[Frontispiece: WITH THOSE WHO WAIT]
WITH THOSE WHO WAIT
FRANCES WILSON HUARD
AUTHOR OF "MY HOME IN THE FIELD OF HONOUR," "MY HOME IN THE FIELD OF MERCY," ETC.
WITH DRAWINGS BY CHARLES HUARD
McCLELLAND, GOODCHILD & STEWART
PUBLISHERS ———— TORONTO
By George H. Doran Company
Printed in the United States of America
A MES AMIES FRANCAISES,
WITH THOSE WHO WAIT . . . . . . . . . Frontispiece
VIEW OF CHATEAU-THIERRY
MONSIEUR S. OF SOISSONS WITH HIS GAS MASK
A VILLAGE ON THE FRONT
DOOR OF MADAME HUARD'S HOME—PARIS
VIEW OF ST. GERVAIS FROM MADAME HUARD'S PARIS HOME
THE COURTYARD LEADING TO MADAME HUARD'S CELLAR
A COURTYARD IN MONTMARTRE
FLOCKING TO READ THE COMING COMMUNIQUE IN A LITTLE FRENCH CITY
WITH THOSE WHO WAIT
Once upon a time there wasn't any war. In those days it was my custom to drive over to Chateau-Thierry every Friday afternoon. The horses, needing no guidance, would always pull up at the same spot in front of the station from which point of vantage, between a lilac bush and the switch house, I would watch for the approaching express that was to bring down our week-end guests.
A halt at the bridge head would permit our friends to obtain a bird's-eye view of the city, while I purchased a measure of fresh-caught, shiny-scaled river fish, only to be had of the old boatman after the arrival of the Paris train. Invariably there were packages to be called for at Berjot's grocery store, or Dudrumet's dry goods counter, and then H. having discovered the exact corner from which Corot painted his delightful panorama of the city, a pilgrimage to the spot almost always ensued.
A glance in passing at Jean de la Fontaine's house, a final stop at "The Elephant" on the quay to get the evening papers, and then passing through Essommes with its delightful old church, Bonneil and Romery, our joyful party would reach Villiers just in time for dinner.
A certain mystery shrouded the locality where our home was situated. Normandy, Brittany, the Chateaux of Touraine, the climate of the Riviera, have, at various seasons been more attractive, not only to foreigners, but to the Parisians themselves, so aside from the art lovers who made special trips to Rheims, there was comparatively little pleasure travelling in our immediate neighbourhood, and yet what particular portion of France is more historically renowned? Is it not on those same fertile fields so newly consecrated with our blood that every struggle for world supremacy has been fought?
It would be difficult to explain just why this neglect of the lovely East; neglect which afforded us the privilege of guiding our friends, not only along celebrated highways, but through leafy by-paths that breathed the very poetry of the XVIIth. century, and stretched, practically untrodden, through Lucy-le-Bocage, Montreuil-aux-Lions, down to the Marne and La Ferte-sous-Jouarre.
It was wonderful rolling country that rippled back from the river; abounding not only in vegetation, but in silvery green harmonies so beloved of the Barbizon master, and sympathetic even by the names of the tiny hamlets which dotted its vine-covered hills.
Our nearest dealer in agricultural machines lived in a place called Gaudelu. We called him "MacCormick" because of his absolute and loquacious partiality for those American machines, and to reach his establishment we used to pass through delightful places called le Grand Cormont, Neuilly-la-Poterie, Villers-le-Vaste.
As I write these lines (July, 1918) the station at Chateau-Thierry is all of that city that remains in our hands. The bridge head has become the most disputed spot on the map of Europe; "The Elephant" a heap of waste in No Man's Land, while doubtless from the very place where Corot painted his masterpiece, a German machine gun dominating the city is belching forth its ghastly rain of steel.
That very country whose obscurity was our pride is an open hook for thousands of eager allies and enemies, while on the lips of every wife and mother, from Maine to California, Belleau Woods have become words full of fearful portent. I often wonder then, if the brave Americans who are actually disputing inch by inch my home and its surroundings have ever had time to think that a little village known as "Ecoute s'il pleut," might find its English equivalent in "Hark-how-it-rains!"
