MY HOME IN THE FIELD OF HONOUR
BY FRANCES WILSON HUARD
The third week in July found a very merry gathering at the Chateau de Villiers. (Villiers is our summer home situated near Marne River, sixty miles or an hour by train to Paris.)
Nothing, I think, could have been farther from thoughts than the idea of war. Our May Wilson Preston, the artist; Mrs. Chase, the editor of a well-known woman's magazine; Hugues Delorme, the French artist; and numerous other guests, discussed the theatre and the "Caillaux case" from every conceivable point of view, and their conversations were only interrupted by serious attempts to prove their national superiority at bridge, and long delightful walks in the park.
As I look back now over those cheerful times, I can distinctly remember one bright sunny morning, when after a half-hour's climbing we reached the highest spot on our property. Very warm and a trifle out of breath we sought shelter beneath a big purple beech, and I can still hear H. explaining to Mrs. Chase:
"Below you on the right runs the Marne, and over there, beyond those hills, do you see that long straight line of trees?"
"Well, that's the road that lead's from Paris to Metz!"
At that moment I'm confident he hadn't the slightest arriere pensee.
On Monday, the 27th, Mrs. Preston, having decided to take her leave, I determined to accompany her to Paris. Several members of the house party joined us, leaving H. and a half-dozen friends at Villiers. We took an early morning train, and wrapped in our newspapers we were rolling peacefully towards the capital when someone called out, "For Heaven's sake, look at those funny soldiers!"
Glancing through the window, I caught sight of numerous gray-haired, bushy-bearded men stationed at even distances along the line, while here and there little groups beneath or around a tent were preparing the morning meal.
What strange looking creatures they were; anything but military in their dirty white overalls—the only things that betrayed their calling being their caps and their guns!
"What on earth are they?" queried an American.
"Oh, only some territorials serving their last period of twenty-nine days. It's not worth while giving them uniforms for so short a time!"
"Bah!" came from the other end of the compartment. "I should think it was hot enough in the barracks without forcing men that age to mount a guard in the sun!"
"It's about time for the Grand manaeuvres, isn't it?"
And in like manner the conversation rose and dwindled, and we returned to our papers, paying no more attention to the territorials stationed along the rails.
A theatre party having been arranged, I decided to stop over in Paris. The play was Georgette Lemeunier at the Comedie Francaise. The house was full—the audience chiefly composed of Americans and tourists, and throughout the entire piece even very significant allusions to current political events failed to arouse any unwonted enthusiasm on the part of the French contingent. Outside not even an edition speciale de la Presse betokened the slightest uneasiness.
The next day, that is, Tuesday, the 28th, I had a business meeting with my friends, Mr. Gautron and Mr. Pierre Mortier, editor of the Gil Blas. Mr. Gautron was on the minute, but Mr. Mortier kept us waiting over an hour and when finally we had despaired of his coming I heard someone hurrying across the court, and the bell was rung impatiently. Mr. Mortier rushed in, unannounced, very red, very excited, very apologetic.
"A thousand pardons. I'm horribly late, but you'll forgive me when you hear the news. I've just come from the Foreign Office. All diplomatic relations with Germany are suspended. War will be declared Saturday!"
Mr. Gautron and I looked at each other, then at Mr. Mortier, and smiled.
"No, I'm not joking. I'm as serious as I have ever been in my life. The proof: on leaving the Foreign Office I went and had a neglected tooth filled, and on my way down, stopped at my shoemaker's and ordered a pair of good strong boots for Saturday morning. I'll be fit then to join my regiment."
Our faces fell.
"But why Saturday?"
"Because Saturday's the first of August, and the idea of keeping the news back is to prevent a panic on the Bourse, and to let the July payments have time to be realized."
"You don't really believe it's serious, do you?"
"Yes, really. I'm not fooling, and if I've any advice to give you it's this: draw out all the money you can from your bank, and take all the gold they'll give you. You may need it. I've telephoned to the Gil Blas for them to do as much for us. The worst of all though is, that every man on my paper is of an age bound to military service. War means that when I leave, staff, printers and all will have to go the same day and the Gil Blas shuts its doors. We cease to exist—that's all."
Somewhat disconcerted by this astonishing news, we had some little difficulty getting down to facts, but when we did business was speedily dispatched and Mr. Mortier took his leave. Mr. Gautron carried me off to luncheon.
"You must come," he protested when I pleaded an engagement. "You must come, or my wife and the boys will never believe me."
We found Madame Gautron and her two splendid sons waiting rather impatiently. We told our news.
"Come, come now. You can't make us take that as an excuse!"
We protested our sincerity, and went in to luncheon which began rather silently.
I questioned the boys as to their military duties. Both were under-officers in an infantry regiment—bound to join their barracks within twenty-four hours after the call to arms.
We did not linger over our coffee. Each one seemed anxious to go about his affairs. I left the Gautron boys at the comer of their street, each carrying his army shoes under his arm.
"To be greased—in case of accident," they laughingly explained.
That was the last time I ever saw them. They fell "on the Field of Honour" both the same day, and hardly a month later.
But to return to my affairs.
A trifle upset by what Mr. Mortier had told me, I hurried to the nearest telephone station and asked for Villiers. When after what seemed an interminable time I got the connection, I explained to H. what had happened.
"For Heaven's sake leave politics alone and take the five o'clock train home! We need you to make a second fourth at bridge." H.'s lightheartedness somewhat reassured me, though for prudence's sake I went to my bank and asked to withdraw my entire account.
"Why, Madame Huard," said the clerk in surprise, "you mean to say you are frightened?"
I explained what I had heard in the morning.
"Pensez-vous? Non! We would be the first to be notified. We were ever so much closer to war two years ago—at Agadir! There is no cause for alarm."
He almost persuaded me, but after hesitating a moment I decided to abide by my original intentions.
"I can always put my money back in a week or so if all blows over and I find I don't need it," I argued.
"Certainly, Madame—as you will."
And the twenty-eighth of July the Societe Generale gave me all the gold I requested.
As the five o'clock express hurried me back home I began to understand the gravity of the situation—for the "queer looking soldiers" were nearer together all along the railway line, and it dawned on me that theirs was a very serious mission—namely, that of safeguarding the steel artery which leads from Paris to the eastern frontier.
At Charly, our station, I was much surprised to see three French officers in full uniform get off the train and step into the taxi-autobus which deposits its travelers at the only hotel in the vicinity.
At the chateau my story failed to make an impression. The men pooh-poohed the idea of war, and returned to the evening papers and the proces Caillaux, which was the most exciting question of the moment. In the pantry the news was greeted with hilarity, and coachman and gardener declared that they would shoulder their spades and faire la guerre en sabots.
My friend and neighbor, Elizabeth Gauthier, was the only one who took the matter seriously, and that because she had no less than five brothers and a husband who would be obliged to serve in case of serious events. I felt rather ashamed when I saw her countenance darken, for after all, she was alone in Villiers with two tiny children; her husband, the well-known archivist, coming down but for the week-end. "What is the sense of alarming people so uselessly?" I thought.
Wednesday, the 29th, the papers began to talk of "a tension in the political relations between France and Germany" which, however, did not quench the gaiety of a picnic luncheon in the grove by our river.
In the afternoon the old garde-champetre asked for H. in the courtyard.
"In case of mobilization," said he, "you have three horses and your farm cart to present to the authorities. Your cart must have its awnings complete. And your horses harnessed with their halters!"
H. laughed and told him that he was giving himself a lot of useless trouble.
Thursday, the 30th, market day at Charly, the nearest town to Villiers. We both drove down in the victoria, and were not surprised to see my officers of the day before seated in the hotel dining-room, finishing breakfast.
"What are they down here for?" I queried of the proprietor.
"Oh, they belong to the Etat Major and are out here to verify their maps. The Mayor has given them an office in the town hall. They go off on their bicycles early every morning and only return for meals."
"It's rather a treat to see a uniform out here, where hardly an officer has appeared since last year when we had Prince George of Servia and his staff for three days."
The general topic on the market place was certainly not war, and we drove home somewhat reassured.
Friday, the 31st, however, the tone of the newspapers was serious and our little village began to grow alarmed when several soldiers on holiday leave received individual official telegrams to rejoin their regiments immediately. Little knots of peasants could be seen grouped together along the village street, a thing unheard of in that busy season when vineyards need so much attention. Towards noon the news ran like wildfire that men belonging to the youngest classes had received their official notices and we're leaving to join their corps. Yet there was no commotion anywhere.
"It will last three weeks and they'll all come home, safe and sound. It's bothersome, though, that the Government should choose just our busiest season to take the men out for a holiday!" declared one peasant.
