On the Edge of the War Zone
From the Battle of the Marne to the Entrance of the Stars and Stripes
by Mildred Aldrich
Author of "A Hilltop on the Marne" "Told in a French Garden"
To The Public The Friends, Old and New, Whose Persistent And Sympathetic Demands For News Of Us On The Hilltop "After The Battle," Inspired The Collecting And Editing Of These Letters, This Little Book Is Gratefully Dedicated
On the Edge of the War Zone
La Creste, Huiry, Couilly. S et M.
September 16, 1914 Dear Old Girl:—
More and more I find that we humans are queer animals.
All through those early, busy, exciting days of September,—can it be only a fortnight ago?—I was possessed, like the "busy bee," to "employ each shining hour" by writing out my adventures. Yet, no sooner was the menace of those days gone, than, for days at a time, I had no desire to see a pen.
Perhaps it was because we were so absolutely alone, and because, for days, I had no chance to send you the letters I had written, nor to get any cable to you to tell you that all was well.
There was a strange sort of soulagement in the conviction that we had, as my neighbors say, "echappe bien." I suppose it is human. It was like the first days of a real convalescence—life is so good, the world is so beautiful. The war was still going on. We still heard the cannon—they are booming this minute—but we had not seen the spiked helmets dashing up my hill, nor watched the walls of our little hamlet fall. I imagine that if human nature were not just like that, Life could never be beautiful to any thinking person. We all know that, though it be not today, it is to be, but we seem to be fitted for that, and the idea does not spoil life one bit.
It is very silent here most of the time. We are so few. Everybody works. No one talks much. With the cannon booming out there no one feels in the humor, though now and then we do get shaken up a bit. Everything seems a long time ago. Yet it is really only nine days since the French troops advanced—nine days since Paris was saved.
The most amazing thing of all is that our communications, which were cut on September 2, were reopened, in a sort of a way, on the 10th. That was only one week of absolute isolation. On that day we were told that postal communication with Paris was to be reopened with an automobile service from Couilly to Lagny, from which place, on the other side of the Marne, trains were running to Paris.
So Amelie gathered up my letters, and carried them down the hill, and dropped them hopefully in the box under the shuttered window of the post-office in the deserted town.
That was six days ago, and it is only this morning that I began to feel like writing to you again. I wanted to cable, but there is no way yet, so I can only hope that you know your geography well enough not to have worried since the 7th.
Although we are so shut in, we got news from the other side of the Marne on Wednesday, the 9th, the day after I wrote to you—the fifth day of the battle. Of course we had no newspapers; our mairie and post-office being closed, there was no telegraphic news. Besides, our telegraph wires are dangling from the poles just as the English engineers left them on September 2. It seems a century ago.
We knew the Germans were still retreating because each morning the booming of the cannon and the columns of smoke were further off, and because the slopes and the hills before us, which had been burning the first three days of the battle, were lying silent in the wonderful sunshine, as if there were no living people in the world except us few on this side of the river.
At no time can we see much movement across the river except with a glass. The plains are undulating. The roads are tree-lined. We trace them by the trees. But the silence over there seems different today. Here and there still thin ribbons of smoke—now rising straight in the air, and now curling in the breeze—say that something is burning, not only in the bombarded towns, but in the woods and plains. But what? No one knows.
One or two of our older men crossed the Marne on a raft on the 10th, the sixth day of the battle. They brought back word that thousands from the battles of the 5th, 6th, and 7th had lain for days un-buried under the hot September sun, but that the fire department was already out there from Paris, and that it would only be a few days when the worst marks of the terrible fight would be removed. But they brought back no news. The few people who had remained hidden in cellars or on isolated farms knew no more than we did, and it was impossible, naturally, to get near to the field ambulance at Neufmortier, which we can see from my lawn.
However, on the 9th—the very day after the French advanced from here—we got news in a very amusing way. We had to take it for what it was worth, or seemed to be. It was just after noon. I was working in the garden on the south side of the house. I had instinctively put the house between me and the smoke of battle when Amelie came running down the hill in a high state of excitement, crying out that the French were "coming back," that there had been a "great victory," and that I was to "come and see."
She was in too much of a hurry to explain or wait for any questions. She simply started across the fields in the direction of the Demi-Lune, where the route nationale from Meaux makes a curve to run down the long hill to Couilly.
I grabbed a sunbonnet, picked up my glasses, and followed her to a point in the field from which I could see the road.
Sure enough—there they were—cuirassiers—the sun glinting on their helmets, riding slowly towards Paris, as gaily as if returning from a fete, with all sorts of trophies hanging to their saddles.
I was content to go no nearer. It was no army returning. It was only a small detachment. Still, I could not help feeling that if any of them were returning in that spirit, while the cannon were still booming, all must be well.
Amelie ran all the way to the Demi-Lune—a little more than a quarter of a mile. I could see her simply flying over the ground. I waited where I was until she came back, crying breathlessly, long before she reached me:
"Oh, madame, what do you think? The regiment which was here yesterday captured a big, big cannon."
That was good news. They really had not looked it.
"And oh, madame," she went on, as she reached me, "the war is over. The Germans have asked for peace," and she sat right down on the ground.
"Peace?" I exclaimed. "Where? Who told you that?"
"A man out there. He heard it from a soldier. They have asked for peace, those Boches, and General Gallieni, he told them to go back to their own frontier, and ask for it there."
"And have they gone, Amelie?" I asked.
She replied quite seriously that they were going, and she was terribly hurt because I laughed, and remarked that I hoped they would not be too long about it.
I had the greatest possible difficulty in making her realize that we were only hearing a very small part of a battle, which, judging by the movements which had preceded it, was possibly extending from here to the vicinity of Verdun, where the Crown Prince was said to be vainly endeavoring to break through, his army acting as a sort of a pivot on which the great advance had swung. I could not help wondering if, as often happens in the game of "snap the whip," von Kluck's right wing had got swung off the line by the very rapidity with which it must have covered that long arc in the great two weeks' offensive.
Amelie, who has an undue confidence in my opinion, was terribly disappointed, quite downcast. Ever since the British landed—she has such faith in the British—she has believed in a short war. Of course I don't know any more than she does. I have to guess, and I'm not a lucky guesser as a rule. I confess to you that even I am absolutely obsessed by the miracle which has turned the invaders back from the walls of Paris. I cannot get over the wonder of it. In the light of the sudden, unexpected pause in that great push I have moments of believing that almost anything can happen. I'll wager you know more about it on your side of the great pond than we do here within hearing of the battle.
I don't even know whether it is true or not that Gallieni is out there. If it is, that must mean that the army covering Paris has advanced, and that Joffre has called out his reserves which have been entrenched all about the seventy-two miles of steel that guards the capital. I wondered then, and today—seven days later—I am wondering still.
It was useless to give these conjectures to Amelie. She was too deep in her disappointment. She walked sadly beside me back to the garden, an altogether different person from the one who had come racing across the field in the sunshine. Once there, however, she braced up enough to say:
"And only think, madame, a woman out there told me that the Germans who were here last week were all chauffeurs at the Galeries Lafayette and other big shops in Paris, and that they not only knew all the country better than we do, they knew us all by name. One of them, who stopped at her door to demand a drink, told her so himself, and called her by name. He told her he had lived in Paris for years."
That was probably true. The delivery automobiles from all the big shops in Paris came out here twice, and some of them three times a week. It is no secret that Paris was full of Germans, and has been ever since that beastly treaty of Frankfort, which would have expired next year.
After Amelie had gone back to her work, I came into the library and sat down at my desk to possess my soul with what patience I could, until official news came. But writing was impossible.
Of course to a person who has known comparatively few restraints of this sort, there is something queer in this kind of isolation. I am afraid I cannot exactly explain it to you. As I could not work, I walked out on to the chemin Madame. On one side I looked across the valley of the Marne to the heights crowned by the bombarded towns. On the other I looked across the valley of the Grande Morin, where, on the heights behind the trees, I knew little towns like Coutevoult and Montbarbin were evacuated. In the valley at the foot of the hill, Couilly and St. Germain, Montry and Esbly were equally deserted. No smoke rose above the red roofs. Not a soul was on the roads. Even the railway station was closed, and the empty cars stood, locked, on the side- tracks. It was strangely silent.
I don't know how many people there are at Voisins. I hear that there is no one at Quincy. As for Huiry? Well, our population—everyone accounted for before the mobilization—was twenty-nine. The hamlet consists of only nine houses. Today we are six grown people and seven children.
There is no doctor if one should be so silly as to fall ill. There are no civil authorities to make out a death certificate if one had the bad taste to die—and one can't die informally in France. If anyone should, so far as I can see, he would have to walk to his grave, dig it, and lie down in it himself, and that would be a scandal, and I am positive it would lead to a proces. The French love lawsuits, you know. No respectable family is ever without one.