Two touching accounts of the second descent upon our country have come to my hands. A little orphan peasant lad, under army age, who fled with our caravan four years since, now pointer in the French artillery—writes as follows from "Somewhere in France"—June 6, 1918:
Just a line to tell you I am alive and well; unfortunately I cannot say as much for my grandparents, for you doubtless know what has again befallen our country. All the inhabitants have been evacuated.
I am absolutely without news of my grandparents. I learned to-day through a word from my brother Alfred that they had been obliged to leave home and had fled in an unknown direction. In spite of the rumour of a new invasion they did not intend to leave Villiers.
My sister left the first, with some of the young girls of the village. After twenty-four hours in Paris they were evacuated to a village in the Yonne.
My brother was obliged to go the next day, and at the present time is at Rozoy-en-Brie. I believe we made a halt there in 1914 when we fled as refugees. After three days at Rozoy, Alfred could stand it no longer, and with three companions they started home on bicycles, in order to see what had happened. They reached Villiers to find every house empty, and were almost instantly expulsed by shells. So now we are all scattered to the four winds of heaven. I am so sad when I think of my poor grand-parents, obliged to leave home and to roll along the high-roads at their age. What misery!
I am afraid our village is going to suffer much more than it did in 1914. That horde of scoundrels will spare nothing! And when will it all be over?
I hope that my letter will find you well and happy, and I beg you to believe me gratefully and respectfully yours,
LEON CHATELAIN Marechal des Logis 206e Artillerie—28e Batterie Secteur 122.
"With the Mayor, and thanks to a neighbour's car, I was able to get away," writes Monsieur Aman Jean, the well-known painter, who had a home in Chateau-Thierry. "The situation was becoming unbearable and we three were the last to leave our unfortunate city. Behind us an army engineer blew up the post and telegraph office, the military buildings, the station, the store house, and finally the bridge. Our eyes were beginning to smart terribly, which announced the presence of mustard gas, and told us we had left none too soon.
"I will never forget the sight and the commotion of the road leading from Chateau-Thierry to Montmirail. Interminable lines of army transports on one side counterbalanced by the same number of fleeing civilians going in the opposite direction. Now and then a farm cart would pull aside to let a heavy military truck get by, and one can hardly imagine the state of a highway that is encumbered by a double current of refugees and soldiers hastening towards the front. The painful note was made by the unfortunate civilians who had put on their Sunday clothes, the only way they had of saving them. As to the picturesque, it was added by the multitude of little donkeys trotting beneath the weight of the machine guns, and by the equipment of the Italian troops. There were bright splashes of colour here and there, together with a heroic and lamentable animation. It impressed me most violently. It was wonderfully beautiful and pathetically horrible.
"On one side old people, women and children formed a long straggling cortege; while on the other—brilliant youth constituted a homogeneous and solid mass, marching to battle with calm resolution.
"The populations of the East are astonishingly courageous and resigned. That of Chateau-Thierry watched the evacuation of the Government Offices, the banks, the prefecture and the post office without the slightest alarm. The retreat was well advanced ere they dreamed of it. When finally the people realised that the enemy was at their very gates, they moved out swiftly without any commotion."
The German onslaught at the Marne in 1914 had been terrible but brief. The life of our entire region was practically suspended while the Hun wreaked his vengeance, not only on our armies, but our innocent civilians and their possessions. Shot and shell, organised looting and cruelty, were employed to cow the intrepid spirit of the French, but without success. When, finally their retreat came, hands were quick to repair material damage, refugees swiftly returned, and even the September rains joined in the effort to purify the fields which had been so ruthlessly polluted.
With the Hun on the Aisne, and a victory to our credit, there wasn't even a pause for breath. A new life seemed to surge forth, and all bent their energies towards effacing every trace of what had seemed like a hideous nightmare. Even the Eastern Railway, which had been closed on account of the destruction of some seven or eight bridges over the Marne, broke all records by repairing or replacing them in eleven days' time. And while this had no direct bearing upon our situation, the moral effect of even hearing the train-loads of men and munitions passing through our region, was certainly surprising.