There was less hilarity in the servants' hall when I entered after luncheon. At least I fancied so. The men had gone about their work quicker than usual, and the women were silently washing up.
"Does Madame know that the fils Poupard is leaving by the four o'clock train—-and that Cranger and Veron are going too?" asked my faithful Catherine.
"Yes, Madame—and Honorine is in the wash-house crying as though her heart would break."
I turned on my heel and walked toward the river. In the wash-house I found Honorine bending over her linen, the great tears streaming down her face, in spite of her every effort to control them.
"Why, Honorine, what's the matter?"
"He's gone, Madame—gone without my seeing him—without even a clean pair of socks!"
"My son, Madame!"
And the tears burst out afresh, though in silence.
"Yes, Madame, I found this under the door when I came in at noon.—" She drew a crumpled paper from her apron pocket. I smoothed it out and read:
"Je viens de recevior ma feuille. Je pars de suite. Je prends les deux francs sur la cheminee. Jean." (I've just received my notice. Am leaving at once. Have taken the two francs that are on the mantel. Jean.)
I cannot say what an impression that brief but heroic note made upon me. In my mind it has always stood as characteristic of that wonderful national resolution to do one's duty, and to make the least possible fuss about it.
At tea-time the male contingent of the house-party was decidedly restless.
"Let's go up to Paris and see what's going on."
"There's no use doing that. Elizabeth Gauthier went this morning and will be back in an hour with all the news. It's too late to go to town, anyway!"
"Well, if things don't look better to-morrow I've got to go. My military book is somewhere in my desk at home and it's best to have it en regle in case of necessity," said Delorme.
"Mine's at home, too," echoed our friend Boutiteron.
"We'll all go to-morrow, and make a day of it," decided H.
Just then the silhouette of the three officers on bicycles passed up the road.
"Let's go out and ask them what's up," suggested someone.
"Pooh! Do you think they know anything more than we do? And if they do know something, they wouldn't tell you! Don't make a fool of yourself, Hugues!"
Presently Elizabeth Gauthier arrived, placid and cool as though everything were normal. "Paris is calm; calm as Paris always is in August."
"But the papers? Your husband? What does he say?"
"There are no extras—Leon doesn't seem over-alarmed, though as captain in the reserves he would have to leave within an hour after any declaration of hostilities. He has a special mission to perform. But he's certain of coming down by the five o'clock train to-morrow."
We went in to dinner but conversation lagged. Each one seemed preoccupied and no one minded the long silences. We were so quiet that the Angelus ringing at Charly, some four miles away, roused us with something of a shock.
Saturday morning, August 1st, the carryall rolled up to the station for the early train. All made a general rush for the papers which had just arrived and all of us were equally horrified when a glance showed the headline-Jaures, the Great Socialist Leader, Assassinated. Decidedly the plot thickened and naturally we all jumped to the same conclusion—a political crime.
"There's a stronger hand than the murderer's back of that felony," murmured a plain man from the corner of our compartment.
"What makes you say that?"
"Why, can't you see, Monsieur, that our enemies are counting on the deed to stir up the revolutionary party and breed discord in the country! It's as plain as day!"
That was rather opening the door to a lengthy discussion, but our friends refused to debate, especially as we could hear excited masculine voices rising high above the ordinary tone in the compartments on either side of us.
The journey drew to a close without any further remarkable incident. It seemed to me that we passed more up trains than usual, but were not a moment overdue. There was nothing to complain of. As we approached La Villette and drew into the Gare de l'Est everybody noticed the extraordinary number of locomotives that were getting up steam in the yards. There were rows and rows of them, just as close together as it was possible to range them, and as far as the eye could see their glittering boilers extended down the tracks in even lines. Each one had a freshly glued yellow label, on which was printed in big black capitals the name of its home station. That was the most significant preparation we had witnessed as yet. Presently we observed that the platforms of freight and express depots had been swept clear of every obstacles and the usually encumbered Gare de l'Est was clean and empty as the hand of man could make it.
In the courtyard our party separated, promising to meet for the five o'clock express—"Unless something serious prevents."
I accompanied H. to the Caserne des Minimes where he went to see if his military situation was registered up to date in his livret, and all along the streets leading from the station we met women silently wiping their eyes.
What a sight the courtyard of that barracks presented! Some five or six thousand men of all ages, classes and conditions who up until that moment had never thought that the loss of a military book entailed the slightest consequence, had one and all been pushed by that single thought, "Be ready for duty." Here they were, boys of twenty and men of forty, standing in line, braving their all-time enemy, the gendarme, each silently waiting his turn to explain his situation. To the credit of the gendarme and all those in authority, it must be said that contrary to their usual custom they acted like loving fathers with these prodigal sons of the Republic—possible information without the sign of a grumble, and advising those who were still streaming in at the door to come back towards five o'clock, when the line should have advanced a little. It was then scarcely ten A. M.!
H. had finished in no time.
"All I've got to do is to go home and wait until I am called for," he explained as we walked away at a brisk gait.
Like most country people when they come to town I had numerous errands to do, so we set off towards the Bazar de l'Hotel de Ville, renowned for its farming implements.
At the corner of the Rue des Archives we met Monsieur Gauthier on his way to his Museum.
"Grave—tre's grave—la situation, Monsieur," was all he could say.
"What would you advise us to do?"
"Well, to speak plainly, I should advise you to shut up the chateau, leave a guardian, and open your Paris apartment. You're in the east, you know! I shall go down by the five train and bring back Elizabeth and the children. I'd be easier in my mind if I knew they were in a big city! I If you have to leave, Madame Huard would be better off here."
H. was very sober as we left Mr. Gauthier.
"Bah! Cheer up! I'm afraid our friend is an alarmist. You know he has two young children!"
We entered the Bazar, which is the "biggest" of the big stores in Paris. Every day in the week, and Sundays included, it is usually so crowded with buyers and sellers that one has to elbow one's way, and literally serve one's self. To our amazement it was empty—literally empty. Not a single customer—not a single clerk to be seen. The long stretches of floor and counters were vacant as though the store were closed. I gasped a little in surprise and just as I did so a female voice from behind a distant desk called out:
"What is your pleasure, Madame?"
I turned, and a little woman in black advanced towards me.
"Yes, I know the place looks queer, but you see all our clerks are young men and everyone of them has been obliged to join his regiment since closing time last evening!"
"Leave farming alone and come over to Conard's. He's bound to have some news," said H. impatiently.
Conard's is a big publishing firm on the boulevard, renowned as a meeting place for most of the well-known political men.
Conard greeted us in silence. He knew no more than we, and we fell to talking of the latest events and trying to come to a conclusion. Then one of the habitues stepped in.
"Eh bien, Monsieur, what news?"
The person addressed kept on perusing the titles of the books spread along the counter, and drawing a long puff from his cigarette and without lifting his eyes, said, "The mobilization is for four o'clock! Official. Have you something entertaining to read on my way to the front?"
"It looks very much like it!"
Though almost expected, the news gave us a thrill. We stood spellbound and tongue-tied.
What to do? There were so many decisions to be made at a moment's notice! H. was for our coming to Paris, as all the men must necessarily leave the chateau.
"Mobilization doesn't necessarily mean war, man. Besides if it does come it can't last long. You'd better go back to your place in the country, Huard. A big estate like that needs looking after," said Conard.
"Where do you live?" questioned the gentleman who had given us the news.
"Villiers—sixty miles east of Paris."
"Well, if you decide to go there I advise you to take the soonest train. The eastern railway belongs to the army, and only the army, beginning at noon to-day."
H. looked at his watch. It was nearly eleven, and our next train left at noon sharp. We jumped into a taxi.
"Drive to the Gare de l'Est and on the way stop at Tarides! We must have maps, good road maps of the entire north and east," said H., turning to me.
It seemed as though he had had that thought in common with the entire Parisian population, for all down the boulevards the bookshops and stationers were already overflowing with men, chiefly in regimentals, and as to the shoe-shops and boot-makers—there was a line waiting outside of each. Yet there was no excitement, no shouting, not even an "extra."
What a different sight our station presented to that of two hours before! The great iron gates were shut, and guarded by a line of sergents de ville. Only men joining their regiments and persons returning to their legitimate dwellings were allowed to pass. And there were thousands of both. Around the grillwork hovered dense groups of women, bravely waving tearless adieux to their men folk.
After assuring himself that there was still a noon train, H. led me to the restaurant directly opposite the station.
"We'll have a bite here. Heaven knows what time we shall reach home!"
The room was filled to overflowing; the lunchers being mostly officers. At the table on our right sat a young fellow whose military harnessings were very new and very stiff, but in spite of the heat, a high collar and all his trappings he managed to put away a very comfortable repast.
