. Not a thing was stolen, but not an article was spared. All the bottles full of things to drink and all the glasses to drink out of are smashed, so are counters, tables, chairs, and shelving. In the barber shop there is a litter of broken porcelain, broken combs, and smashed-up chairs and boxes among a wreck of hair dyes, perfumes, brillantine, and torn towels, and an odor of aperitifs and cologne over it all.
Every one pretends not to know when it happened. They say, "It was found like that one morning." Every one goes to look at it—no one enters, no one touches anything. They simply say with a smile of scorn, "Good—and so well done."
There are so many things that I wish you could see. They would give you such a new point of view regarding this race—traditionally so gay, so indifferent to many things that you consider moral, so fond of their individual comfort and personal pleasure, and often so rebellious to discipline. You would be surprised—surprised at their unity, surprised at their seriousness, and often touched by their philosophical acceptance of it all.
Amelie has a stepson and daughter. The boy—named Marius—like his father plays the violin. Like many humble musicians his music is his life and he adds handsomely to his salary as a clerk by playing at dances and little concerts, and by giving lessons in the evening. Like his father he is very timid. But he accepted the war without a word, though nothing is more foreign to his nature. It brought it home to me—this rising up of a Nation in self-defense. It is not the marching into battle of an army that has chosen soldiering. It is the marching out of all the people—of every temperament—the rich, the poor, the timid and the bold, the sensitive and the hardened, the ignorant and the scholar—all men, because they happen to be males, called on not only to cry, "Vive la France," but to see to it that she does live if dying for her can keep her alive. It is a compelling idea, isn't it?
Amelie's stepdaughter is married to a big burly chap by the name of Georges Godot. He is a thick-necked, red-faced man—in the dynamite corps on the railroad, the construction department. He is used to hardships. War is as good as anything else to him. When he came to say "good-bye" he said, "Well, if I have the luck to come back—so much the better. If I don't, that will be all right. You can put a placque down below in the cemetery with 'Godot, Georges: Died for the country '; and when my boys grow up they can say to their comrades, 'Papa, you know, he died on the battlefield.' It will be a sort of distinction I am not likely to earn for them any other way"; and off he went. Rather fine for a man of that class.
Even the women make no cry. As for the children—even when you would think that they were old enough to understand the meaning of these partings they make no sign, though they seem to understand all the rest of it well enough. There isn't a boy of eight in our commune who cannot tell you how it all came about, and who is not just now full of stories of 1870, which he has heard from grandma and grandpa, for, as is natural, every one talks of 1870 now. I have lived among these people, loved them and believed in them, even when their politics annoyed me, but I confess that they have given me a surprise.
August 17, 1914.
I have Belgium on my soul. Brave little country that has given new proof of its courage and nobility, and surprised the world with a ruler who is a man, as well as king. It occurs to me more than ever to-day in what a wonderful epoch we have lived. I simply can't talk about it. The suspense is so great. I heard this morning from an officer that the English troops are landing, though he tells me that in London they don't yet know that the Expedition has started. If that is true, it is wonderful. Not a word in the papers yet, but your press is not censored as ours is. I fancy you know these things in New York before we do, although we are now getting a newspaper from Meaux regularly. But there is never anything illuminating in it. The attitude of the world to the Belgian question is a shock to me. I confess to have expected more active indignation at such an outrage.
Everything is very quiet here. Our little commune sent two hundred men only, but to take two hundred able-bodied men away makes a big hole, and upsets life in many ways. For some days we were without bread: bakers gone. But the women took hold and, though the bread is not yet very good, it serves and will as long as flour holds out. No one complains, though we already lack many things. No merchandise can come out yet on the railroads, all the automobiles and most of the horses are gone, and shops are shy of staple things.
Really I don't know which are the more remarkable, the men or the women. You may have read the proclamation of the Minister of Agriculture to the women of France, calling on them to go into the fields and get in the crops and prepare the ground for the sowing of the winter wheat that the men on returning might not find their fields neglected nor their crops lost. You should have seen the old men and the women and the youngsters respond. It is harvest-time, you know, just as it was in the invasion of 1870.
In a few weeks it will be time to gather the fruit. Even now it is time to pick the black currants, all of which go to England to make the jams and jellies without which no English breakfast table is complete.