Little by little things began to assume their normal aspect. Not that they ever entirely regained it, for there was always the dull rumbling of the cannon to remind us of bygone terrors, while the establishment of several emergency hospitals in the vicinity lent an animation to the highroads, formerly dotted with private cars, but now given over entirely to ambulances and supply trucks.
As to the uniforms, they quickly became such accustomed sights that a youthful civilian would have been the novelty.
Buoyed up by the success of our armies, every one expected an early peace, and even the busiest of us began making projects for the fair future. In the odd moments of relief from my somewhat onerous hospital duties, my only pleasure and distraction was to build castles in the air, and in the eternal Winter lights I laid many a plan for a little boudoir next my bedroom, which I had long desired to see realised.
When news of H.'s safety reached me, my imagination knew no limits.
The convalescent patients from all branches of trade, who at different times had filled the rooms of the chateau, converted into wards, had been very deft at repairing everything in the way of furniture that the Germans had defaced or neglected to appropriate. There were many skilful carpenters and cabinet makers among them, and I saw visions of employing them at their own trade, producing both occupation, which they craved, and funds which they needed, but were too proud to accept as gifts, and what a surprise that room would be for H.!
I even pushed my collector's mania so far as to pay a visit to an old bourgeois who lived in a little city called La Ferte-Milon, quite a bit north of us. The walls of his salon were ornamented with some charming eighteenth century paper representing the ports of France, and in excellent condition. I had long coveted it for my boudoir, and in days before the war had often dickered with him as to price. I now feared lest it should have been destroyed or disfigured, and regretted having wished to drive too keen a bargain, but on finding it intact, I am ashamed to say the collector's instinct got the better of the woman, and I used every conceivable argument to persuade him to come to my price. The old fellow was as obdurate as ever.
"But," I suggested, "don't you realise what a risk you are taking? Suppose the Germans were to get back here again before you sell it? You're much nearer the front than we! You will not only lose your money, but the world will be minus one more good thing, and we've lost too many of those already."
The withering glance with which this remark was received was as good as any discourse on patriotism.
"The Germans back here? Never! Why at the rate we're going now it will be all over before Spring and you'll see what a price my paper will fetch just as soon as peace comes!"
Peace! Peace! the word was on every lip, the thought in every heart, and yet every intelligence, every energy was bent on the prosecution of the most hateful warfare ever known. In all the universe it seemed to me that the wild animals were the only creatures really exempt from preoccupation about the fray. It might be war for man and the friends of man, but for them had come an unexpected reprieve, and even the more wary soon felt their exemption from pursuit. Man was so busy fighting his own kind that a wonderful armistice had unconsciously arisen between him and these creatures, and so birds and beasts, no longer frightened by his proximity, were indulging in a perfect revel of freedom.
During the first weeks of the conflict, the "cotton-tails," always so numerous on our estate, were simply terrified by the booming of the guns. If even the distant bombardment assumed any importance, they would disappear below ground completely, for days at a time. My old foxhound was quite disconcerted. But like all the rest of us they soon became accustomed to it, and presently displayed a self assurance and a familiarity undreamed of, save perhaps in the Garden of Eden.
It became a common sight to see a brood of partridges or pheasants strutting along the roadside like any barnyard hen and chickens, and one recalled with amazement the times when stretching themselves on their claws they would timidly and fearfully crane their necks above the grass at the sound of an approaching step.
At present they are not at all sure that man was their worst enemy. The Government having decreed that there shall be no game shooting in the army zone, weazels, pole cats and even fox have become very numerous, and covey of quail that once numbered ten and fifteen, have singularly diminished by this incursion of wild animals, not to mention the hawks, the buzzards and the squirrels.
One Autumn morning I appeared at our gateway just in time to see a neighbour's wife homeward bound, the corpses of four white hens that Maitre Renard had borrowed from their coop, dangling from her arm. Her husband heard her coming, and on learning the motive of her wails, the imprecations brought down on the head of that fox were picturesquely profane to say the least. Presently the scene grew in violence, and then finally terminated with the assertion that the whole tragedy was the result of the Kaiser's having thrown open the German prisons and turned loose his vampires on France.