On our left was a party composed of a captain, his wife and two other freres d'armes. That brave little Parisian woman at once won my admiration, for though, in spite of superhuman efforts, the tears would trickle down her face, she never gave in one second to her emotion but played her part as hostess, trying her best to put her guests at ease and smilingly inquiring after their family and friends as though she were receiving under ordinary circumstances in her own home.
At a quarter before noon we left them and elbowed our way through the ever-gathering crowd towards our train.
"The twelve o'clock express—what platform?" H. inquired.
"The ten o'clock train hasn't gone yet, Monsieur!"
"Is there any danger of its not going?"
"Oh, no; but there's every danger of its being the last."
And the man spoke the truth, for as our friend the politician predicted, at noon military authority took over the station and all those who were so unfortunate as to have been left behind were obliged to wait in Paris three mortal weeks. On the Eastern Railway all passenger service was immediately sacrificed to the transportation of troops.
It seems to me that this was the longest train I have ever seen. The coaches stretched far out beyond the station into torrid sunlight. Every carriage was filled up to and beyond its normal capacity. There could be no question of what class one would travel—it was travel where one could! Yet no one seemed to mind. I managed to find a seat in it compartment already occupied by two young St. Cyr students in full uniform and white gloves, a very portly aged couple and half a dozen men of the working classes.
"We'll take turns at sitting, Monsieur," said one of them as H. pushed further on into the corridor.
At the end of five minutes' time the conversation had become general. Although as yet there had been no official declaration everyone present was convinced that the news would shortly be made public, and though the crowd was certainly not a merry one, it was certainly not sad. Most of the men had received their orders in the morning, and had said good-bye to their loved ones at home. In consequence, there were no heart-rending scenes of farewell, no tearful leave-takings from family and friends, no useless manifestations.
Through the doorway of our stifling compartment, which up until the last moment was left open for air, we could see the train on the opposite platform silently, rapidly filling with men, each carrying a new pair of shoes either slung over the shoulders or neatly tied in a box or paper parcel. Then without any warning, without any hilarious vociferations on the part of its occupants, it quietly drew out of the station, to be instantly replaced by another train of cars.
Five times we watched the same operation recommence ere the ten o'clock train decided to leave Paris. Then as the guard went along the platform slamming the doors, a boyish face poked its way into the aperture of our compartment.
"Hello, Louis," said he, addressing one of the workmen. "Hello, Louis, you here, too?"
"Eh bien, cette fois je crois quon y va! Hein?"
Our door closed and the trainman whistled.
"Bon voyage!" shouted the boy through the window.
"The same to you," replied the other. That was all.
It was not a very eventful journey. It was merely hot and lengthy. We stopped at every little way station either to let down or take on passengers. We were side-tracked and forgotten for what seemed hours at a time, to allow speedy express trains filled with men and bound for the eastern frontier to pass on and be gone.
At Changis-St. Jean I put my head out of the window and there witnessed a most touching sight. A youngish man in a well-fitting captain's uniform, accompanied by his wife and two pretty babies, was preparing to take his leave. He was evidently well known and esteemed in his little village, for the curate, the mayor, the municipal council and numerous friends had come to see him off. The couple bore up bravely until the whistle blew-then, clasping each other in an almost brutal embrace, they parted, he to jump into the moving train mid the shouts of well-wishers, and she, her shoulders shaking with emotion, to return to her empty home.
Four months later, almost to a day, I again put my head out of the car window as we stopped at Changis. Imagine my surprise on seeing almost the same group! I recognized the mayor, the curate and the others, and a little shiver went down my back as I caught sight of the pretty captain's wife—her eyes red and swollen beneath the long widow's veil that covered her face. That same hopeful little assembly of August first had once again gathered on the station platform to take possession of and to conduct to their last resting place the mortal remains of their heroic defunct.
Naturally, as they did not expect us before six at the chateau, there was no carriage to meet us.
"We'll take the hotel taxi as far as Charly, and from there we'll telephone home," said H. as we got down from the train.
But there was neither hotel trap nor vehicle of any description at the station. True it was that our train was nearly two hours late! The idea of walking some four miles in the broiling sun was anything but amusing, but there seemed to be nothing else to do. So after a quarter of an hour uselessly spent in trying to get a carriage about our lonesome station, we started off on foot. We had scarcely gone two hundred yards when we caught sight of a PARISIAN taxi! H. hailed him!
"What are you doing down here?"
"I brought down a gentleman who was in a hurry. You see there are no more trains out of Paris on this line since noon! And there are not likely to be any for some time to come."
"Will you take us as far as Charly?"
"If it's on the way to Paris—yes! I'm in a hurry to get back. I've got to join my regiment at the Gaxe du Nord before midnight, but I'd like to ring in another job like this before that. It's worth while at 150 per trip!"
"You've got to cross Charly—there's no other way to Paris."
So we made our price and were whisked into our little market-town.
The inhabitants were on their doorsteps or chatting in little groups, and we created quite a sensation in our Parisian vehicle. H. went to the Gendarmerie at once to see if there was any official news by wire since we had left town.
"You're the one who ought to bring us news, Monsieur," said the brigadier. "What do they say in Paris?"
"The mobilization will be posted at four o'clock."
A hearty peal of laughter, that was most refreshing in the tension of the moment, burst from all three gendarmes.
"Well, it's five minutes of four now. And if what you say is so, I should think we'd know something about it by this time! Don't worry. It's not so bad as you fancy—"
H. shook hands and we left. At the hotel we got the chateau on the wire and asked for the victoria at once. As the horse had to be harnessed and there is a two-mile drive down to Charley, we stopped a moment and spoke to the proprietress of the hotel.
"How does it happen that your motor was not at the station?" said H.
"Oh," she replied, "our officers hired it early this morning and my husband bad to drive them post-haste to Soissons. He hasn't got back yet!"
Before going farther in my narrative I shall say here, lest I forget it, that two of the supposed officers were caught within the fortnight and shot at Meaux as German spies—the third managed to make his escape.
Hearing the carriage coming down the hill, we walked towards the doorway. At that same moment we saw the white-trousered gendarme hastening towards the town hall. Catching might of H., he held up the sealed envelope he held in his band, and shouted, "You were right, Monsieur. It has come!"
We jumped into the victoria, but as we crossed the square the garde-champetre caught the bridle and stopped our turnout.
"One moment, Monsieur."
Then the town-crier appeared, instantly causing the staggering groups to cluster into one. He had no need to ring his bell. He merely lifted his hand and obtained instant silence, and then slowly read out in deep, solemn, measured tones, which I shall never forget until my dying day.
"Extrme urgence. Ordre de mobilisation generale. Le premier jour de la mobilization est le dimanche deux aout!"
That was all! It was enough! The tension of those last two days was broken. No matter what the news, it was a relief. And we drove away 'mid the rising hum of hundreds of tongues, loosened after the agonizing suspense.
The news had not yet reached Villiers when we drove through the village street. We turned into the chateau and found Elizabeth Gauthier, her children and almost all the servants, grouped near the entrance ball. They looked towards us with an appealing gaze.
As H. opened his mouth to answer, the sharp pealing of the tocsin, such as it rings only in cases of great emergency, followed by the rolling of the drum, told them better than we could that the worst bad come.
The servants retired in silence and still the bell rang on. Presently we could hear the clicking of the sabots on the bard road as the peasants hurried from the fields towards the Mairie.
I can see us all now, standing there in the brilliant afternoon sunlight—Elizabeth murmuring between her sobs, "O God, don't take my husband!" little Jules clinging to her skirts, amazed at her distress, and happy, lighthearted, curly-headed baby Colette, chasing butterflies on the lawn in front of us!
The tocsin ceased, but the drum rolled on.
In a moment we had recovered from the first shock, and all went out to the highroad to hear the declaration. To H. and me it was already a thing of the past, but we wanted to see how the peasants would take it.
At Villiers as at Charly, it was the garde champetre who was charged with this solemn mission, and the old man made a most pathetic figure as he stood there with his drumsticks in his hand, his spectacles pushed back, and the perspiration rolling down his tanned and withered cheeks.
"What have you got to say?" queried one woman, who was too impatient to wait until all had assembled.
"Bien de bon—" was the philosophic reply, and our friend proceeded to clear his throat and make his announcement.
It was received in dead silence. Not a murmur, not a comment rose from the crowd, as the groups dispersed, and each one returned to his lodgings.
We followed suit, and I went with H. towards the servants' hall.
"Give me the keys to the wine cellar," said he. "And, Nini," he continued, addressing my youngest maid, aged ten, "Nini, lay a cloth and bring out the champagne glasses. The boys shan't go without a last joyful toast."