For days now the women and children have been climbing the hill at six in the morning, with big hats on their heads, deep baskets on their backs, low stools in their hands. There is a big field of black-currant bushes beside my garden to the south. All day, in the heat, they sit under the bushes picking away. At sundown they carry their heavy baskets to the weighing-machine on the roadside at the foot of the hill, and stand in line to be weighed in and paid by the English buyers for Crosse and Blackwell, Beach, and such houses, who have, I suppose, some special means of transportation.
That work is, however, the regular work for the women and children. Getting in the grain is not. Yet if you could see them take hold of it you would love them. The old men do double work. Amelie's husband is over seventy. His own work in his fields and orchard would seem too much for him. Yet he and Amelie and the donkey are in the field by three o'clock every morning, and by nine o'clock he is marching down the hill, with his rake and hoe on his shoulder, to help his neighbors.
There is many a woman working in the fields to-day who was not trained to it. I have a neighbor, a rich peasant, whose two sons are at the front. Her only daughter married an officer in the Engineer Corps. When her husband joined his regiment she came home to her mother with her little boy. I see her every day, in a short skirt and a big hat, leading her boy by the hand, going to the fields to help her mother. If you don't think that is fine, I do. It is only one of many cases right under my eyes.
There are old men here who thought that their days of hard work were over, who are in the fields working like boys. There is our blacksmith—old Pere Marie—lame with rheumatism, with his white-haired wife working in the fields from sunrise to sunset. He cheerfully limps up the hill in his big felt slippers, his wife carrying the lunch basket, and a tiny black-and-tan English dog called "Missy," who is the family baby, and knows lots of tricks, trotting behind, "because," as he says, "she is so much company." The old blacksmith is a veteran of 1870, and was for a long time a prisoner at Konigsburg. He likes nothing better than to rest a bit on a big stone at my gate and talk of 1870. Like all Frenchmen of his type he is wonderfully intelligent, full of humor, and an omnivorous reader. Almost every day he has a bit of old newspaper in his pocket out of which he reads to la dame Americaine as he calls me, not being able to pronounce my name. It is usually something illuminating about the Germans, when it is not something prophetic. It is wonderful how these old chaps take it all to heart.
All the time my heart is out there in the northeast. It is not my country nor my war—yet I feel as if it were both. All my French friends are there, all my neighbors, and any number of English friends will soon be, among them the brother of the sculptor you met at my house last winter and liked so much. He is with the Royal Field Artillery. His case is rather odd. He came back to England in the spring, after six years in the civil service, to join the army. His leave expired just in time for him to reenter the army and see his first active service in this war. Fortunately men seem to take it all as a matter of course. That consoles some, I find.
I have just heard that there are two trains a day on which civilians can go up to Paris IF THERE ARE PLACES LEFT after the army is accommodated. There is no guaranty that I can get back the same day. Still, I am going to risk it. I am afraid to be any longer without money, though goodness knows what I can do with it. Besides, I find that all my friends are flying, and I feel as if I should like to say "good-bye"—I don't know why, but I feel like indulging the impulse. Anyway, I am going to try it. I am going armed with every sort of paper—provisional passport from our consul, permis de sejour from my mayor here, and a local permit to enter and leave Paris, which does not allow me to stay inside the fortifications after six o'clock at night, unless I get myself identified at the prefecture of the arrondissement in which I propose to stay and have my passport vised.
August 24, 1914.
I seem to be able to get my letters off to you much more regularly than I dared to hope.
I went up to Paris on the 19th, and had to stay over one night. The trip up was long and tedious, but interesting. There were soldiers everywhere. It amused me almost to tears to see the guards all along the line. We hear so much of the wonderful equipment of the German army. Germany has been spending fortunes for years on its equipment. French taxpayers have kicked for years against spending public moneys on war preparations. The guards all along the railroad were not a jot better got up than those in our little commune. There they stand all along the track in their patched trousers and blouses and sabots, with a band round the left arm, a broken soldier cap, and a gun on the shoulder. Luckily the uniform and shaved head do not make the soldier.
Just before we reached Chelles we saw the first signs of actual war preparations, as there we ran inside the wire entanglements that protect the approach to the outer fortifications at Paris, and at Pantin we saw the first concentration of trains—miles and miles of made-up trains all carrying the Red Cross on their doors, and line after line of trucks with gray ammunition wagons, and cannons. We were being constantly held up to let trainloads of soldiers and horses pass. In the station we saw a long train being made up of men going to some point on the line to join their regiments. It was a crowd of men who looked the lower laboring class. They were in their working clothes, many of them almost in rags, each carrying in a bundle, or a twine bag, his few belongings, and some of them with a loaf of bread under the arm. It looked as little martial as possible but for the stern look in the eyes of even the commonest of them. I waited on the platform to see the train pull out. There was no one to see these men off. They all seemed to realize. I hope they did. I remembered the remark of the woman regarding her husband when she saw him go: "After all, I am only his wife. France is his mother"; and I hoped these poor men, to whom Fate seemed not to have been very kind, had at least that thought in the back of their minds.