However, there has not been a case of illness in our little community since we were cut off from the rest of the world.
Somehow, at times, in the silence, I get a strange sensation of unreality—the sort of intense feeling of its all being a dream. I wish I didn't. I wonder if that is not Nature's narcotic for all experiences outside those we are to expect from Life, which, in its normal course, has tragedies enough.
Then again, sometimes, in the night, I have a sensation as if I were getting a special view of a really magnificent spectacle to which the rest of "my set" had not been invited—as if I were seeing it at a risk, but determined to see it through.
I can imagine you, wrinkling your brows at me and telling me that that frame of mind comes of my theatre-going habit. Well, it is not worth while arguing it out. I can't. There is a kind of veil over it.
Nor were the day's mental adventures over.
I was just back from my promenade when my little French friend from the foot of the hill came to the door. I call her "my little friend," though she is taller than I am, because she is only half my age. She came with the proposition that I should harness Ninette and go with her out to the battlefield, where, she said, they were sadly in need of help.
I asked her how she knew, and she replied that one of our old men had been across the river and brought back the news that the field ambulance at Neufmortier was short of nurses, and that it was thought that there were still many wounded men in the woods who had not yet been picked up.
I asked her if any official call for help had come. She said "No," but she presented so strong a case in favor of volunteering that, at first, it seemed to me that there was nothing to do but go, and go quickly.
But before she got outside the gate I rushed after her to tell her that it seemed impossible,—that I knew they didn't want an old lady like me, however willing, an old lady very unsteady on her feet, absolutely ignorant of the simplest rules of "first aid to the wounded," that they needed skilled and tried people, that we not only could not lend efficient aid, but should be a nuisance, even if, which I doubted, we were allowed to cross the Marne.
All the time I was explaining myself, with that diabolical dual consciousness which makes us spectator and listener to ourselves, in the back of my brain—or my soul—was running this query: "I wonder what a raw battlefield looks like? I have a chance to see if I want to— perhaps." I suppose that was an attack of involuntary, unpremeditated curiosity. I did not want to go.
I wonder if that was not the sort of thing which, if told in the confessional in ancient times, got one convicted of being "possessed of the devil"?
Of course Mlle. Henriette was terribly disappointed. Her mother would not let her go without me. I imagine the wise lady knew that I would not go. She tried to insist, but my mind was made up.
She argued that we could "hunt for the dead," and "carry consolation to the dying." I shook my head. I even had to cut the argument short by going into the house. I felt an imperative need to get the door closed between us. The habit I have—you know it well, it is often enough disconcerting to me—of getting an ill-timed comic picture in my mind, made me afraid that I was going to laugh at the wrong moment. If I had, I should never have been able to explain to her, and hope to be understood.
The truth was that I had a sudden, cinematographical vision of my chubby self—me, who cannot walk half a mile, nor bend over without getting palpitation—stumbling in my high-heeled shoes over the fields ploughed by cavalry and shell—breathlessly bent on carrying consolation to the dying. I knew that I should surely have to be picked up with the dead and dying, or, worse still, usurp a place in an ambulance, unless eternal justice—in spite of my age, my sex, and my white hairs—left me lying where I fell—and serve me good and right!
I know now that if the need and opportunity had come to my gate—as it might—I should, instinctively, have known what to do, and have done it. But for me to drive deliberately nine miles—we should have had to make a wide detour to cross the Marne on the pontoons— behind a donkey who travels two miles an hour, to seek such an experience, and with several hours to think it over en route, and the conviction that I would be an unwelcome intruder—that was another matter.
I am afraid Mlle. Henriette will never forgive me. She will soon be walking around in a hospital, looking so pretty in her nurse's dress and veil. But she will always think that she lost a great opportunity that day—and a picturesque one.
By the way, I have a new inmate in my house—a kitten. He was evidently lost during the emigration. Amelie says he is three months old. He arrived at her door crying with hunger the other morning. Amelie loves beasties better than humans. She took him in and fed him. But as she has six cats already, she seemed to think that it was my duty to take this one. She cloaked that idea in the statement that it was "good for me" to have "something alive" moving about me in the silent little house. So she put him in my lap. He settled himself down, went to sleep, and showed no inclination to leave me.
At the end of two hours he owned me—the very first cat I ever knew, except by sight.
So you may dismiss that idea which torments you—I am no longer alone.
I am going to send this letter at once to be dropped in the box in front of the post-office, where I am very much afraid it may find that of last week, for we have had no letters yet nor have I seen or heard anything of the promised automobile postale. However, once a stamped letter is out of my hand, I always feel at least as if it had started, though in all probability this may rest indefinitely in that box in the "deserted village."
September 25, 1914
IT is over a week since I wrote you. But I have really been very busy, and not had a moment.
To begin with, the very day after I wrote to you, Amelie came down with one of her sick headaches, and she has the most complete sort I ever met.
She crawled upstairs that morning to open my blinds. I gave one look at her, and ordered her back to bed. If there is anything that can make one look worse than a first-class bilious attack I have never met it. One can walk round and do things when one is suffering all sorts of pain, or when one is trembling in every nerve, or when one is dying of consumption, but I defy anyone to be useful when one has an active sick headache.
Amelie protested, of course; "the work must be done." I did not see why it had to be. She argued that I was the mistress, "had a right to be attended to—had a right to expect it." I did not see that either. I told her that her logic was false. She clinched it, as she thought, by declaring that I looked as if I needed to be taken care of.
I was indignant. I demanded the handglass, gave one look at myself, and I was inclined to let it slide off the bed to the floor, a la Camille, only Amelie would not have seen the joke. I did look old and seedy. But what of that? Of course Amelie does not know yet that I am like the "Deacon's One Hoss Shay"—I may look dilapidated, but so long as I do not absolutely drop apart, I can go.
So I told Amelie that if I were the mistress, I had a right to be obeyed, and that there were times when there was no question of mistress and maid, that this was one of those times, that she had been a trump and a brick, and other nice things, and that the one thing I needed was to work with my own hands. She finally yielded, but not to my arguments—to Nature.
Perhaps owing to the excitement of three weeks, perhaps to the fact that she had worked too hard in the sun, and also, it may be, owing to the long run she took, of which I wrote you in my letter of last week, it is the worst attack I ever saw. I can tell you I wished for a doctor, and she is even now only a little better.
However, I have had what we used to call "a real nice time playing house." Having nothing else to do, I really enjoyed it. I have swept and dusted, and handled all my little treasures, touching everything with a queer sensation—it had all become so very precious. All the time my thoughts flew back to the past. That is the prettiest thing about housework—one can think of such nice things when one is working with one's hands, and is alone. I don't wonder Burns wrote verses as he followed the plough—if he really did.
I think I forgot to tell you in my letter of last week that the people— drummed out of the towns on the other side of the Marne, that is to say, the near-by towns, like those in the plain, and on the hilltops from which the Germans were driven before the 10th—began to return on that night; less than a fortnight after they fled. It was unbelievable to me when I saw them coming back.
When they were drummed out, they took a roundabout route, to leave the main roads free for the army. They came back over the route nationale. They fled en masse. They are coming back slowly, in family groups. Day after day, and night after night the flocks of sheep, droves of cattle, carts with pigs in them, people in carts leading now and then a cow, families on foot, carrying cats in baskets, and leading dogs and goats and children, climb the long hill from Couilly, or thread the footpaths on the canal.
They fled in silence. I remember as remarkable that no one talked. I cannot say that they are coming back exactly gaily, but, at any rate, they have found their tongues. The slow procession has been passing for a fortnight now, and at almost any hour of the day, as I sit at my bedroom window, I can hear the distant murmur of their voices as they mount the hill.
I can't help thinking what some of them are going to find out there in the track of the battle. But it is a part of the strange result of war, borne in on me by my own frame of mind, that the very fact that they are going back to their own hearths seems to reconcile them to anything.
Of course these first people to return are mostly the poorer class, who did not go far. Their speedy return is a proof of the morale of the country, because they would surely not have been allowed to come back by the military authorities if the general conviction was not that the German advance had been definitely checked. Isn't it wonderful? I can't get over it.
Even before they began to return, the engineers were at work repairing the bridges as far as Chalons, and the day I wrote to you last week, when Amelie went down the hill to mail your letter, she brought back the news that the English engineers were sitting astride the telegraph poles, pipes in mouth, putting up the wires they cut down a fortnight ago. The next day our post-office opened, and then I got newspapers. I can tell you I devoured them. I read Joffre's order of the day. What puzzled me was that it was dated on the morning of September 6, yet we, with our own eyes, saw the battle begin at noon on the 5th,—a battle which only stopped at nine that night, to begin again at four the next morning. But I suppose history will sometime explain that.