Be that as it may, there was certainly no more enchanting way of obtaining mental and physical relaxation than in wandering through those wonderful woodlands that abound in our vicinity, and which breathed so many inspirations to the Master of Fable, who at one time was their keeper. How I wish that good La Fontaine might have seen his dumb friends under present circumstances. What fantasies would he not have woven about them.
Season and the temperature were of little importance. There was never a promenade without an incident—never an incident, no matter how insignificant, that did not remind me of the peculiar phase under which every living creature was existing.
Once in the very early Spring, taking my faithful Boston bull, we stole away for a constitutional. Suddenly my little companion darted up close to the hedgerow, and on hurrying to the scene to find out the cause of this departure from her usual dignified demeanour, I found her standing face to face with a hare! Both animals, while startled, were rooted to the spot, gazing at each other in sheer fascination of their own fearlessness. It was so amazingly odd that I laughed aloud. But even this did not break the spell. It lasted so long that presently even I became a little puzzled. Finally it was the hare who settled the question by calmly moving away, without the slightest sign of haste, leaving my bull dog in the most comical state of concern that I have ever seen.
It was about this time that Fil-de-Ver, our donkey, decided to abandon civilised life in favour of a more roaming career in the woods, which he doubtless felt was his only true vocation. He had fared ill at the hands of the Germans, and during the entire Winter our own boys had used him regularly to haul dead wood. This kind of kultur he resented distinctly, and resolved to show his disgust by becoming more independent.
First he tried it out for a day or two at a time. Then he was gone a week, and finally he disappeared altogether.
Being of sociable disposition he joined a little herd of deer which was the pride and joy of our woods, and one afternoon I came upon this motley company down by a little lick we had arranged on the brink of a tiny river that crosses our estate.
As I approached they all lifted their heads. A baby fawn, frightened, scurried into the underbrush. But the others let me come quite close, and then gently, as though to display their nimbleness and grace, bounded away mid the tender green foliage, gold splashed here and there by the fast sinking sun. Fil-de-Fer stood a moment undecided. Presently, lifting his hind legs high into the air he gave vent to a series of kickings and contortions which might have been taken for a comical imitation, while a second later as though realising how ridiculous he had been, he fell to braying with despair, and breaking into a gallop fled in the direction of his new found friends.
Simultaneous with Fil-de-Fer's disappearance came the rumour that the Loup-garou was abroad and was sowing panic in its wake. Just what kind of animal the Loup-garou might be, was somewhat difficult to ascertain. No one in our vicinity had ever seen him, and from all I could gather he seemed to be a strange sort of apocalyptic beast, gifted with horns, extraordinary force, and the especial enemy of mankind.
There was something almost uncanny in the way the peasants would look at one and lower their voices when speaking of this weird phenomenon, and presently from having suspected my innocent donkey, I began to wonder if I were not in the presence of some local popular superstition.
The rumour was still persistent, when one evening at dark there was an urgent call from Headquarters asking that we send down for four or five patients that were destined for our hospital. I do not now recall for just what reason I went alone, save for a twelve-year-old village lad, but what I do remember was the respectful moral lecture that I received from an old peasant woman who met our cart on the high-road just before we turned off into the Bois du Loup.
Night, black and starless, was upon us before we had penetrated half a mile into the woods. My youthful companion began to sing martial airs, and stimulated his courage by beating time with his feet on the bottom of the cart. A chill Autumn rain commenced to fall, tinkling against the rare leaves that now remained on the trees, blinding both horse and driver, and greatly impeding our progress. Presently I noticed that our lantern had gone out, and fearing lest we be borne down upon by some swift moving army truck, I produced a pocket lamp and descended from my seat.
A handful of damp matches, much time and good humour were consumed ere I succeeded in getting a light, and just as I swung the lantern back into place, the air was pierced by a high-pitched, blood-curdling shriek!
Le Loup . . . !
At the same moment there was a sharp crackling on the opposite side of the road, and an instant later a wild boar, followed by her young, brushed past me and darted into the obscurity.
My companion was livid. His teeth chattered audibly. He tried to pull himself together and murmured incoherent syllables. Personally, I was a bit unnerved, yet somewhat reassured. If my eyes had not deceived me, the mystery of the Loup-garou was now solved. And yet I felt quite sure that wild boar were unknown in our region.