There were four of them; four of them whose military books ordered them to reach the nearest railway station, with two days' rations, as soon as possible after the declaration of mobilization. H. had hardly time to bring up the champagne before we could bear the men clattering down the stairs from their rooms. Their luggage was quickly packed—a change of underclothes and a second pair of shoes composed their trousseaux—and Julie came hurrying forward with bread, sausages and chocolate! "Put this into your bags," she said. Though no one had told them, all those who remained seemed to have guessed what to do, for in like manner George, one of the younger gardeners, had hitched the horses to the farm cart and drove up to the kitchen entrance.
A moment later Catherine called me aside and tearfully begged permission to accompany husband and brother as far as Paris. The circumstances were too serious to refuse such a request and I nodded my assent.
"Come on, boys," shouted H. "Ring the farm-bell, Nini, and call the others in."
Their faces radiant with excitement, they gathered around the long table. H. filled up the glasses and then raising his—
"Here's to France, and to your safe return!" said he.
"To France, and our safe return!" they echoed.
We all touched glasses and the frothy amber liquid disappeared as by magic. Then followed a hearty handshaking and they all piled into the little cart. George cracked the whip and in a moment they had turned the comer and were gone.
Gone—gone forever—for in the long months that followed how often did I recall that joyful toast, and now, a year later, as I write these lines, I know for certain that none of them will ever make that "safe return."
Elizabeth Gauthier bore up wonderfully under the strain. She was the first to admit that after all it would have been too trying to say good-bye to her husband. H. and I then decided that it was best for her to bring her children and maid and come over to the chateau where we would share our lot in common. There was no time for lamenting—for the sudden disappearance of cook, butler, and the three most important farm-hands, left a very large breach which had to be filled at once. There was nothing to do but to "double up," and the girls and women willingly offered to do their best.
Julie, the only person over thirty, offered to take over the kitchen. To George and Leon fell the gardens, the stables, the horses, dogs, pigs and cattle. Yvonne, aged seventeen, offered to milk the cows, make butter and cheese, look after the chickens and my duck farm, while Berthe and Nini, aged fourteen and ten, were left to take care of the chateau! Not a very brilliant equipment to run as large an establishment as ours, but all so willing and so full of good humour that things were less neglected than one might imagine.
The excitement of the day had been such that after a very hasty meal we retired exhausted at an early hour. The night was still—so still that though four miles from the station we could hear the roar of the trains as they passed along the river front.
"Hark!" said H. "How close together they are running!"
We timed them. Scarcely a minute between each. Then, our ears becoming accustomed, we were soon able to distinguish the passenger from the freight trains, as well as the empty ones returning to Paris.
"Listen! Those last two were for the troops! That one is for the ammunition. Oh, what a heavy one! It must be for the artillery!" And we fell asleep before the noise ceased. Indeed for three long weeks there was no end to it, as night and day the Eastern Railway rushed its human freight towards the Eastern frontier.
Sunday morning, August second, found us all at our posts as the sun rose. Elizabeth and I drove down to Charly for eight o'clock mass, and all along the road met men and boys on their way to the station. The church was full, but there were only women and elderly men in the assembly; why, we knew but too well, and many wives and mothers had come there to hide their grief. Our curate was a very old man, and the news had given him such a shock that he was unable to say a word after reaching the pulpit and stood there, tongue-tied, with the tears streaming down his face for nearly five minutes—finally retiring without uttering a sound. Not exactly the most fortunate thing that could have happened, for his attitude encouraged others to give way to their emotions, and there was a most impressive silence followed by much sniffling and nose-blowing! All seemed better, though, after the shower, and the congregation disbanded with a certain sense of relief.
Before leaving home H. told me to seek out the grocer, and to lay in a stock of everything she dispensed.
"You see," said he, "we're now cut off from all resources. There are no big cities where we can get supplies, within driving reach, and our grocers will have nothing to sell once their stock is exhausted. We're living in the hope that the mobilization will last three weeks. That will you do if it lasts longer? It never hurts to have a supply on hand!"
"All my salt, sugar and gasoline has been put aside for the army. I was ordered to do that this morning—but come around to the back door and I'll see what I can do for you," said my amiable grocery-woman.
"That's pleasant," thought I. "No gasoline—no motor—no electricity! Privation is beginning early. But why grumble! We'll go to bed with the chickens and won't miss it!"
Madame Leger and I made out a long list of groceries and household necessities, and she set to work weighing and packing, and finally began piling the bundles into the trap drawn up close to her side door.
Our dear old Cesar must have been surprised by the load he had to carry home, but Elizabeth and I decided that a "bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," and one never could tell what astonishing "order" to-morrow might bring forth.
How H. laughed when he saw us driving up the avenue.
"I didn't think you'd take me so literally," said he. "Why, war isn't even declared, and here we are preparing for a siege!"
"Never mind," I returned, "you must remember that there are twelve persons to feed, and we'll soon get away with all I've got here."
The afternoon was spent in arranging our apartments. For convenience sake, we decided to close part of the chateau and all live as near together as possible in one wing. The children and younger servants seemed to consider the whole as a huge joke—or rather, a prolonged picnic party, and the house rang with peals of jolly laughter.
Monday, the third, Elizabeth and I tackled the provisions which were piled high on the table in the servants' hall. A visit to the storeroom and a little calculation showed that there were sufficient groceries already on hand to last the month out.
"Very good," said I. "Now, the rest we'll divide into three even parts —that makes September, October and November assured. By that time we'll know what precautions to take!"
"Well, I should hope so!" came the smiling reply. And we set to work. It all recalled the days of my childhood when I used to play at housekeeping and would measure out on the scales of my dolls' house so much rice, so much flour, so much macaroni, etc. I could hardly believe I was in earnest.
We were right in the midst of our task when our gardeners appeared bearing between them a clothes basket full of plums.
"Madame, they can't wait a day longer. They're ready to cook now."
It was almost a disagreeable surprise, for we were already as busy as we could be. But there was no way of waiting, or the fruit would be spoiled.
"Is that all the plums?"
"Ah, no, Madame, there are fully two baskets more. And in a day or two the blackberries and black currants must be picked or they'll rot on the vines."
"Heaven preserve us!" thought I. "Will we ever come to the end of it all!" But by four o'clock the first basket of plums was stoned, the sugar weighed, and a huge copper basin of confiture was merrily boiling on the stove.
"Where are you going to hide your provisions now you've got them so beautifully tied up?" enquired H., his eyes twinkling.
"In case of invasion."
We all simply shook with laughter.
"Well, if the Germans ever reach here there won't be much hope for us all," I returned.
"No, but joking aside; suppose we suddenly get the French troops quartered on us, are you calmly going to produce your stock, let it be devoured in a day or so, and remain empty-handed when they depart? You see, it isn't the little fellows who'll suffer. A big place like this with all its rooms and its stables is just the spot for a camp!"
That idea had never dawned upon us, and we set to thinking where we could securely hide our groceries in three different places. Finally it was agreed that one part should be put back of the piles of sheets in the linen closet; the second part hidden on the top shelf of a very high cupboard in my dressing-room with toilet articles grouped in front of it; while the third was carried up a tiny flight of stairs to the attic and there pushed through a small opening into the dark space that leads to the beams and rafters. It was all so infantile that we clapped our hands and were as happy as kings when we had discovered such a good cachette.
Night was coming on as I stood pouring the last of the plum jam into the glasses lined up along the kitchen table. Berthe had counted nearly a hundred, and I was seriously thinking of adopting jam-making as a profession, when with much noise and trumpeting, a closed auto whisked up the avenue and stopped before the entrance. I hurried to the kitchen door, untying my apron as I ran, arriving just as an officer jumped from the motor, and before I had time to recognize him in his new uniform, Captain Gauthier rushed forward, exclaiming:
"I've come to fetch Elizabeth and the children!"
The others, too, had heard the motor, and in an instant there was quite an assembly in the courtyard.
"I had great difficulty leaving Paris at all. My passport is only good until midnight," the captain was explaining as his wife and H. appeared, and almost without time for greeting. "Make haste," he continued, turning to Madame Gauthier. "We must be off in a quarter of an hour, or our machine will never reach town on time."
I hurried with Elizabeth to her apartment, where we woke and dressed two very astonished children, while the little maid literally threw the toilet necessities and a few clothes into a huge Gladstone bag.
"Leon evidently doesn't think us safe down here! You'd better come, too," murmured Elizabeth as we went downstairs.
In the meantime, H. had questioned our friend as to what had transpired in Paris within the last twenty-four hours.
"England will probably join us—and there is every possibility of Italy's remaining neutral," he announced, as we made our appearance. And then—"You must come to Paris. You're too near the front here," he continued, as he piled wife, babies and servant into the taxi.