Brief as the news was in the papers, it was exciting to know that the battle we had seen and heard was really a decisive fight, and that it was considered won by the English and French—in a rainstorm—as long ago as the 10th, and that the fighting to the east of us had been far more terrible than here.
I suppose long before this our myriads of "special telegraph" men have sent you over details and anecdotes such as we shall never see. We get a meagre "communique official" and have to be content with that. It is now and then hard for me, who have been accustomed to something different.
None of our shops is open yet. Indeed almost no one has returned to Couilly; and Meaux, they say, is still deserted. Yet I cannot honestly say that I have suffered for anything. I have an abundance of fruit. We have plenty of vegetables in Pere's garden. We have milk and eggs. Rabbits and chickens run about in the roads simply asking to be potted. There is no petrol, but I, luckily, had a stock of candles, and I love candlelight—it suits my house better than lamps. It is over a fortnight since we had sugar or butter or coffee. I have tea. I never would have supposed that I could have got along so well and not felt deprived. I suppose we always have too much—I've had the proof. Perhaps had there been anyone with me I should have felt it more. Being alone I did not give it a thought.
Sunday afternoon, the weather being still fine and the distant booming of the cannon making reading or writing impossible—I am not yet habituated to it—I went for a walk. I took the road down the hill in the direction of the Marne. It is a pretty walk—not a house all the way.
It leads along what is called the Pave du Roi, dropping down into the plain of the valley, through the woods, until the wheat fields are reached, and then rising from the plain, gently, to the high suspension bridge which crosses the canal, two minutes beyond which lies the river, here very broad and sluggish.
This part of the canal, which is perfectly straight from Conde to Meaux, is unusually pretty. The banks are steep, and "tall poplar trees" cast long shadows across grass-edged footpaths, above which the high bridge is swung. There is no bridge here across the Marne; the nearest in one direction is at the Iles-les-Villenoy, and in the other at Meaux. So, as the Germans could not have crossed the Marne here, the canal bridge was not destroyed, though it was mined. The barricades of loose stones which the English built three weeks ago, both at the bridgehead and at a bend in the road just before it is reached, where the road to Mareuil sur Marne turns off, were still there.
The road along the canal and through Mareuil is the one over which the German cavalry would have advanced had von Kluck's army succeeded in crossing the Marne at Meaux, and it was patrolled and guarded by the Yorkshire boys on September 2, and the Bedfords from the night of the 3d to the morning of the 5th.
The road from the canal to the river, separated here by only a few yards, leads through a wide avenue, across a private estate belonging to the proprietor of the plaster quarries at Mareuil, to a ferry, beside which was the lavoir. There is a sunken and terraced fruit garden below the road, and an extensive enclosure for fancy fowl.
The bank of the river showed me a sad sight. The wash-houses were sunk. They lay under water, with their chimneys sticking out. The little river piers and all the row-boats had been smashed and most of them sunk. A few of them, drawn up on the bank, were splintered into kindling wood. This work of destruction had been done, most effectively, by the English. They had not left a stick anywhere that could have served the invaders. It was an ugly sight, and the only consolation was to say, "If the Boches had passed, it would have been worse!" This was only ugly. That would have been tragic.
The next day I had my first real news from Meaux. A woman arrived at Amelie's, leading two dogs tied together with rope. She was a music teacher, living at Meaux, and had walked over thirty miles, and arrived exhausted. So they took her in for the night, and the next morning Pere harnessed Ninette and took her and her weary dogs to Meaux. It was over two hours each way for Ninette, but it was better than seeing an exhausted woman, almost as old as I am, finishing her pilgrimage on foot. She is the first person returning to Meaux that we have seen. Besides, I imagine Pere was glad of the excuse to go across the Marne.
When he came back we knew exactly what had happened at the cathedral city.
The picturesque mill bridges across the Marne have been partly saved. The ends of the bridges on the town side were blown up, and the mills were mined, to be destroyed on the German approach. Pere was told that an appeal was made to the English commanders to save the old landmarks if possible, and although at that time it seemed to no one at all likely that they could be saved, this precaution did save them. He tells me that blowing up the bridge- heads smashed all the windows, blew out all the doors, and damaged the walls more or less, but all that is reparable.
Do you remember the last time we were at Meaux, how we leaned on the stone wall on that beautiful Promenade des Trinitaires, and watched the waters of the Marne churned into froth by the huge wheels of the three lines of mills lying from bank to bank? I know you will be glad they are saved. It would have been a pity to destroy that beautiful view. I am afraid that we are in an epoch where we shall have to thank Fate for every fine thing and every well-loved view which survives this war between the Marne and the frontier, where the ground had been fought over in all the great wars of France since the days of Charlemagne.
It seems that more people stayed at Meaux than I supposed. Monsignor Morbeau stayed there, and they say about a thousand of the poor were hidden carefully in the cellars. It had fourteen thousand inhabitants. Only about five buildings were reached by bombs, and the damage is not even worth recording.
I am sure you must have seen the Bishop in the days when you lived in Paris, when he was cure at St. Honore d'Eylau in the Place Victor Hugo. At that time he was a popular priest—mondain, clever and eloquent. At Meaux he is a power. No figure is so familiar in the picturesque old streets, especially on market day, Saturday, as this tall, powerful-looking man in his soutane and barrette, with his air of authority, familiar yet dignified. He seems to know everyone by name, is all over the market, his keen eyes seeing everything, as influential in the everyday life of his diocese as he is in its spiritual affairs, a model of what a modern archbishop ought to be.
I hear he was on the battlefield from the beginning, and that the first ambulances to reach Meaux found the seminary full of wounded picked up under his direction and cared for as well as his resources permitted. He has written his name in the history of the old town under that of Bossuet—and in the records of such a town that is no small distinction.
The news which is slowly filtering back to us from the plains is another matter.
Some of the families in our commune have relatives residing in the little hamlets between Cregy and Monthyon, and have been out to help them re-install themselves. Very little in the way of details of the battle seems to be known. Trees and houses dumbly tell their own tales. The roads are terribly cut up, but road builders are already at work. Huge trees have been broken off like twigs, but even there men are at work, uprooting them and cutting the wood into lengths and piling it neatly along the roadside to be carted away. The dead are buried, and Paris automobiles are rapidly removing all traces of the battles and carrying out of sight such disfigurements as can be removed.
But the details we get regarding the brief German occupation are too disgusting for words. It is not the actual destruction of the battle—for Barcy alone of the towns in sight from here seems to be practically destroyed—which is the most painful, it is the devastation of the German occupation, with its deliberate and filthy defilement of the houses, which defies words, and will leave a blot for all time on the records of the race so vile-minded as to have achieved it. The deliberate ingenuity of the nastiness is its most debasing feature. At Penchard, where the Germans only stayed twenty-four hours, many people were obliged to make bonfires of the bedding and all sorts of other things as the only and quickest way to purge the town of danger in such hot weather.
I am told that Penchard is a fair example of what the Germans did in all these small towns which lay in the line of their hurried retreat.
It is not worth while for me to go into detail regarding such disgusting acts.
Your imagination, at its most active, cannot do any wrong to the race which in this war seems determined to offend where it cannot terrorize.
It is wonderfully characteristic of the French that they have accepted this feature of their disaster as they have accepted the rest—with courage, and that they have at once gone to work to remove all the German "hall-marks" as quickly as possible—and now have gone back to their fields in the same spirit.
It was not until yesterday that I unpacked my little hat-trunk and carefully put its contents back into place.
It has stood all these days under the stairs in the salon—hat, cape, and gloves on it, and shoes beside it, just as I packed it.
I had an odd sensation while I was emptying it. I don't know why I put it off so long. Perhaps I dreaded to find, locked in it, a too vivid recollection of the day I closed it. It may be that I was afraid that, with the perversity of inanimate things, it had the laugh on me.
I don't believe I put it off from fear of having to repack it, for, so far as I can know myself, I cannot find in my mind any signs, even, of a dread that what had happened once could happen again. But I don't know.
I wish I had more newsy things to write you. But nothing is happening here, you see.
October 2, 1914
Well, Amelie came back yesterday, and I can tell you it was a busy day. I assure you that I was glad to see her about the house again. I liked doing the work well enough,—for a little while. But I had quite all I wanted of it before the fortnight was over. I felt like "giving praise" when I saw her coming into the garden, looking just as good as new, and, my word for it, she made things hum yesterday.
The first thing she did, after the house was in order, and lunch out of the way, was to open up the cave in which she had stored her household treasures a month ago, and I passed a rare afternoon. I spent a good part of it getting behind something to conceal my silent laughter. If you had been here you would have enjoyed it—and her.