I found Paris quiet, and every one calm—that is to say, every one but the foreigners, struggling like people in a panic to escape. In spite of the sad news—Brussels occupied Thursday, Namur fallen Monday—there is no sign of discouragement, and no sign of defeat. If it were not for the excitement around the steamship offices the city would be almost as still as death. But all the foreigners, caught here by the unexpectedness of the war, seemed to be fighting to get off by the same train and the same day to catch the first ship, and they seemed to have little realization that, first of all, France must move her troops and war material. I heard it said—it may not be true—that some of the consular officers were to blame for this, and that there was a rumor abroad among foreigners that Paris was sure to be invested, and that foreigners had been advised to get out, so that there should be as few people inside the fortifications as possible. This rumor, however, was prevalent only among foreigners. No French people that I saw seemed to have any such feeling. Apart from the excitement which prevailed in the vicinity of the steamship offices and banks the city had a deserted look. The Paris that you knew exists no longer. Compared with it this Paris is a dead city. Almost every shop is closed, and must be until the great number of men gone to the front can be replaced in some way. There are streets in which every closed front bears, under a paper flag pasted on shutter or door, a sign saying, "Closed on account of the mobilization"; or, "All the men with the colors."
There are almost no men in the streets. There are no busses or tramways, and cabs and automobiles are rare. Some branches of the underground are running at certain hours, and the irregular service must continue until women, and men unfit for military service, replace the men so suddenly called to the flag, and that will take time, especially as so many of the organizers as well as conductors and engineers have gone. It is the same with the big shops. However, that is not important. No one is in the humor to buy anything except food.
It took me a long time to get about. I had to walk everywhere and my friends live a long way apart, and I am a miserable walker. I found it impossible to get back that night, so I took refuge with one of my friends who is sailing on Saturday. Every one seems to be sailing on that day, and most of them don't seem to care much how they get away—"ameliorated steerage," as they call it, seems to be the fate of many of them. I can assure you that I was glad enough to get back the next day. Silent as it is here, it is no more so than Paris, and not nearly so sad, for the change is not so great. Paris is no longer our Paris, lovely as it still is.
I do not feel in the mood to do much. I work in my garden intermittently, and the harvest bug (bete rouge we call him here) gets in his work unintermittently on me. If things were normal this introduction to the bete rouge would have seemed to me a tragedy. As it is, it is unpleasantly unimportant. I clean house intermittently; read intermittently; write letters intermittently. That reminds me, do read Leon Daudet's "Fantomes et Vivantes"—the first volumes of his memoirs. He is a terrible example of "Le fils a papa." I don't know why it is that a vicious writer, absolutely lacking in reverence, can hold one's attention so much better than a kindly one can. In this book Daudet simply smashes idols, tears down illusions, dances gleefully on sacred traditions, and I lay awake half the night reading him,—and forgot the advancing Germans. The book comes down only to 1880, so most of the men he writes about are dead, and most of them, like Victor Hugo, for example, come off very sadly.
Well, I am reconciled to living a long time now,—much longer than I wanted to before this awful thing came to pass,—just to see all the mighty good that will result from the struggle. I am convinced, no matter what happens, of the final result. I am sure even now, when the Germans have actually crossed the frontier, that France will not be crushed this time, even if she be beaten down to Bordeaux, with her back against the Bay of Biscay. Besides, did you ever know the English bulldog to let go? But it is the horror of such a war in our times that bears so heavily on my soul. After all, "civilization" is a word we have invented, and its meaning is hardly more than relative, just as is the word "religion."
There are problems in the events that the logical spirit finds it hard to face. In every Protestant church the laws of Moses are printed on tablets on either side of the pulpit. On those laws our civil code is founded. "Thou shalt not kill," says the law. For thousands of years the law has punished the individual who settled his private quarrels with his fists or any more effective weapon, and reserved to itself the right to exact "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." And here we are today, in the twentieth century, when intelligent people have long been striving after a spiritual explanation of the meaning of life, trying to prove its upward trend, trying to beat out of it materialism, endeavoring to find in altruism a road to happiness, and governments can still find no better way to settle their disputes than wholesale slaughter, and that with weapons no so-called civilized man should ever have invented nor any so-called civilized government ever permitted to be made. The theory that the death penalty was a preventive of murder has long ago been exploded. The theory that by making war horrible, war could be prevented, is being exploded to-day.