And so, with hardly time for an adieu, the motor whisked away as it had come, leaving H. and me looking beyond it into the night.
When I returned to the pantry, I found Nini weeping copiously. Imagining she had become frightened by the sudden departure of our friends, I was collecting my wits to console and reassure her, when she burst forth, "Oh, Madame—Madame—the pates—"
"The lovely pates!—all burned to cinders! Such a waste!"
In our excitement we had forgotten to take from the oven two handsome Pates de lievre of which I was more than duly proud. And as Nini expressed it, they were burned to cinders. How H. chuckled at our first domestic mishap.
"Fine cooks, you are," said he, turning to Berthe and Nini, who hung their heads and blushed crimson. "And it's to you that I'm going to entrust Madame when I leave!"
Tuesday, the fourth, the drum rolled at an early hour and the garde-champetre announced the declaration of war. It was not news to anyone, for all had considered the mobilization as the real thing.
We were breakfasting when we heard a strange rumbling up the road. It was such a funny noise—midway between that of a steam roller and a threshing machine—that we both went out towards the lodge to see what was passing by. We were not a little surprised on perceiving our gendarmes sitting in an antiquated motor, whose puffing and wheezing betokened its age. They stopped when they saw us, and after exchanging greetings, laughingly poked fun at their vehicle—far less imposing than their well-groomed horses, but the only thing that could cover between seventy and eighty miles a day! From them we learned that the mobilization was being carried out in perfection, and in all their tours to outlying villages and hamlets not a single delinquent had been found —not a single man was missing! All had willingly answered the call to arms!
Between the excitement and all the work that had to be done at Villiers, time passed with phenomenal rapidity. As yet we had had no occasion to perceive the lack of mail and daily papers, and though I had always had a sub-conscious feeling that H. would eventually receive his marching orders, it was rather a shock when they came. Being in a frontier department he was called out earlier than expected. And instead of being sent around-circuit way to reach his regiment south of Paris, he was ordered to gain Chateau Thierry at once, and there await instructions.
Of course I packed and unpacked his bag for the twentieth time since Sunday, in the hope of finding a tiny space to squeeze in one more useful article—and then descending, I jumped into the cart and waited for him to join me. In spite of the solemnity of the moment, I couldn't help laughing when he appeared, for disdaining the immaculate costume I had carefully laid out, he had put on a most disreputable-looking pair of trousers, and an old paint-stained Norfolk jacket. A faded flannel shirt and a silk bandanna tied about his throat completed this weird accoutrement, which was topped by a long-vizored cap and a dilapidated canvas gunny sack, the latter but half full and slung lightly over one shoulder. Anticipating my question, he explained that it was useless to throw away a perfectly new suit of clothes. When he should receive his uniform, his civilian outfit ought to be put in safe keeping for his return. This was customary in time of peace, but who could tell?—he might never even get a uniform, let alone hoping to see the clothes again.
And then, when I began examining the paltry contents of his sack, he made light of my disappointment, saying that his father, who had served in the campaign of 1870, had always told him that a ball of strong string and a jackknife were sufficient baggage for any soldier. I supposed he ought to know, and was just going to ask another question, when—
"Listen," he said, as he put his foot on the step. "Listen—before I forget. My will is at my notary's in Paris, and on your table is a letter to your father—if anything happens to me you know what to do."
We drove away in silence.
I let the horses walk almost all the way home and my thoughts were busy, very busy along the way. Here I was alone—husband and friends had vanished as by magic. My nearest relatives over five thousand miles away—and communication with the outside world entirely cut off, for Heaven knew how long. Evidently there was nothing to do but to face the situation, especially as all those in my employ save Julie were under twenty, and looked to me for moral support. This was no time to collapse. If I broke down anarchy would reign at once.
But what to do? Go on living like a hermit on that great big estate? The idea appalled me. It seemed such a useless existence—and in a few moments' time I had decided to turn the place into a hospital. But how and to whom should I offer it?
I stopped at the Gendarmerie, where our friends were able to give me information.
"The nearest sanitary formation was Soissons—the Red Cross Society. The president would probably be able to help me—" So I thanked the gendarme and left there, having decided to drive thence on the morrow.
Soissons is but twenty miles as a bird flies, but almost double that by the winding roadway, and I was calculating what time I should start and where I would rest the span, as I entered the yard.
"Anything new, George?" I said, as he took the bridle.
"Nothing, Madame, save that we have received orders that all the horses must be presented at Chateau Thierry for the revision to-morrow before ten."
"All the horses?"
"Yes, Madame, with full harnessing, halters and the farm carts."
That was a surprise! Suppose they are all taken, thought I, I shall be almost a prisoner. And my trip to Soissons?
"Don't unharness!" I called, as George drove towards the stable. "I'm going back to Charly."
In our little township I managed to buy a lady's bicycle. "It may come in handy," I thought. It was the last machine that was left. From the shop I went to the hotel.
"Where's your husband?" I said to the proprietress.
"Why, he's gone with the chauffeur to take our motorbuses and taxi to the requisition committee."
"But I wanted him to motor me over to Soissons to-morrow!"
"Well, if he gets back to-night and they leave him a single machine, I'll let you know, Madame."
In the afternoon the drum beat anew and I learned that all the bakers in the village (there were three of them) having been called to the front, we were likely to be without the staff of life. In the presence, therefore, of the impending calamity, the village government had decided to take over the bakery—it had found an old man and a very young apprentice who would do the work, but each citizen was requested to declare the number of persons composing his household and in order to economize flour, so much bread would be allowed per bead and each family must come and fetch his supply at the town hall between eleven and twelve o'clock!
Needless to say, it must be paid for in cash, though the Board reserved the right to look after the village poor. In like manner, all the salt had been reserved for the army, and we were to be rationed to seventy-five grammes a week per person! It all sounded rather terrible, but when put into practice it was proved that the rations were very generous and no one had reason to complain.
By four o'clock the next morning there was a perpetual stream of farm carts down the road leading towards Chateau Thierry. I dressed and went to the stables where George and Leon were already harnessing. More than once I had a tight feeling in my throat as I patted the glossy backs of dear old Cesar and my lovely span.
The girls had decorated the carts with huge bunches of poppies, daisies and corn-flowers and in addition to these tri-color bouquets, a little branch of laurel was stuck up over each horse's bridle. There was a generous distribution of sugar, and each horse was kissed on the tip of his nose, and then the boys joined the procession on the highroad.
I watched them out of sight. "Shall we ever get through saying 'good-bye'? When will these departures cease?" thought I, as I turned from the gate. But I was given no time to muse, for a most amazing clamor arose from a gateway a little higher up the road, and glancing in that direction, I saw old father Poupard leading his horse and cart into the open. He was followed by his wife and daughter-in-law, two brawny peasant women, who were loudly lamenting the departure of their steed!
"No, no!" literally howled mother Poupard.
"This is the last straw! Both sons gone, and now our horse! Who's going to bring in our crop? The Lord is unjust."
"And brother's babies—poor motherless things—in an orphan asylum at Epernay! How can we get to them now? Oh, no! Oh, no—" wailed Julia.
"Poupard!" exclaimed his wife, drying her tears on the corner of her apron and fixing her sharp blue eyes on her husband, "Poupard, no loitering! If they pay you for your horse, remember, no foolishness. You bustle back here with the money—we need you to help in the vineyard."
"This is no time for sprees," wept Julia.
"Father Poupard," admonished his irate mate, brandishing a spade, "Father Poupard, mind what I say!"
And then in a more moderate tone, but which was distinctly audible some thirty yards away, "I've put a bottle into your lunch basket. You won't need to buy anything more."
There was a distinct emphasis on the word buy, which told me that mother Poupard, evidently accustomed to her husband's ways, had provided plentifully for his journey but had carefully emptied his pockets before he started.
I went back to my preserves, but as the day wore on the lack of all communication with the outside world began to prey on me. Towards four o'clock I took my bicycle and started down to Charly. A quarter of a mile from our gate, in front of the town hall, a mason had driven two huge posts, into the ground on either side of the road, and was swinging a heavy chain between them.
I looked askance at the schoolmaster who stood in the doorway surveying the work. He explained that he had received instructions to the effect that all passers-by unknown to this village were to be stopped and asked for their papers. The men and boys who remained were to take turns mounting guard, and thus to help to eradicate the circulation of spies. Two suspicious motors and a man on a bicycle had already been signaled. Should they appear and fail to produce their papers, immediate arrest would follow. Should they offer the slightest opposition or attempt escape, the sentinels had orders to shoot.