I knew something was as it should not be when I saw her pushing the little wheelbarrow on which were all my waste-baskets—I have needed them. But when I got them back, it about finished my attempts at sobriety. I told her to put them on the dining-room table and I would unpack them and put the contents in place. But before that was done, I had to listen to her "tale of woe."
She had hidden practically everything—clocks, bed and table linen, all her mattresses, except the ones she and Pere slept on, practically all their clothes, except what they had on their backs and one change. I had not given it much thought, though I do remember her saying, when the subterranean passage was sealed up: "Let the Boches come! They'll find mighty little in my house."
Well—the clocks are rusted. They are soaking in kerosene now, and I imagine it is little good that will do them. All her linen is damp and smelly, and much of it is mildewed. As for the blankets and flannels— ough!
I felt sympathetic, and tried to appear so. But I was in the condition of "L'homme qui rit." The smallest effort to express an emotion tended to make me grimace horribly. She was so funny. I was glad when she finished saying naughty words about herself, and declaring that "Madame was right not to upset her house," and that the next time the Boches thought of coming here they would be welcome to anything she had. "For," she ended, "I'll never get myself into this sort of a mess again, my word of honor!" And she marched out of the house, carrying the bottle of eau de Javelle with her. The whole hamlet smells of it this minute.
I had a small-sized fit of hysterics after she had gone, and it was not cured by opening up my waste-baskets and laying out the "treasures" she had saved for me. I laughed until I cried.
There were my bouillion cups, and no saucers. The saucers were piled in the buffet. There were half-a-dozen decorated plates which had stood on end in the buffet,—just as color notes—no value at all. There were bits of silver, and nearly all the plated stuff. There was an old painted fan, several strings of beads, a rosary which hung on a nail at the head of my bed, a few bits of jewelry—you know how little I care for jewelry,—and there were four brass candlesticks.
The only things I had missed at all were the plated things. I had not had teaspoons enough when the English were here—not that they cared. They were quite willing to stir their tea with each other's spoons, since there was plenty of tea,—and a "stick" went with it.
You cannot deny that it had its funny side.
I could not help asking myself, even while I wiped tears of laughter from my eyes, if most of the people I saw flying four weeks ago might not have found themselves in the same fix when it came to taking stock of what was saved and what was lost.
I remember so well being at Aix-les-Bains, in 1899, when the Hotel du Beau-Site was burned, and finding a woman in a wrapper sitting on a bench in the park in front of the burning hotel, with the lace waist of an evening frock in one hand, and a small bottle of alcohol in the other. She explained to me, with some emotion, that she had gone back, at the risk of her life, to get the bottle from her dressing-table, "for fear that it would explode!"
It did not take me half an hour to get my effects in order, but poor Amelie's disgust seems to increase with time. You can't deny that if I had been drummed out and came back to find my house a ruin, my books and pictures destroyed, and only those worthless bits of china and plated ware to "start housekeeping again," it would have been humorous. Real humor is only exaggeration. That would surely have been a colossal exaggeration.
It is not the first time I have had to ask myself, seriously, "Why this mania for possession?" The ferryman on the Styx is as likely to take it across as our railroad is to "handle" it today. Yet nothing seems able to break a person born with that mania for collecting.
I stood looking round at it all when everything was in place, and I realized that if the disaster had come, I should have found it easy to reconcile myself to it in an epoch where millions were facing it with me. It is the law of Nature. Material things, like the friends we have lost, may be eternally regretted. They cannot be eternally grieved for. We must "—be up and doing, With a heart for any fate."
All the same, it was a queer twist in the order of my life, that, hunting in all directions for a quiet retreat in which to rest my weary spirit, I should have ended by deliberately sitting myself down on the edge of a battlefield,—even though it was on the safe edge,—and stranger still, that there I forgot that my spirit was weary.
We are beginning to pick up all sorts of odd little tales of the adventures of some of the people who had remained at Voisin. One old man there, a mason, who had worked on my house, had a very queer experience. Like all the rest of them, he went on working in the fields all through the menacing days. I can't make out whether he had no realization of actual danger, or whether that was his way of meeting it. Anyway, he disappeared on the morning the battle began, September 5, and did not return for several days. His old wife had made up her mind that the Germans had got him, when one morning he turned up, tired, pale, and hungry, and not in any state to explain his absence.
It was some days before his wife could get the story out of him. He owns a field about halfway between Voisins and Mareuil, close to the route de Pave du Roi, and on the morning that the battle began he was digging potatoes there. Suddenly he saw a small group of horsemen riding down from the canal, and by their spiked helmets he knew them for Germans.
His first idea, naturally, was to escape. He dropped his hoe, but he was too paralyzed with fear to run, and there was nothing to hide behind. So he began walking across the field as well as his trembling old legs would let him, with his hands in his pockets.
Of course the Uhlans overtook him in a few minutes, and called out to him, in French, to stop. He stopped at once, expecting to be shot instantly.
They ordered him to come out into the road. He managed to obey. By the time he got there terror had made him quite speechless.
They began to question him. To all their questions he merely shook his head. He understood well enough, but his tongue refused its office, and by the time he could speak the idea had come to him to pretend that he was not French—that he was a refugee—that he did not know the country,—was lost,—in fact, that he did not know anything. He managed to carry it off, and finally they gave him up as a bad job, and rode away up the hill towards my house.
Then he had a new panic. He did not dare go home. He was afraid he would find them in the village, and that they would find out he had lied and harm his old wife, or perhaps destroy the town. So he had hidden down by the canal until hunger drove him home. It is a simple tale, but it was a rude experience for the old man, who has not got over it yet.
I am afraid all this seems trivial to you, coming out of the midst of this terrible war. But it is actually our life here. We listen to the cannon in ignorance of what is happening. Where would be the sense of my writing you that the battle-front has settled down to uncomfortable trench work on the Aisne; that Manoury is holding the line in front of us from Compiegne to Soissons, with Castelnau to the north of him, with his left wing resting on the Somme; that Maud'huy was behind Albert; and that Rheims cathedral had been persistently and brutally shelled since September 18? We only get news of that sort intermittently. Our railroad is in the hands of the Minister of War, and every day or two our communications are cut off, from military necessity. You know, I am sure, more about all this than we do, with your cable men filling the newspapers.
But if I am seeing none of that, I am seeing the spirit of these people, so sure of success in the end, and so convinced that, even if it takes the whole world to do it, they will yet see the Hohenzollern dynasty go up in the smoke of the conflagration it has lighted.
Of course, the vicious destruction of the great cathedral sends shivers down my back. Every time I hear the big guns in that direction I think of the last time we were there. Do you remember how we sat, in the twilight of a rainy day, in our top-floor room, at the Lion d'Or, in the wide window-seat, which brought us just at a level with that dear tympanum, with its primitive stone carving of David and Goliath, and all those wonderful animals sitting up so bravely on the lacework of the parapet? Such a wave of pity goes over me when I think that not only is it destroyed, but that future generations are deprived of seeing it; that one of the greatest achievements of the hands of man, a work which has withstood so many wars in what we called "savage times," before any claims were made for "Kultur," should have been destroyed in our days. Men have come and men have gone (apologies to Tennyson)—it is the law of living. But the wilful, unnecessary destruction of the great works of man, the testimony which one age has left as a heritage to all time—for that loss neither Man nor Time has any consolation. It is a theft from future ages, and for it Germany will merit the hatred of the world through the coming generations.
October 10, 1914
Amelie and I went up to Paris day before yesterday, for the first time since the battle,—you see everything here dates "before" and "after" the battle, and will for a long time.
Trains had been running between Paris and Meaux for ten days, and will soon go as far as Chalons, where the Etat-Major was the last time we heard of it. Isn't that pretty quick work? And with three big bridges to build? But the army needed the road, and the engineers were at work five days after the battle.
There are but few trains—none yet on our branch road—so we had to go to Esbly. It took two hours to get to Paris—hardly more than twelve miles. We simply crawled most of the way. We crept through the tunnel this side of Lagny, and then stood on this side of the Marne, and whistled and shrieked a long time before we began to wiggle across the unfinished bridge, with workmen hanging up on the derricks and scaffoldings in all sorts of perilous positions, and all sorts of grotesque attitudes. I was glad when we were over.
I found the town more normal than it was when I was there six weeks ago. If I had not seen it in those first days of the mobilization it would have seemed sadder than it did, and, by contrast, while it was not the Paris that you know, it was quiet and peaceful,—no excitement of any sort in the streets, practically no men anywhere. All the department shops were open, but few people were in them, and very little to sell. Many of the small shops were closed, and will be, I imagine, until the end of the war. All the Austrian and German shops, and there were many of them, are, of course, closed for good, making wide spaces of closed shutters in the Avenue de l'Opera and the rue de la Paix, and the rue Scribe, where so many of the steamship offices are. That, and the lack of omnibuses and tramways and the scarcity of cabs, makes the once brilliant and active quarter look quite unnatural. However, it gives one a chance to see how really handsome it is.