And yet—I KNOW that if the thought be taken out of life that it is worth while to die for an idea a great factor in the making of national spirit will be gone. I KNOW that a long peace makes for weakness in a race. I KNOW that without war there is still death. To me this last fact is the consolation. It is finer to die voluntarily for an idea deliberately faced, than to die of old age in one's bed; and the grief of parting no one ever born can escape. Still it is puzzling to us simple folk—the feeling that fundamental things do not change: that the balance of good and evil has not changed. We change our fashions, we change our habits, we discover now and then another of the secrets Nature has hidden, that delving man may be kept busy and interested. We pride ourselves that science at least has progressed, that we are cleaner than our progenitors. Yet we are no cleaner than the Greeks and Romans in the days when Athens and Rome ruled the world, nor do we know in what cycle all we know to-day was known and lost. Oh, I can hear you claiming more happiness for the masses! I wonder. There is no actual buying and selling in open slave markets, it is true, but the men who built the Pyramids and dragged the stone for Hadrian's Villa, were they any worse off really than the workers in the mines today? Upon my soul, I don't know. Life is only a span between the Unknown and the Unknowable. Living is made up in all centuries of just so many emotions. We have never, so far as I know, invented any new one. It is too bad to throw these things at you on paper which can't answer back as you would, and right sharply I know.
Nothing going on here except the passing now and then of a long line of Paris street busses on the way to the front. They are all mobilized and going as heroically to the front as if they were human, and going to get smashed up just the same. It does give me a queer sensation to see them climbing this hill. The little Montmartre-Saint-Pierre bus, that climbs up the hill to the funicular in front of Sacre-Coeur, came up the hill bravely. It was built to climb a hill. But the Bastille-Madeleine and the Ternes-Fille de Calvaine, and Saint-Sulpice-Villette just groaned and panted and had to have their traction changed every few steps. I thought they would never get up, but they did.
Another day it was the automobile delivery wagons of the Louvre, the Bon Marche, the Printemps, Petit-Saint-Thomas, La Belle Jardiniere, Potin—all the automobiles with which you are so familiar in the streets of Paris. Of course those are much lighter, and came up bravely. As a rule they are all loaded. It is as easy to take men to the front, and material, that way as by railroad, since the cars go. Only once have I seen any attempt at pleasantry on these occasions. One procession went out the other day with all sorts of funny inscriptions, some not at all pretty, many blackguarding the Kaiser, and of course one with the inevitable "A Berlin" the first battle-cry of 1870. This time there has been very little of that. I confess it gave me a kind of shiver to see "A Berlin—pour notre plaisir" all over the bus. "On to Berlin!" I don't see that that can be hoped for unless the Germans are beaten to a finish on the Rhine and the allied armies cross Germany as conquerors, unopposed. If they only could! It would only be what is due to Belgium that King Albert should lead the procession "Under the Lindens." But I doubt if the maddest war optimist hopes for anything so well deserved as that. I don't dare to, sure as I am of seeing Germany beaten to her knees before the war is closed.
September 8, 1914.
Oh, the things I have seen and felt since I last wrote to you over two weeks ago. Here I am again cut off from the world, and have been since the first of the month. For a week now I have known nothing of what was going on in the world outside the limits of my own vision. For that matter, since the Germans crossed the frontier our news of the war has been meager. We got the calm, constant reiteration—"Left wing—held by the English—forced to retreat a little." All the same, the general impression was, that in spite of that, "all was well." I suppose it was wise.
On Sunday week,—that was August 30,—Amelie walked to Esbly, and came back with the news that they were rushing trains full of wounded soldiers and Belgian refugies through toward Paris, and that the ambulance there was quite insufficient for the work it had to do. So Monday and Tuesday we drove down in the donkey cart to carry bread and fruit, water and cigarettes, and to "lend a hand."
It was a pretty terrible sight. There were long trains of wounded soldiers. There was train after train crowded with Belgians—well-dressed women and children (evidently all in their Sunday best)—packed on to open trucks, sitting on straw, in the burning sun, without shelter, covered with dust, hungry and thirsty. The sight set me to doing some hard thinking after I got home that first night. But it was not until Tuesday afternoon that I got my first hint of the truth. That afternoon, while I was standing on the platform, I heard a drum beat in the street, and sent Amelie out to see what was going on. She came back at once to say that it was the garde champetre calling on the inhabitants to carry all their guns, revolvers, etc., to the mairie before sundown. That meant the disarming of our departement, and it flashed through my mind that the Germans must be nearer than the official announcements had told us.