I enquired if it would be necessary for we to have a sauf-conduit, being bound for Charly, and possibly the station at Nogent, where I hoped that the soldiers of a passing train would throw me a newspaper.
Mr. Duguey replied that he would gladly present me with the first passport, and seemed wonderfully taken with my idea about the papers. He admitted that living in darkness was beginning to get on his nerves, too, and asked me, in case my plan should prove successful, if I would be willing to put it on the public sign board so all could see the news. I acquiesced willingly, and after he had asked a few questions as to names, age, characteristics and destination, he stamped the seal on my paper, and I departed.
At Charly the same preparations had been made, and two elderly men, leaning on their guns, smiled as I presented my paper for their inspection.
At the hotel, the proprietor had just returned after having waited nearly twenty-four hours in line to present his machines. All save one had been bought for the army. But with his double-seated taxi he promised to drive me to Soissons the following morning.
I continued my road, and reached Nogent to find that I was not alone in my idea about begging the papers. Several others from neighboring villages, so I heard, had already succeeded in obtaining a sheet, and had driven off hastily with their trophies. My proceeding was very simple. It consisted of crossing the rails to the up-train platform, to stand in line with the other women already assembled, there to wait like birds on a fence until a train coming from Paris passed by. Then as it whizzed through the station, we shouted in chorus, "Les journaux! Les jour-naux!"
It worked like magic. We had hardly been there two minutes when a train was signaled.
As it approached, we could see that engine and cars were decorated with garlands of flowers, and trailing vines, while such inscriptions as, "Train de Plaisir pour Berlin," and numerous caricatures had been chalked on the varnished sides of the carriages.
Our appeals were not in vain. With joyful shouts, the boys gladly threw us the papers which were welcomed like the rain of manna in the desert. I managed to collect two, L'Action Franfaise, and Le Bonnet Rouge.
Until others and fresher were procured, the Royalist and the Revolutionary sheets hung side by side on the public sign board at Villiers, proving that under the Third Republic, Liberte', Egalite', Fraternite are not vain words.
The news of the violation of Luxembourg and Belgian territory created less sensation than one might have expected. In the circumstances news of any kind seemed a blessing.
There was still quite a gathering in front of the town hall when the first carts began to return from the revision. They were few and far between, compared with the double line that had driven past in the morning. My heart leapt with joy, as I saw George, driving Cesar, turn into the court.
"Too old, Madame," he said, his eyes shining. "Though still so game that they nearly kept him. He's reserved for a second call."
"And Florentin and Cognac?"
The boy put his hand into his pocket and held out a slip of paper. I took it and read, "Bon pour 1,200 francs, prix de 2 chevaux, etc."
"Well, thank God, we've got one left anyhow," thought I as I entered the hall. Just then the gate creaked and I could vaguely distinguish in the deepening twilight the forms of mother Poupard and Julia hurrying towards the stables. I followed.
"George! George!" called Julia.
"Well?" came the answer from within.
"George—where's the old man?" queried mother Poupard in excited tones.
"How do I know?"
"Was our horse taken? Can you tell us that?"
"I think so; yes."
"Then why didn't Poupard come back with you and Leon in the cart? Did you see him?"
"Where was he?"
"In front of a cafe as we drove past."
"Oh, the old villain! The wretch! Oh, mon Dieu, what shall we do! Oh, the wicked old man—if I had him here, I'd thrash him good!"
And mother Poupard began brandishing a pitch-fork with such violence that I commenced to fear that failing her delinquent spouse, she would fall upon George to wreak vengeance.
"Oh, the old devil! Oh—"
"Look here, I'm not his nurse—now clear out, the lot of you!"
The injunction served its purpose, for remembering they were "not at home," the two women retired in high dudgeon, wailing and lamenting in such audible tones that their neighbors came out to see what was the matter, and laughed at mother Poupard's threat of what she would do if ever she got le vieux into her clutches.
By six A. M. on the Friday I had breakfasted and was ready to leave for Soissons. The taxi from the Hotel du Balcon made its appearance a few moments later, and after a visit to the town hall, where we secured the necessary passports, we set off on our journey.
At the entrance to every little village we were obliged to halt and exhibit our papers—after which formality the chain would be let down and we allowed to go our way.
Half an hour later as we crossed Chateau Thierry we could see the rows of horses that had not yet been examined lined up along the square. The commissaries had worked all night and their task was still far from finished.
Until we reached Oulchy-le-Chateau, the chains were the only outward signs that betokened the belligerent state of the country, and even then as those who mounted guard were not in uniform, it seemed rather as though we were passing a series of toll-gates. However, as we ran along the splendid roads between the great fertile plains, I observed that the harvesting was being done chiefly by women, and that the roads themselves were empty of any vehicle. Evidently only those who had an important errand were allowed on the routes nationals, thus kept clear for the transport of troops or ammunition.
At Oulchy, half-way to Soissons, we halted at a railway crossing to let a long, lazy train drag out of the station. When at length the bars were drawn up, much excitement reigned on the little platform which we had been unable to see from the other side of the rails. Young girls with pails and dippers in their hands stood chattering with women in wrappers, whose disheveled appearance told plainly that they had been hastily awakened and had hurried thence without thinking of their toilette.
"What is it?" I asked of the garde-barriere.
"Yes—the first. Not badly wounded and they are able to travel, but unable to hold a gun. And they were all so thirsty!"
Poor fellows, thought I, already out of the ranks and the first week is not yet passed.
More persuaded than ever of the utility of my mission, I did not stop longer but pushed on towards Soissons. Half a mile further up the road, an elderly man carrying a package, hailed the motor. We slowed down, and hat in hand he approached.
"I beg pardon for the liberty I'm taking,"' he said, "but might I ask where you're bound?"
"You would be rendering a great service to the municipality if you would allow me to ride with you in the empty seat. You see, the youngsters who are left to reap the crops have broken the only machine in the community, and we can't go on harvesting until it is repaired or replaced. There are no mechanics left, and moreover, no horses that could take us to Soissons to find one, so I've offered to go on foot—but that means at least two full days lost before we can continue our work."
"Get in at once," I said, and we rolled off.
It was not long before I had drawn his history from this village alderman, an Alsatian by birth, and his tales of the war of 1870 helped to wile away the time we were obliged to spend idling along the roadside while our chauffeur repaired our first puncture. The emergency wheel clapped on, we were soon en route again. My companion duly uncovered as we passed the monument to the soldiers of the Franco-Prussian War, almost hidden in a lovely chestnut grove, in the heart of the forest of Hartennes.
On the outskirts of Soissons we came upon a squadron of the Ninth Territorial Regiment, resting after the morning exercises. These soldiers much resembled the "bushy-bearded" creatures whom I had seen guarding the Eastern Railway, save that they were even more picturesque, for most of them wore straw sombreros. As we passed the captain on his horse, my companion lifted his hat and the officer replied with a salute.
"A friend of yours?" I ventured.
"No. Never saw him before."
"But you bowed, I thought."
"Certainly. He's an officer on duty in time of war, and all civilians owe him that courtesy."
I liked that and fancied it were old-time urbanity, though often since I have seen it proved that the custom is not obsolete.
A little further on we came to a very jolly squadron, the cooks, who were peeling fresh vegetables and pouring them into immense wash-boilers, which, when filled, two privates seized by the handles and carried towards a big barracks some hundred yards distant.
Presently we hit a cobbled road which must have been a joy to all heavy machines, but which nearly jolted us out of our light vehicle. Patience and good humor were very rapidly disappearing when we rounded a curve, struck the good macadam, and I saw the twin spires of St. Jean rising majestically against the clear blue summer sky.
At our right I noticed the entrance gate to a chateau over which hung a big Red Cross, such as I coveted for my home, and then in a moment we were already in a faubourg of Soissons. It was not unlike the entrance to any other provincial city in ordinary times, save that there were many red-trousered men mixed in with the other population. There were no chains across the road, but four soldiers in uniform mounted guard. We showed patte blanche and proceeded to ask for the Red Cross headquarters.
"Madame Macherez is the president. You must go to her. Cross the city and go out east towards St. Paul. Her chateau is there."
Naturally we headed straight for our destination, but were stopped every other minute by police who side-tracked us into back streets. The big thoroughfares must be kept clear for the army!
I set down my old friend near the town hall, and told him that I should be returning about noon. If he were ready, I would be glad to give him a lift. Would he meet us in front of the Hotel du Soleil d'Or?
He was delighted, and promised to be on time.
We crossed the Aisne; I must say rather heedlessly, little dreaming that in so short a time it would be the object of such desperate and bloody disputes—nor so historically famous.