A great many of the most fashionable hotels are turned to hospitals, and everywhere, especially along the Champs-Elysees, the flags of the Red Cross float over once gay resorts, while big white bunting signs extend across almost every other facade, carrying the name and number of a hospital.
Every sort of business is running short-handed, and no big office or bank is open between the hours of noon and two o'clock.
I saw no one—there was no one to see. I finished the little business I had to do and then I went back to the station and sat on the terrace of the cafe opposite, and, for an hour, I watched the soldiers going in at one gate, and the public—Indian file—presenting its papers at another. No carriages can enter the courtyard. No one can carry anything but hand luggage, and porters are not allowed to pass the gates, so one had to carry one's bundles one's self across the wide, paved court. However, it is less trying to do this than it was in other days, as one runs no risk from flying motor-cabs.
We did not leave Paris until six—it was already dark—and there were few lights along the road. The Germans would love to destroy this road, which is on the direct line to the front, but I cannot imagine a bomb from an aeroplane reaching it at night, except by accident.
By the way, the attitude of the public towards these war airships is queer. It seems a great deal more curiosity than fear. I had heard this stated, and I had a chance to see it exemplified. Just as Amelie and I were stumbling in the dusk over the rough pavement of the court, we heard an aeroplane overhead. Everyone stopped short and looked up. Some fool called "Une Taube—une Taube!" People already inside the station turned and ran back to see. Of course, it wasn't a Taube. Still, the fact that someone said it was, and that everyone ran out to look up at it, was significant, as I am sure they would have done just the same if it had really been a German machine.
We came back even more slowly than we had gone up. It took ten minutes by my watch to cross the bridge at Chalifere. We jigged a bit and stopped; staggered a bit, and trembled, and stopped; crawled a bit, and whistled. I had a feeling that if anyone disobeyed the order pasted on every window, and leaned out, we should topple over into the stream. Still, no one seemed to mind. With the curtains drawn, everyone tried to read, by the dim light, a newspaper. It is remarkable how even ordinary people face danger if a panic can be prevented. The really great person is the one who even in a panic does not lose his head, and the next best thing to not being feazed at danger is, I believe, to be literally paralyzed. Total immobility often passes for pluck.
It was nearly half past eight when we reached Esbly; the town was absolutely dark. Pere was there with the donkey cart, and it took nearly an hour and a half to climb the hill to Huiry. It was pitch dark, and oh, so cold! Both Conde and Voisins, as well as Esbly, had street lamps—gas—before the war, but it was cut off when mobilization began, and so the road was black. This ordinary voyage seemed like journeying in a wilderness, and I was as tired as if I had been to London, which I take to be the hardest trip for the time it consumes that I know. I used to go to London in seven hours, and this trip to Paris and back had taken four hours and a half by train and three by carriage.
I found your letter dated September 25—in reply to my first one mailed after the battle. I am shocked to hear that I was spectacular. I did not mean to be. I apologize. Please imagine me very red in the face and feeling a little bit silly. I should not mind your looking on me as a heroine and all those other names you throw at me if I had had time to flee along the roads with all I could save of my home on my back, as I saw thousands doing.
But I cannot pick up your bouquets, considering that all I had to do was "sit tight" for a few days, and watch—at a safe distance—a battle sweep back. All you must say about that is "she did have luck." That's what I say every day.
As our railway communication is to be cut again, I am hurrying this off, not knowing when I can send another. But as you see, I have no news to write—just words to remind you of me, and say that all is well with me in this world where it is so ill for many.
November 7, 1914
IT was not until I got out my letter-book this morning that I realized that I had let three weeks go by without writing to you. I have no excuse to offer, unless the suspense of the war may pass as one.
We have settled down to a long war, and though we have settled down with hope, I can tell you every day demands its courage.
The fall of Antwerp was accepted as inevitable, but it gave us all a sad day. It was no use to write you things of that sort. You, I presume, do not need to be told, although you are so far away, that for me, personally, it could only increase the grief I felt that Washington had not made the protest I expected when the Belgian frontier was crossed. It would have been only a moral effort, but it would have been a blow between the eyes for the nervous Germans.
All the words we get from the front tell us that the boys are standing the winter in the trenches very well. They've simply got to—that is all there is to that.
Amelie is more astonished than I am. When she first realized that they had got to stay out there in the rain and the mud and the cold, she just gasped out that they never would stand it.
I asked her what they would do then—lie down and let the Germans ride over them? Her only reply was that they would all die. It is hard for her to realize yet the resistance of her own race.
I am realizing in several ways, in a small sense, what the men are enduring. I take my bit of daily exercise walking round my garden. I always have to carry a trowel in my sweater pocket, and I stop every ten steps to dig the cakes of mud off my sabots. I take up a good bit of my landed property at every step. So I can guess, at least, what it must be out in the trenches. This highly cultivated, well-fertilized French soil has its inconveniences in a country where the ground rarely freezes as it does in New England.
Also I am very cold.
When I came out here I found that the coal dealer was willing to deliver coal to me once a week. I had a long, covered box along the wall of the kitchen which held an ample supply of coal for the week. The system had two advantages—it enabled me to do my trading in the commune, which I liked, and it relieved Amelie from having to carry heavy hods of coal in all weathers from the grange outside. But, alas, the railroad communications being cut—no coal! I had big wood enough to take me through the first weeks, and have some still, but it will hardly last me to Christmas—nor does the open fire heat the house as the salamandre did. But it is wartime, and I must not complain—yet.
You accuse me in your last letter of being flippant in what seems to you tragic circumstances. I am sorry that I make that impression on you. I am not a bit flippant. I can only advise you to come over here, and live a little in this atmosphere, and see how you would feel. I am afraid that no amount of imagining what one will or will not do prepares one to know what one will really do face to face with such actualities as I live amongst. I must confess that had I had anyone dear to me here, anyone for whose safety or moral courage I was—or imagined I was—responsible (for, after all, we are responsible for no one), my frame of mind and perhaps my acts might have been different. I don't know. Why, none of the men that I see have the air of feeling they are heroes—they just seem to think of it all as if it were merely "in the day's work."
For example, do you remember that handsome younger brother of my sculptor friend—the English boy who was in the heavy artillery, and had been in China and North Nigeria with Sir Frederick Ludgard as an aide-de-camp, and finally as assistant governor general? Well, he was with the first division of the British Expedition which landed in France in the middle of August. He made all that long, hard retreat from Belgium to the Marne, and was in the terrible Battle of the Rivers. I am enclosing a letter I have just received from him, because I think it very characteristic. Besides, if you remember him, I am sure that it will interest you. I don't know where it is from—they are not allowed to tell. It came, as army letters do, without any stamp—the carriage is free—with the round red stamp of the censor, a crown in the middle, and the words "Passed by the Censor," and the number printed around it. Here it is:
My dearest M-
October 30, 1914
Last night I heard your account of your experiences between September 1 and 9, and it made me boil anew with disappointment that my attempts to reach Huiry on September 4 were frustrated. I was disappointed enough at the time, but then my regret was tempered by the thought that you were probably safe in Paris, and I should only find an empty house at La Creste. Now that I know that I should have found you—you!!!—it makes me wild, even after this interval of time, to have missed a sight of you. Now let me tell you how it came about that you nearly received a visit from me.
I left England August 17, with the 48th Heavy Battery (3d division). We landed at Rouen, and went by train, via Amiens, to Houtmont, a few kilometres west of Mauberge. There we detrained one morning at two o'clock, marched through Malplaquet into Belgium, and came in contact with the enemy at once.
The story of the English retreat must be familiar to you by now. It was a wonderful experience. I am glad to have gone through it, though I am not anxious to undergo such a time again. We crossed the Marne at Meaux, on September 3, marching due east to Signy-Signets. Funnily enough it was not until I had actually crossed the Marne that I suddenly realized that I was in your vicinity. Our route, unfortunately, led right away from you, and I could not ask to get away while we were actually on the march, and possibly going many miles in another direction. The following day, however—the 4th—we retraced our steps somewhat, and halted to bivouac a short distance west of a village named La Haute Maison—roughly about six miles from you. I immediately asked permission to ride over to Huiry. The Major, with much regret, declined to let me leave, and, since we received orders to march again an hour later, he was right. We marched all that night. I have marked out our road with arrows on the little map enclosed. We reached a place called Fontenay about 8.30 the next morning, by which time I was twenty miles from you, and not in a condition to want anything but sleep and food. That was our farthest point south. But, sad to say, in our advance we went by a road farther east, and quite out of reach of you, and crossed the Marne at a place called Nanteuil. I got your first letter about one day's march south of Mons.