At Chateau-Thierry I made enquiries and from soldiers and foresters learned that heretofore inhabitants of the Ardennes forest, these animals had been driven South when man had chosen to make the firing line of their haunts; and that, prolific breeders, they were now practically a menace to the unarmed civilian. From these same lovers of nature I gathered that for the first time in their recollection sea-gulls and curlews had likewise been seen on the banks of the Marne.
While the country now abounds in newcomers, many of the old familiar birds and animals are rapidly disappearing.
Larks are rare visitors these days, and the thrush which used to hover over our vineyards in real flocks, have almost entirely vanished. The swallows, however, are our faithful friends and have never failed to return to us.
Each succeeding Spring their old haunts are in a more or less dilapidated condition according to the number of successful visits the German aviators have chosen to pay us during the Winter, and I fancy that this upsets them a trifle. For hundreds of generations they have been accustomed to nest in the pinions of certain roofs, to locate in a determined chimney, and it is a most amusing sight to see them cluster about a ruined spot and discuss the matter in strident chirpings.
Last season, after a family consultation, which lasted well nigh all the morning, and during which they made repeated visits of inspection to a certain favourite drain pipe, I suddenly saw them all lift wing and sail away towards the North. My heart sank. Something near and dear seemed to be slipping from me, and one has said au revoir so oft in vain. So they too were going to abandon me!
In one accustomed to daily coping with big human problems, such emotion may seem trivial, but it was perhaps this constant forced endurance that kept one up, made one almost supersensitively sentimental. Little things grew to count tremendously.
At lunch time I sauntered forth quite sad at heart, when an unexpected familiar twittering greeted my ear, and I turned northward to see my little friends circling about the stables. Life closer to the front had evidently not offered any particular advantages, and in a few days' time their constant comings and goings from certain specific points told me that they had come back to stay.
But if friend swallow may be praised for his fidelity, unfortunately not so much can be said for another familiar passerby—the wild duck. October had always seen them flocking southward, and some one of our household had invariably heard their familiar call, as at daybreak they would pass over the chateau on their way from the swamps of the Somme to the Marais de St. Gond. The moment was almost a solemn one. It seemed to mark an epoch in the tide of our year. Claude, Benoit, George and a decrepit gardener would abandon all work and prepare boats, guns and covers on the Marne.
Oh, the wonderful still hours just before dawn! Ah, that indescribable, intense, yet harmonious silence that preceded the arrival of our prey!
Alas, all is but memory now. Claude has fallen before Verdun, Benoit was killed on the Oise, and George has long since been reported missing.
Alone, unarmed, the old gardener and I again awaited the cry of our feathered friends, but our waiting, like that of so many others, was in vain. The wild ducks are a thing of the past. Where have they gone? No one knows, no one has ever seen them. And in the tense hush of the Autumn nights, above the distant rumble of the cannon rose only the plaintive cry of stray dogs baying at the moon.
Dogs, mon Dieu, I wonder how many of those poor, forgotten, abandoned creatures having strayed into our barnyard were successively washed, combed, fed, cared for and adopted.
Some of them, haunted by the spirit of unrest, remained with us but a moment; others tried us for a day, a week, and still others, appreciative of our pains, refused to leave at all.
Oh, the heart rending, lonesome, appealing look in the eyes of a poor brute that has lost home and master!
It is thus that I came into possession of an ill tempered French poodle called Crapouillot, which the patients in our hospital insisted on clipping like a lion with an anklet, a curl over his nose and a puff at the end of his tail. A most detestable, unfortunate beast, always to be found where not needed, a ribbon in his hair, and despicably bad humoured.
He was succeeded by a Belgian sheep dog, baptised Namur, who in time gave place to one of the most hopelessly ugly mongrels I have ever seen. But the new comer was so full of life and good will, had such a comical way of smiling and showing his gleaming white teeth, that in memory of the joy caused by the Charlie Chaplin films, he was unanimously dubbed Charlot.
The mere sound of his name would plunge him into ecstasies of joy, accompanied by the wildest yapping and strange capers, which invariably terminated by a double somersault in the mud so anxious was he to convince us of his gratitude. Imagine then what might be obtained by a caress, or a bowl of hot soup.