While I stood reflecting a moment,—it looked serious,—I saw approaching from the west side of the track a procession of wagons. Amelie ran down the track to the crossing to see what it meant, and came back at once to tell me that they were evacuating the towns to the north of us.
I handed the basket of fruit I was holding into a coach of the train just pulling into the station, and threw my last package of cigarettes after it; and, without a word, Amelie and I went out into the street, untied the donkey, climbed into the wagon, and started for home.
By the time we got to the road which leads east to Montry, whence there is a road over the hill to the south, it was full of the flying crowd. It was a sad sight. The procession led in both directions as far as we could see. There were huge wagons of grain; there were herds of cattle, flocks of sheep; there were wagons full of household effects, with often as many as twenty people sitting aloft; there were carriages; there were automobiles with the occupants crowded in among bundles done up in sheets; there were women pushing overloaded handcarts; there were women pushing baby-carriages; there were dogs and cats, and goats; there was every sort of a vehicle you ever saw, drawn by every sort of beast that can draw, from dogs to oxen, from boys to donkeys. Here and there was a man on horseback, riding along the line, trying to keep it moving in order and to encourage the weary. Every one was calm and silent. There was no talking, no complaining.
The whole road was, however, blocked, and, even had our donkey wished to pass,—which she did not,—we could not. We simply fell into the procession, as soon as we found a place. Amelie and I did not say a word to each other until we reached the road that turns off to the Chateau de Conde; but I did speak to a man on horseback, who proved to be the intendant of one of the chateaux at Daumartin, and with another who was the mayor. I simply asked from where these people had come, and was told that they were evacuating Daumartin and all the towns on the plain between there and Meaux, which meant that Monthyon, Neufmortier, Penchard, Chauconin, Barcy, Chambry,—in fact, all the villages visible from my garden were being evacuated by order of the military powers.
One of the most disquieting things about this was to see the effect of the procession as it passed along the road. All the way from Esbly to Montry people began to pack at once, and the speed with which they fell into the procession was disconcerting.
When we finally escaped from the crowd into the poplar-shaded avenue which leads to the Chateau de Conde, I turned to look at Amelie for the first time. I had had time to get a good hold of myself. "Well, Amelie?" I said.
"Oh, madame," she replied, "I shall stay."
"And so shall I," I answered; but I added, "I think I must make an effort to get to Paris to-morrow, and I think you had better come with me. I shall not go, of course, unless I am sure of being able to get back. We may as well face the truth: if this means that Paris is in danger, or if it means that we may in our turn be forced to move on, I must get some money so as to be ready."
"Very well, madame," she replied as cheerfully as if the rumble of the procession behind us were not still in our ears.
The next morning—that was September 2—I woke just before daylight. There was a continual rumble in the air. At first I thought it was the passing of more refugies on the road. I threw open my blinds, and then realized that the noise was in the other direction—from the route nationale. I listened. I said to myself, "If that is not artillery, then I never heard any."
Sure enough, when Amelie came to get breakfast, she announced that the English soldiers were at the Demi-Lune. The infantry was camped there, and the artillery had descended to Couilly and was mounting the hill on the other side of the Morin—between us and Paris.
I said a sort of "Hm," and told her to ask Pere to harness at once. As we had no idea of the hours of the trains, or even if there were any, it was best to get to Esbly as early as possible. It was nine o'clock when we arrived, to find that there should be a train at half past. The station was full. I hunted up the chef de gare, and asked him if I could be sure of being able to return if I went up to Paris.
He looked at me in perfect amazement.
"You want to come back?" he asked.
"Sure," I replied.
"You can," he answered, "if you take a train about four o'clock. That may be the last."
I very nearly said, "Jiminy-cricket!"
The train ran into the station on time, but you never saw such a sight. It was packed as the Brookline street-cars used to be on the days of a baseball game. Men were absolutely hanging on the roof; women were packed on the steps that led up to the imperials to the third-class coaches. It was a perilous-looking sight. I opened a dozen coaches—all packed, standing room as well as seats, which is ordinarily against the law. I was about to give it up when a man said to me, "Madame, there are some coaches at the rear that look as if they were empty."