Best love, dearest M———. Write again.
Isn't that a calm way to state such a trying experience as that retreat? It is only a sample of a soldier's letter.
If he were disappointed you can imagine that I was. Luckily I had seen him in June, when he was here on a visit, having just returned from North Nigeria, after five years in the civil service, to take up his grade in the army, little dreaming there was to be a war at once.
If he had come that afternoon imagine what I should have felt to see him ride down by the picket at the gate. He would have found me pouring tea for Captain Edwards of the Bedfords. It would have surely added a touch of reality to the battle of the next days. Of course I knew he was somewhere out there, but to have seen him actually riding away to it would have been different. Yet it might not, for I am sure his conversation would have been as calm as his letters, and they read as much as if he were taking an exciting pleasure trip, with interesting risks thrown in, as anything else. That is so English. On some future day I suppose we shall sit together on the lawn—he will probably lie on it—and swap wonderful stories, for I am going to be one of the veterans of this war.
I must own that when I read the letter I found it suggestive of the days that are gone. Imagine marching through Malplaquet and over all that West Flanders country with its memories of Marlborough, and where, had the Dutch left the Duke a free hand, he would have marched on Paris—with other Allies—as he did on Lille. I must own that history, with its records of bitter enemies yesterday, bosom friends today, does not inspire one with much hope of seeing the dreamer's vision of universal peace realized.
Still, I must confess that the attitude of French and English to one another today is almost thrilling. The English Tommy Atkins and the French poilu are delightful together. For that matter, the French peasants love the English. They never saw any before, and their admiration and devotion to "Tommee," as they call him, is unbounded. They think him so "chic," and he is.
No one—not even I, who so love them—could ever accuse the "piou- piou" of being chic.
The French conscript in his misfits has too long been the object of affectionate sarcasm and the subject of caricature to be unfamiliar to the smiles of the whole world.
You see the army outfits are made in three sizes only. So far as my observation goes none of the three measurements fits anyone today, and as for the man who is a real "between"—well, he is in a sad box. But what of that? He doesn't seem to care. He is so occupied today fighting, just as he did in the days of the great Napoleon, that no one cares a rap how he looks—and surely he does not.
You might think he would be a bit self-conscious regarding his appearance when he comes in contact with his smarter looking Ally. Not a bit of it. The poilu just admires Tommy and is proud of him. I do wish you could see them together. The poilu would hug Tommy and plant a kiss on each of his cheeks—if he dared. But, needless to say, that is the last sort of thing Tommy wants. So, faute de mieux the poilu walks as close to Tommy as he can—when he gets a chance— and the undemonstrative, sure-of-himself Tommy permits it without a smile—which is doing well. Still, in his own way Tommy admires back— it is mutual.
The Englishman may learn to unbend—I don't know. The spirit which has carried him all over the world, rubbed him against all sorts of conditions and so many civilizations without changing his character, and made of him the one race immune to home-sickness, has persisted for centuries, and may be so bred in the bone, fibre, and soul of the race as to persist forever. It may have made his legs and his spine so straight that he can't unbend. He has his own kind of fun, but it's mostly of the sporting sort. He will, I imagine, hardly contract the Frenchman's sort, which is so largely on his lips, and in his mentality, and has given the race the most mobile faces in the world.
I am enclosing a copy of the little map Captain S———sent me. It may give you an idea of the route the English were moving on during the battle, and the long forced march they made after the fighting of the two weeks ending August 30.
I imagine they were all too tired to note how beautiful the country was. It was lovely weather, and coming down the route from Haute Maison, by La Chapelle, to the old moated town of Crecy-en-Brie at sunset, must have been beautiful; and then climbing by Voulangis to the Forest of Crecy on the way to Fontenay by moonlight even more lovely, with the panorama of Villiers and the valley of the Morin seen through the trees of the winding road, with Montbarbin standing, outlined in white light, on the top of a hill, like a fairy town. Tired as they were, I do hope there were some among them who could still look with a dreamer's eyes on these pictures.
Actually the only work I have done of late has been to dig a little in the garden, preparing for winter. I did not take my geraniums up until last week. As for the dahlias I wrote you about, they became almost a scandal in the commune. They grew and grew, like Jack's beanstalk— prodigiously. I can't think of any other word to express it. They were eight feet high and full of flowers, which we cut for the Jour des Morts. I know you won't believe that, but it is true. A few days later there came a wind-storm, and when it was over, in spite of the heavy poles I put in to hold them up, they were laid as flat as though the German cavalry had passed over them. I was heart-broken, but Pere only shrugged his shoulders and remarked: "If one will live on the top of a hill facing the north what can one expect?" And I had no reply to make. Fortunately the wind can't blow my panorama away, though at present I don't often look out at it. I content myself by playing in the garden on the south side, and, if I go out at all, it is to walk through the orchards and look over the valley of the Morin, towards the south.
My, but I'm cold—too cold to tell you about. The ends of my fingers hurt the keys of my machine.
November 28, 1914
I am sorry that, as you say in your letter of October 16, just received, you are disappointed that I "do not write you more about the war." Dear child, I am not seeing any of it. We are settled down here to a life that is nearly normal—much more normal than I dreamed could be possible forty miles from the front. We are still in the zone of military operations, and probably shall be until spring, at least. Our communications with the outside world are frequently cut. We get our mail with great irregularity. Even our local mail goes to Meaux, and is held there five days, as the simplest way of exercising the censorship. It takes nearly ten days to get an answer to a letter to Paris.
All that I see which actually reminds me of the war—now that we are used to the absence of the men—I see on the route nationale, when I drive down to Couilly. Across the fields it is a short and pretty walk. Amelie makes it in twenty minutes. I could, if it were not for climbing that terrible hill to get back.
Besides, the mud is inches deep. I have a queer little four-wheeled cart, covered, if I want to unroll the curtains. I call it my perambulator, and really, with Ninette hitched in, I am like an overgrown baby in its baby carriage, and any nurse I ever knew would push a perambulator faster than that donkey drags mine. Yet it just suits my mood. I sit comfortably in it, and travel slowly—time being non-existent—so slowly that I can watch the wheat sprout, and gaze at the birds and the view and the clouds. I do hold on to the reins—just for looks—though I have no need to, and I doubt if Ninette suspects me of doing anything so foolish. On the road I always meet officers riding along, military cars flying along, army couriers spluttering along on motor-cycles, heavy motor transports groaning up hill, or thundering down, and now and then a long train of motor-ambulances. Almost any morning, at nine, I can see the long line of camions carrying the revitaillement towards the front, and the other afternoon, as I was driving up the hill, I met a train of ambulances coming down. The big grey things slid, one after another, around the curve of the Demi-Lune, and simply flew by me, raising such a cloud of dust that after I had counted thirty, I found I could not see them, and the continual tooting of the horns began to make Ninette nervous—she had never seen anything like that before— so, for fear she might do some trick she never had done in her life, like shying, and also for fear that the drivers, who were rushing by exactly in the middle of the road, might not see me in the dust, or a car might skid, I slid out, and led my equipage the rest of the way. I do assure you these are actually all the war signs we see, though, of course, we still hear the cannon.
But, though we don't see it, we feel it in many ways. My neighbors feel it more than I do! For one example—the fruit crop this year has been an absolute loss. Luckily the cassis got away before the war was declared, but we hear it was a loss to the buyers, and it was held in the Channel ports, necessarily, and was spoiled. But apples and pears had no market. In ordinary years purchasers come to buy the trees, and send their own pickers and packers, and what was not sold in that way went to the big Saturday market at Meaux. This year there is no market at Meaux. The town is still partly empty, and the railroad cannot carry produce now. This is a tragic loss to the small cultivator, though, as yet, he is not suffering, and he usually puts all such winnings into his stocking.
We still have no coal to speak of. I am burning wood in the salon— and green wood at that. The big blaze—when I can get it—suits my house better than the salamandre did. But I cannot get a temperature above 42 Fahrenheit. I am used to sixty, and I remember you used to find that too low in Paris. I blister my face, and freeze my back, just as we used to in the old days of glorious October at the farm in New Sharon, where my mother was born, and where I spent my summers and part of the autumn in my school-days.
You might think it would be easy to get wood. It is not. The army takes a lot of it, and those who, in ordinary winters, have wood to sell, have to keep it for themselves this year. Pere has cut down all the old trees he could find—old prune trees, old apple trees, old chestnut trees—and it is not the best of firewood. I hated to see even that done, but he claimed that he wanted to clear a couple of pieces of land, and I try to believe him. Did you ever burn green wood? If you have, enough said!