The Chateau de St. Paul sits, or rather, sat back from the road, surrounded by its lovely garden and a high wall. I left my motor and entered the grounds, preceded by a servant who had opened the gate. In a small drawing room I presented myself to a very charming young person already installed behind a desk, though it was scarcely half-past eight, and explained the object of my visit.
"Madame Macherez will be delighted. I'm her secretary, and I can assure you she will do all she can to further your plans. Would you mind waiting just a few moments? She'll be down presently. You see," she continued, "we have been up all night. We suddenly had part of a regiment quartered on us, and the officers who slept here were coming and going most of the time. I beg you will excuse the dust, but they haven't been gone long enough for us to make things tidy. There were twenty here, and two hundred men in the outbuildings which makes quite a remue menage."
Just then the president of the Association des Dames Franpaises came in.
Madame Macherez, a fine looking, elderly woman with iron-gray hair and clear blue eyes, is the widow of former Senator Macherez. Her keen understanding and wonderful business ability have won her the respect and esteem of two entire nations; both friend and enemy are united in their praises of this wonderful person.
I was not long in explaining my intentions—I could supply sixty beds, with room for the double; would take all the management of a hospital, gladly help with the nursing, but must have a doctor and other professional aid.
Madame Macherez accepted my proposition, knew just the person I needed, and taking off her badge pinned it on to the lapel of my coat and made me a member of her society.
"Now, then, let's get through with the formalities at once. Here is your carte d'identite. You must paste your photo on to it. With that and an armlet stamped from the War Department you will have free access to all the roads and you won't have to be bothered with other papers. Let us go at once to the city hall, where they will stamp their seal on your card, which makes it valid for your identity. From there we must hunt out the colonel in command and get his seal. That makes it valid with military authorities."
The president's motor was waiting outside the door.
"How long shall we be?"
"Ah, an hour at least."
I turned to my chauffeur who was tampering with his punctured tire.
"Go and see if you can't find a new inner tube, and meet me at the Hotel du Soled d'Or where I will lunch, at eleven."
"But I just put in a new inner tube."
"Have you got an extra one?"
"No, but I've my emergency wheel—"
"Never mind. Another inner tube may come in handy."
"Very well, Madame."
Madame Maeberez was waiting, so I jumped in next her and we drove to the town ball. Though the war was scarcely a week old her office was already installed in the Hotel de Ville, and several hospitals were well on the way towards complete organization. In a big room white-capped women (the first I had seen of the kind) were counting bandages, linen and underclothing, laying out huge piles for such and such a hospital.
While Madame M. was answering numerous questions which besieged her on her entrance, her secretary took note of what was lacking in my ambulance, promised to forward it at once by motor, and gave me an agreement to sign.
In the meantime, someone had carried my card to the mayor who affixed his seal, and my armlet appeared as though by magic.
Now, then, for the colonel! And we hastened away again at a moment's notice.
As we drove through the quaint little city, my eye was attracted more than once by a splendid bit of Louis XIV architecture. The college, the convent, the churches and even some private residences were wonderful examples of that exquisitely decorative period. As it was my first visit to Soissons I regretted not having brought my kodak, but when I spoke of this to Madame Macherez she expressed her delight at my admiration of her native city, but was extremely glad that I had not ventured out alone with a camera. Unknown persons with photographic paraphernalia were suspicious these times. It was best to leave such things at home.
Just then we were winding up a narrow street and the chauffeur was tooting in vain, trying to persuade a half-dozen soldiers carrying bales of bay on their backs, to make room for us to get by. With much evident reluctance the first man drew a bit to the right, the second vociferated something in a picturesque patois, and just as we passed the third, I leaned forward and grabbed the driver by the collar.
"Stop, stop a minute!" I gasped.
He must have thought I was mad, and Madame M. probably imagined I had suddenly lost my wits, when she saw me plunge out of the motor, race towards one of the bales, tear it from the carrier's back with a violence that nearly upset the man, and then, throwing my arms about his neck, embrace him.
"You? Already?" gasped H., and then as we realized that we were making a public spectacle of ourselves, the color rose to our cheeks.
A hasty explanation followed, in which I told my plans.
"And you, what on earth are you doing here?" I questioned.
"Well—just what you see. All of us from Villiers have been sent to bring horses to the front, and a fine job it is. I wish you could see the nags! None of them rideable!"
"But after they're delivered—what?"
"I wish I knew myself."
"And when can we meet?"
"I'm afraid that's impossible. We're off again to-night for God knows where!"
And H. seeing that he was already far behind his companions, threw me a hasty adieu and was gone!
The colonel was absent, but would return tout de suite, and Madame Macberez and I lost nearly an hour waiting. When he appeared, however, he was most gracious, excused himself very politely and immediately stamped my card. Then having all the necessary papers, I begged Madame to drop me at the hotel, and to return to her bureau, where I knew there was work enough for a half-dozen such as she. She did as I requested, and we parted—she promising to visit Villiers as soon as she could dispose of an afternoon.
I was the only woman in the hotel dining room for luncheon. The food was good, but the service impossible, as there were some forty men, mostly officers, very hungry, and only one decrepit waiter to do the work. Good humor prevailed, each diner making allowances, and here for the first time I heard that expression, destined to become so popular as an excuse for almost anything: Cest la guerre!
My chauffeur kept me waiting, but my friend the alderman was on time. Finally the motor made its appearance. Something had happened on leaving St. Paul in the morning and the poor hotelier had searched the entire city for a mechanic, but to no avail. All were au service de l'armee. Finally he had had to patch up things as best he could. As to an extra inner tube—such a thing didn't exist. We would have to take our chances with the wheel he had.
We started, but hadn't gone two hundred yards when a back tire blew off!
Well, thank goodness, we hadn't left town. So I returned to the hotel, and while Huberson and the alderman were fixing up damages and adjusting the emergency wheel, I had time to read all the back numbers of Illustration, which the Soled d'Or possessed, and commence a conversation with the proprietress, who sat in the court shelling peas for dinner. She was certain that the war would be over in three months at the utmost!
At length I went out to see if I couldn't be of some assistance in the motor business, but Huberson said it would be ready in a few moments. As far as I could make out, my alderman friend was mostly a decorative personality, for he stood there with his hat on the back of his head, gesticulating vehemently, but never deigning to help my chauffeur in the slightest manner. When I asked him if he knew Soissons well and inquired if he could direct me to certain grocers where I could perhaps obtain a few provisions, he insisted on showing me the shops, with an alacrity which proved his incompetence at motor repairing.
During that short promenade on foot, we encountered the whole Ninth Territorial Regiment—not under arms but au repos. The men were seated in front of the barracks reading the papers or idly smoking their pipes, and all yearning for "something to do." Their wish, I fear, has been more than satisfied.
Start number two proved successful and we sped along very comfortably until we hit that long cobbled road. The day was exceedingly warm, the stones sun-baked, and after the first mile or so I saw Huberson looking nervously at his fore wheel. His anxiety was well founded, for half a minute later, whizz!—I could feel the rubber splitting!
We stopped and all climbed out.
"It's all up!" he exclaimed. "Not one—but two tires are burst, and the shoe of the emergency wheel is flapping like an old dirty rag!"
"Now, in my time—" began the alderman.
"Never mind about your time, old man. If you want to get back to Oulchy and that mowing machine before Christmas, you've got to pitch in and help," cut in Huberson, whose nerves could no longer stand the strain. Our friend took the hint and began stripping off his coat. We were eight miles from Soissons, on the upgrade of a cobbled road, full in the sun. It was three P. M. on a stifling August day!
The men must have spent an hour trying to make impossible repairs—they knew it was no use walking back to Soissons where aid had already been refused, and it was evident from the condition of the tubes that there was no hope of mending them.
What to do?
"I'll tell you," said I (and I must admit that I spoke for the sake of saying something), "I'll tell you! Suppose you take out the inner tubes and stuff the shoes with grass!"
The men looked at me as if I had suddenly gone out of my mind. Their contempt was so apparent that it wilted me.
And then arose a series of protestations which common sense bade me heed, but which didn't advance our cause in the slightest. When we had lost a full half-hour more arguing the question, I once again proclaimed my original idea.
The driver glanced at me in despair and shrugged his shoulders. "The least we can do is try."
So saying, we fell to work tearing up grass and weeds. And that is how I came to ride over thirty miles on three grass-stuffed tires, which, thanks to the heat, towards the end of the journey began sending forth little jets of green liquid much to the astonishment of all those who saw us pass.