Unluckily—since you expect me to write often—I am a creature of habit.
I never could write as you can, with a pad on my knees, huddled over the fire. I suppose that I could have acquired the habit if I had begun my education at the Sorbonne, instead of polishing off there. I remember when I first began to haunt that university, eighteen years ago, how amazed I was to see the students huddled into a small space with overcoats and hats on their knees, a note-book on top of them, an ink-pot in one hand and a pen in the other, and, in spite of obstacles, absorbed in the lecture. I used to wonder if they had ever heard of "stylos," even while I understood, as I never had done before, the real love of learning that marks the race. Alas! I have to be halfway comfortable before I can half accomplish anything.
I am thankful to say that the temperature has been moderating a little, and life about me has been active. One day it was the big threshing- machine, and the work was largely done by women, and the air was full of throbbing and dust. Yesterday it was the cider-press, and I stood about, at Amelie's, in the sun, half the afternoon, watching the motor hash the apples, and the press squeeze out the yellow juice, which rushed foaming into big vats. Did you ever drink cider like that?
It is the only way I like it. It carried me back to my girlhood and the summers in the Sandy River valley. I don't know why it is, of late, that my mind turns so often back to those days, and with such affection. Perhaps it is only because I find myself once more living in the country. It may be true that life is a circle, and as one approaches the end the beginning becomes visible, and associated with both the beginning and end of mine there is a war. However it is to be explained, there remains the fact that my middle distances are getting wiped out.
In these still nights, when I cannot sleep, I think more often than of anything else of the road running down the hill by the farm at New Sharon, and of the sounds of the horses and wagons as they came down and crossed the wooden bridge over the brook, and of the voices—so strange in the night—as they passed. There were more night sounds in those memories than I ever hear here—more crickets, more turnings over of Nature, asleep or awake. I rarely hear many night sounds here. From sundown, when people go clattering by in their wooden shoes from the fields, to daylight, when the birds awake, all is silence. I looked out into the moonlight before I closed my shutters last night. I might have been alone in the world. Yet I like it.
The country is lovely here in winter—so different from what I remember of it at home. My lawn is still green, so is the corbeille d'argent in the garden border, which is still full of silvery bunches of bloom, and will be all winter. The violets are still in bloom. Even the trees here never get black as they do in New England, for the trunks and branches are always covered with green moss. That is the dampness. Of course, we never have the dry invigorating cold that makes a New England winter so wonderful. I don't say that one is more beautiful than the other, only that each is different in its charm. After all, Life, wherever one sees it, is, if one has eyes, a wonderful pageant, the greatest spectacular melodrama I can imagine. I'm glad to have seen it. I have not always had an orchestra stall, but what of that? One ought to see things at several angles and from several elevations, you know.
December 5, 1914
We have been having some beautiful weather.
Yesterday Amelie and I took advantage of it to make a pilgrimage across the Marne, to decorate the graves on the battlefield at Chambry. Crowds went out on All Soul's Day, but I never like doing anything, even making a pilgrimage, in a crowd.
You can realize how near it is, and what an easy trip it will be in normal times, when I tell you that we left Esbly for Meaux at half past one—only ten minutes by train—and were back in the station at Meaux at quarter to four, and had visited Monthyon, Villeroy, Neufmontier, Penchard, Chauconin, Barcy, Chambry, and Vareddes.
The authorities are not very anxious to have people go out there. Yet nothing to prevent is really done. It only takes a little diplomacy. If I had gone to ask for a passport, nine chances out of ten it would have been refused me. I happened to know that the wife of the big livery- stable man at Meaux, an energetic—and, incidentally, a handsome— woman, who took over the business when her husband joined his regiment, had a couple of automobiles, and would furnish me with all the necessary papers. They are not taxi-cabs, but handsome touring- cars. Her chauffeur carries the proper papers. It seemed to me a very loose arrangement, from a military point of view, even although I was assured that she did not send out anyone she did not know. However, I decided to take advantage of it.
While we were waiting at the garage for the car to be got out, and the chauffeur to change his coat, I had a chance to talk with a man who had not left Meaux during the battle, and I learned that there were several important families who had remained with the Archbishop and aided him to organize matters for saving the city, if possible, and protect the property of those who had fled, and that the measures which those sixty citizens, with Archbishop Marbeau at their head, took for the safety of the poor, the care for the wounded and dead, is already one of the proudest documents in the annals of the historic town.
But never mind all these things, which the guides will recite for you, I imagine, when you come over to make the grand tour of Fighting France, for on these plains about Meaux you will have to start your pilgrimage.
I confess that my heart beat a little too rapidly when, as we ran out of Meaux, and took the route departmentale of Senlis, a soldier stepped to the middle of the road and held up his gun—baionette au canon.
Were we after all going to be turned back? I had the guilty knowledge that there was no reason why we should not be. I tried to look magnificently unconcerned as I leaned forward to smile at the soldier. I might have spared myself the effort. He never even glanced inside the car. The examination of the papers was the most cursory thing imaginable—a mere formality. The chauffeur simply held his stamped paper towards the guard. The guard merely glanced at it, lifted his gun, motioned us to proceed—and we proceeded.
It may amuse you to know that we never even showed the paper again. We did meet two gendarmes on bicycles, but they nodded and passed us without stopping.
The air was soft, like an early autumn day, rather than December as you know it. There was a haze in the air, but behind it the sun shone. You know what that French haze is, and what it does to the world, and how, through it, one gets the sort of landscape painters love. With how many of our pilgrimages together it is associated! We have looked through it at the walls of Provins, when the lindens were rosy with the first rising of the sap; we have looked through it at the circular panorama from the top of the ruined tower of Montlhery; we have looked through it across Jean Jacques Rousseau's country, from the lofty terrace of Montmorency, and from the platform in front of the prison of Philippe Auguste's unhappy Danish wife, at Etampes, across the valley of the Juine; and from how many other beautiful spots, not to forget the view up the Seine from the terrace of the Tuileries.
Sometime, I hope, we shall see these plains of the Marne together. When we do, I trust it will be on just such another atmospheric day as yesterday.
As our road wound up the hill over the big paving-stones characteristic of the environs of all the old towns of France, everything looked so peaceful, so pretty, so normal, that it was hard to realize that we were moving towards the front, and were only about three miles from the point where the German invasion was turned back almost three months ago to a day, and it was the more difficult to realize as we have not heard the cannon for days.
A little way out of Meaux, we took a road to the west for Chauconin, the nearest place to us which was bombarded, and from a point in the road I looked back across the valley of the Marne, and I saw a very pretty white town, with red roofs, lying on the hillside. I asked the chauffeur:
"What village is that over there?"
He glanced around and replied: "Quincy."
It was my town. I ought not to have been surprised. Of course I knew that if I could see Chauconin so clearly from my garden, why, Chauconin could see me. Only, I had not thought of it.
Amelie and I looked back with great interest. It did look so pretty, and it is not pretty at all—the least pretty village on this side of the hill. "Distance" does, indeed, "lend enchantment." When you come to see me I shall show you Quincy from the other side of the Marne, and never take you into its streets. Then you'll always remember it as a fairy town.
It was not until we were entering into Chauconin that we saw the first signs of war. The approach through the fields, already ploughed, and planted with winter grain, looked the very last thing to be associated with war. Once inside the little village—we always speak of it as "le petit Chauconin "—we found destruction enough. One whole street of houses was literally gutted. The walls stand, but the roofs are off and doors and windows gone, while the shells seem burned out. The destruction of the big farms seems to have been pretty complete. There they stood, long walls of rubble and plaster, breeched; ends of farm buildings gone; and many only a heap of rubbish. The surprising thing to me was to see here a house destroyed, and, almost beside it, one not even touched. That seemed to prove that the struggle here was not a long one, and that a comparatively small number of shells had reached it.
Neufmortier was in about the same condition. It was a sad sight, but not at all ugly. Ruins seem to "go" with the French atmosphere and background. It all looked quite natural, and I had to make an effort to shake myself into a becoming frame of mind. If you had been with me I should have asked you to pinch me, and remind me that "all this is not yet ancient history," and that a little sentimentality would have become me. But Amelie would never have understood me.
It was not until we were driving east again to approach Penchard that a full realization of it came to me. Penchard crowns the hill just in the centre of the line which I see from the garden. It was one of the towns bombarded on the evening of September 5, and, so far as I can guess, the destruction was done by the French guns which drove the Germans out that night.
They say the Germans slept there the night of September 4, and were driven out the next day by the French soixante-quinze, which trotted through Chauconin into Penchard by the road we had just come over.
I enclose you a carte postale of a battery passing behind the apse of the village church, just as a guarantee of good faith.