The next few days following my eventful trip to Soissons were spent superintending the installation of my hospital. For convenience's sake I decided to utilize the entire ground floor, first because there were fewer and more spacious apartments, each one being large enough to hold ten or twelve beds, thus forming a ward; second, because it would be better to avoid carrying the wounded up a flight of stairs. The rooms above could be used in case of emergency. All this of course necessitated the moving of most of my furniture and objets d'art, as well as the emptying of H.'s much encumbered studio—I having determined to keep but a small apartment in the east wing for private use. It was really a tremendous undertaking, far worse than any "spring cleaning" I had ever experienced, especially as I was but poorly seconded by my much-depleted domestic staff, already more than busy trying to keep the farm going.
From the boys—George and Leon—I learned that old father Poupard had not yet put in his appearance since his departure three days before with his nag, and that mother Poupard had abandoned her belligerent attitude and had resorted to tears. She could be seen three times a day, on her return from the fields, standing by the bridge corner, wailing her distress to any passerby who had time enough to stop and listen. Poupard now possessed all the qualities of mankind and it was probably through his noble soft-heartedness that some ill had befallen him. What a misfortune, especially as the vines needed so much attention.
Sunday, the ninth, I was preparing to go to early service at Charly (our own curate had been called to join his regiment) when on crossing the bridge, a bicycle whisked by the victoria.
"He's coming—he's coming!" called the rider, as he passed us.
"Who?" I said, rising, as George drew up.
"Father Poupard!" called the boy. "I'm going to tell his wife!"
It was evident that the news had spread like wildfire, for looking up the street, I could see the villagers hurrying from their cottages. Already the hum of voices reached my ears, and anxious not to miss what promised to be a most dramatic meeting, I told George to drive to one side of the road and stop, and there we would await developments.
In less than a minute mother Poupard appeared. She was as good as her word, for now that she knew her lord and master was no longer in danger, she had cast sentiment to the winds and was actually brandishing that "big stick!"
"Ah, the good-for-nothing old drunkard!" she vociferated as she ran. "Just let me lay hands on him!"
Around the bend of the road came the excited peasants. They pressed so closely about someone that until they were almost upon us I could not distinguish who it might be. Then as mother Poupard pushed her way through the crowd, it parted and displayed her husband; drunk, but with pride; delirious, but with glory—proudly bearing his youngest grandson in his arms, leading the other by the hand.
"Oh, Joseph—" gasped his astonished wife, every bit of anger gone from her voice.
And then followed a very touching family scene in which the delinquent was forgiven, and during which time one of the bystanders explained that father Poupard had walked from Chateau-Thierry to Epernay, to fetch his orphan grandchildren, and had returned on foot, carrying first one and then the other accomplishing the hundred miles in not quite four days! A heroic undertaking for a man over seventy!
The sun rose and set several times ere my interior arrangements were completed and nothing extraordinary happened to break the monotony of my new routine. On Tuesday, the eleventh, the strange buzzing of a motor told us that an aeroplane was not far distant. Our chateau lies in the valley between two hills, so to obtain a clear view of the horizon, I hurried to the roof with a pair of field glasses.
Presently a tiny black speck appeared and as it grew within the scope of my glass, it was easy to recognize the shape of a Taube. That was my introduction to the enemy.
Without waiting a second I rushed to the telephone and asked central at Charly (the telephones now belonged to the army) to pass on the message that a German aeroplane had been sighted from the Chateau de Villiers, and was flying due west, head on for Paris. The noise had grown louder and louder, and when I returned to my post of observation, I found most of the servants assembled, all craning their necks. On came the Taube, and there we stood, gaping, never realizing an instant that we were running the slightest risk. The machine passed directly over our heads, not low enough, however, for us to distinguish its contents with the naked eye.
"There's another!" shouted someone. And turning our backs on the enemy, we gave our entire attention to a second speck that had suddenly risen on the horizon.
It was four o'clock in the afternoon and the armored head of the ever-on-coming aeroplane glittered splendidly in the golden rays of the afternoon sun.
"Cest un francais!" cried George.
Allowing that an aeroplane flies at the rate of a mile a minute, one can easily imagine that we had not long to wait before number two sped over us. Through my glass I was able to recognize the tri-color cockade painted underneath the plane, and when I announced this there went up a wild shriek of joy.
At that moment a loud report in the west announced that the Germans had begun their deadly work on undefended territory.
"That's a bomb for the railway crossing at Nanteuil, I'll bet!" said Leon, and while I was realizing that that projectile might just as well have been for us, the others were gesticulating and bowling encouragement to their compatriot some few hundred yards above them, as though he could bear every word they said:
"Go it, old man!"
"Bring down that cursed blackbird!" "Vive la France!" and other similar ejaculations were drowned by the noise of the motor.
The chase was on! It was more exciting than any horserace I ever witnessed. The Frenchman was rapidly gaining on the other, but would they come into combat before they vanished from our horizon? That was the question that filled us with anguish.
On, on they sped, growing smaller and smaller every second. Presently it became impossible to distinguish them apart, but we knew that they had come within range of each other, for the two specks rose and fell by turns now soaring high, now dipping precipitately, seeming almost to touch at times. Then, just as they were about to disappear, one of them suddenly collapsed and fell. Which one, we never knew.
Towards dusk the garde-champtre appeared and left orders that George and Leon must take their turns at mounting guard. Four hours right out of the sleep of a peasant boy especially when he is overworked, is likely to leave him useless the next day. It provoked me a little, but then it was duty and they must obey. The boys came on at eleven and having decided it would be better to get in an hour or so of rest beforehand, they retired to the hay loft. I promised to look in on them in case they should fail to waken, and at the appointed time I put on my sweater and went down to find, as I had expected, both youths slumbering peacefully, blissfully unconscious of the time. Poor little chaps, it seemed a pity to wake them, but what was to be done? Presently an idea of replacing them myself dawned upon me: a second later it so enchanted me that I wouldn't have had them wake for anything. The whole thing was beginning to be terribly romantic.
Slipping quietly away, I went to my room and got my revolver, and then going to the south front of the chateau, I softly whistled for my dogs. Three big greyhounds, a shepherd dog and a setter responded immediately, and just as I was about to shut the little yellow door, old Betsy, my favorite Boston bull, came panting around the corner of the house. With these five as bodyguard I sauntered up the road in the brilliant moonlight, arriving in front of the town hall just as the clock was striking eleven. I must say that my appearance and announcement rather shocked two elderly men who had been on the watch since seven o'clock.
Monsieur Demarcq protested that such a thing as a woman mounting guard had never been beard of, but I swiftly argued him out of that idea. What was required of me? That I stop every passer-by and every vehicle? Didn't he think me capable of doing so? And I pointed to my dogs and my revolver. The weight of the argument was so evidently on my side that they had nothing to do but to submit, and laughingly Mr. Foeter put me in possession of a heavy old gun, three packages of cartridges, and the lantern. Then once again they asked if I couldn't be dissuaded, to which I jokingly replied that I would set my dogs after them and drive them home if they didn't make haste to go there at once. That admonition proved more efficacious than I had dared hope, and assured me that my faithful beasts rejoiced in a ferocious reputation.
All sorts of fantastic ideas flitted through my brain as I took possession of my post. I began, however, by setting the lantern in the middle of the road, exactly in the center of the chain, as a warning to any on-comer. Then by the moonlight, I proceeded to examine my gun. It was a very primitive arm, and after carefully weighing it in my hands, I decided to abandon all thought of stalking up and down the road with such an implement on my shoulder. That kind of glory was not worth the morrow's ache, so I deposited the antiquated weapon in the hallway of the school house and resolved to rely on my Browning.
Afterwards I came out and seating myself on the bench with my back against the wall, waited for something to happen. My dogs seemed to have comprehended the gravity of my mission, and crouched close to my feet, cocking their ears at the slightest sound.
Little by little the great harvest moon climbed high behind our old Roman church, perched on the embankment opposite, bathing everything in molten silver, and causing the tall pine-trees in the little cemetery adjacent to cast long black shadows on the road. Down towards the Marne, the frogs were croaking merrily somewhere in the distance a night locust buzzed, and alarmed by the striking of midnight the owls who nested in the belfry, fluttered out into the night and settling on the church top, began their plaintive hooting. Still no one passed.
Such calm reigned that it was almost impossible to believe that over there, beyond those distant hills, battle and slaughter were probably raging.
Presently a shiver warned me that I had been seated long enough; so, marking a hundred steps, I began to pace slowly up and down, watching the ever-changing firmament. The first gray streaks of dawn were beginning to lighten the east when a growl from Tiger made me face about very abruptly. I must admit that my heart began beating abnormally, and the hand in my pocket gripped my revolver as though it were a live animal and likely to escape.
A second later all the dogs repeated the growl, and then I could hear the clicking of a pair of sabots on the road. The noise approached, and my guardians looked towards me, every muscle in their bodies straining, waiting for the single word, "Apporte!"