But all signs of the horrors of those days have been obliterated. Penchard is the town in which the Germans exercised their taste for wilful nastiness, of which I wrote you weeks ago. It is a pretty little village, beautifully situated, commanding the slopes to the Marne on one side, and the wide plains of Barcy and Chambry on the other. It is prosperous looking, the home of sturdy farmers and the small rentiers. It has an air of humble thrift, with now and then a pretty garden, and here and there suggestions of a certain degree of greater prosperity, an air which, in France, often conceals unexpected wealth.
You need not look the places up unless you have a big map. No guide-book ever honored them.
From Penchard we ran a little out to the west at the foot of the hill, on top of which stand the white walls of Montyon, from which, on September 5, we had seen the first smoke of battle.
I am sure that I wrote some weeks ago how puzzled I was when I read Joffre's famous ordre du jour, at the beginning of the Marne offensive, to find that it was dated September 6, whereas we had seen the battle begin on the 5th. Here I found what I presume to be the explanation, which proves that the offensive along the rest of the line on the 6th had been a continuation simply of what we saw that Saturday afternoon.
At the foot of the hill crowned by the walls of Montyon lies Villeroy— today the objective point for patriotic pilgrimages. There, on the 5th of September, the 276th Regiment was preparing its soup for lunch, when, suddenly, from the trees on the heights, German shells fell amongst them, and food was forgotten, while the French at St. Soupplet on the other side of the hill, as well as those at Villeroy, suddenly found themselves in the thick of a fight—the battle we saw.
They told me at Villeroy that many of the men in the regiments engaged were from this region, and here the civilians dropped their work in the fields and snatched up guns which the dead or wounded soldiers let fall and entered the fight beside their uniformed neighbors. I give you that picturesque and likely detail for what it is worth.
At the foot of the hill between Montyon and Villeroy lies the tomb in which two hundred of the men who fell here are buried together. Among them is Charles Peguy, the poet, who wore a lieutenant's stripes, and was referred to by his companions on that day as "un glorieux fou dans sa bravoure." This long tomb, with its crosses and flags and flowers, was the scene on All Soul's Day of the commemorative ceremony in honor of the victory, and marks not only the beginning of the battle, but the beginning of its triumph.
From this point we drove back to the east, almost along the line of battle, to the hillside hamlet of Barcy, the saddest scene of desolation on this end of the great fight.
It was a humble little village, grouped around a dear old church, with a graceful square tower supporting a spire. The little church faced a small square, from which the principal street runs down the hill to the open country across which the French "push" advanced. No house on this street escaped. Some of them are absolutely destroyed. The church is a mere shell. Its tower is pierced with huge holes. Its bell lies, a wreck, on the floor beneath its tower. The roof has fallen in, a heaped-up mass of debris in the nave beneath. Its windows are gone, and there are gaping wounds in its side walls. Oddly enough, the Chemin de la Croix is intact, and some of the peasants look on that as a miracle, in spite of the fact that the High Altar is buried under a mass of tiles and plaster.
The doors being gone, one could look in, over the temporary barrier, to the wreck inside, and by putting a donation into the contribution box for the restauration fund it was possible to enter—at one's own risk—by a side door. It was hardly worth while, as one could see no more than was visible from the doorways, and it looked as if at any minute the whole edifice would crumble. However, Amelie wanted to go inside, and so we did.
We entered through the mairie, which is at one side, into a small courtyard, where the school children were playing under the propped- up walls as gaily as if there had never been a bombardment.
The mairie had fared little better than the church, and the schoolroom, which has its home in it, had a temporary roofing, the upper part being wrecked.
The best idea that I got of the destruction was, however, from a house almost opposite the church. It was only a shell, its walls alone standing. As its windows and doors had been blown out, we could look in from the street to the interior of what had evidently been a comfortable country house. It was now like an uncovered box, in the centre of which there was a conical shaped heap of ashes as high as the top of the fireplace. We could see where the stairs had been, but its entire contents had been burned down to a heap of ashes—burned as thoroughly as wood in a fireplace. I could not have believed in such absolute destruction if I had not seen it.
While we were gazing at the wreck I noticed an old woman leaning against the wall and watching us. Out of her weather-beaten, time- furrowed old face looked a pair of dark eyes, red-rimmed and blurred with much weeping. She was rubbing her distorted old hands together nervously as she watched us. It was inevitable that I should get into conversation with her, and discover that this wreck had been, for years, her home, that she had lived there all alone, and that everything she had in the world—her furniture, her clothing, and her savings—had been burned in the house.
You can hardly understand that unless you know these people. They keep their savings hidden. It is the well-known old story of the French stocking which paid the war indemnity of 1870. They have no confidence in banks. The State is the only one they will lend to, and the fact is one of the secrets of French success.
If you knew these people as I do, you would understand that an old woman of that peasant type, ignorant of the meaning of war, would hardly be likely to leave her house, no matter how many times she was ordered out, until shells began to fall about her. Even then, as she was rather deaf, she probably did not realize what was happening, and went into the street in such fear that she left everything behind her.
From Barcy we drove out into the plain, and took the direction of Chambry, following the line of the great and decisive fight of September 6 and 7.
We rolled slowly across the beautiful undulating country of grain and beet fields. We had not gone far when, right at the edge of the road, we came upon an isolated mound, with a rude cross at its head, and a tiny tricolore at its foot—the first French grave on the plain.
We motioned the chauffeur to stop, and we went on, on foot.
First the graves were scattered, for the boys lie buried just where they fell—cradled in the bosom of the mother country that nourished them, and for whose safety they laid down their lives. As we advanced they became more numerous, until we reached a point where, as far as we could see, in every direction, floated the little tricolore flags, like fine flowers in the landscape. They made tiny spots against the far-off horizon line, and groups like beds of flowers in the foreground, and we knew that, behind the skyline, there were more.
Here and there was a haystack with one grave beside it, and again there would be one, usually partly burned, almost encircled with the tiny flags which said: "Here sleep the heroes."
It was a disturbing and a thrilling sight. I give you my word, as I stood there, I envied them. It seemed to me a fine thing to lie out there in the open, in the soil of the fields their simple death has made holy, the duty well done, the dread over, each one just where he fell defending his mother-land, enshrined forever in the loving memory of the land he had saved, in graves to be watered for years, not only by the tears of those near and dear to them, but by those of the heirs to their glory—the children of the coming generation of free France.
You may know a finer way to go. I do not. Surely, since Death is, it is better than dying of old age between clean sheets. Near the end of the route we came to the little walled cemetery of Chambry, the scene of one of the most desperate struggles of the 6th and 7th of September. You know what the humble village burying-grounds are like. Its wall is about six feet high, of plaster and stone, with an entrance on the road to the village. To the west and northwest the walls are on the top of a bank, high above the crossroads. I do not know the position of the pursuing French army. The chauffeur who drove us could not enlighten us. As near as I could guess, from the condition of the walls, I imagine that the French artillery must have been in the direction of Penchard, on the wooded hills.
The walls are pierced with gun holes, about three feet apart, and those on the west and southwest are breeched by cannon and shell- fire. Here, after the position had been several times stormed by artillery, the Zouaves made one of the most brilliant bayonet charges of the day, dashing up the steep banks and through the breeched walls. Opposite the gate is another steep bank where can still be seen the improvised gun positions of the French when they pushed the retreat across the plain.
The cemetery is filled with new graves against the wall, for many of the officers are buried here—nearly all of the regiment of Zouaves, which was almost wiped out in the charge before the position was finally carried,—it was taken and lost several times.
From here we turned east again towards Vareddes, along a fine road lined with enormous old trees, one of the handsomest roads of the department. Many of these huge trees have been snapped off by shells as neatly as if they were mere twigs. Along the road, here and there, were isolated graves.
Vareddes had a tragic experience. The population was shockingly abused by the Germans. Its aged priest and many other old men were carried away, and many were shot, and the town badiy damaged.
We had intended to go through Vareddes to the heights beyond, where the heroes of the 133d, 246th, 289th, and of the regiment which began the battle at Villeroy—the 276th—are buried. But the weather had changed, and a cold drizzle began to fall, and I saw no use in going on in a closed car, so we turned back to Meaux.
It was still light when we reached Meaux, so we gave a look at the old mills—and put up a paean of praise that they were not damaged beyond repair—on our way to the station.
As we came back to Esbly I strained my eyes to look across to the hill on which my house stands,—I could just see it as we crawled across the bridge at the Iles-les-Villenoy,—and felt again the miracle of the battle which swept so near to us.
In my innermost heart I had a queer sensation of the absurdity of my relation to life. Fate so often shakes its fist in my face, only to withhold the blow within a millimetre of my nose. Perhaps I am being schooled to meet it yet.