Last in line, but by no means least, was a splendid English pointer, a superb, finely bred animal, who day in, day out would lie by the open fire, lost in a profound revery that terminated in a kind of sob. Poor, melancholy Mireille, what master was she mourning? For what home did she thus pine? How I respected and appreciated her sadness. How intensely human she became.
Finally when I could resist no longer I would take her long delicate head into my hands and gently stroke it, seeking to impart my sympathy. "I know that you never can be mine," I would murmur, "that you will ever and eternally belong to him to whom you gave yourself once and entirely. But these are sad anxious days for us all; we must bear together. And so as my own dogs have often been my only consolation in like times of misery and despair, oh, how I would love to comfort you—beautiful, faithful, disconsolate Mireille!"
Cities, like people, seem to have souls, deep hidden and rarely ever entirely revealed. How well must one come to know them, stone by stone, highways, homes and habitants, ere they will disclose their secret. I have rejoiced too often in the splendid serenity of St. Jean des Vignes, felt too deeply the charm of those ancient streets, hoped and suffered too intensely within its confines that Soissons should not mean more to me than to the average zealous newspaper correspondent, come there but to make note of its wounds, to describe its ruins.
Fair Soissons, what is now your fate? In what state shall we find you? What ultimate destiny is reserved for your cathedral, your stately mansions, your magnificent gardens? What has become of those fifteen or sixteen hundred brave souls who loved you so well that they refused to leave you? Qui sait?
One arrived at Soissons in war time by long avenues, shaded on either side by a double row of stately elms, whose centenary branches stretching upward formed an archway overhead. Then came the last outpost of Army Police, a sentinel stopped you, minutely examined your passports, verified their vises, and finally, all formalities terminated, one entered what might have been the City of Death.
Moss and weeds had sprung up between the cobble stone pavings; as far as eye could see not a human soul was astir, not a familiar noise was to be heard, not a breath of smoke stole heavenwards from those hundreds of idle chimneys: and yet life, tenacious ardent life was wonderfully evident here and there. A curtain lifted as one passed, a cat on the wall, a low distant whistle, clothes drying at a window, a flowering plant on a balcony, sometimes a door ajar, through which one guessed a store in whose dimly lighted depths shadows seemed to be moving about; all these bore witness to an eager, undaunted existence, hidden for the time being perhaps, but intense and victorious, ready to spring forward and struggle anew in admirable battles of energy and conscience.
The Hotel du Soleil d'Or offered a most hospitable welcome. It was the only one open or rather, if one would be exact, the only one still extant. To be sure there were no panes in the windows, and ungainly holes were visible in almost all the ceilings, but the curtains were spotlessly white and the bed linen smelled sweet from having been dried in the open air.
A most appreciable surprise was the excellent cuisine, and as ornament to the dining-room table, between a pair of tall preserve dishes, and on either side of the central bouquet, stood an unexploded German shell. One of them had fallen on to the proprietor's bed, the second landing in the pantry, while twenty or thirty others had worked more efficiently, as could be attested by the ruins of the carriage house, stables, and what had once been a glass covered Winter garden.
On a door leading out of the office, and curiously enough left intact, one might read, Salon de conversation. If you were to attempt to cross the threshold, however, your eye would be instantly greeted by a most abominable heap of plaster and wreckage, and the jovial proprietor seeing your embarrassment, would explain:
"My wife and the servants are all for cleaning up, but to my mind it's better to leave things just as they are. Besides if we put all to rights now, when our patrons return they will never credit half we tell them. Seeing is believing! At any rate, it's an out of the way place, and isn't bothering people for the time being."
And truly enough this mania for repairing and reconstructing, this instinct of the active ant that immediately commences to rebuild its hill, obliterated by some careless foot, has become as characteristic of the French.
The Sisters of St. Thomas de Villeneuve, who were in charge of an immense hospital, had two old masons who might be seen at all times, trowel in hand, patching up the slightest damage to their buildings; the local manager of a Dufayel store had become almost a fanatic on the subject. His stock in trade consisted of furniture, china and crockery of all kinds, housed beneath a glass roof, which seemed to attract the Boches' special attention, for during the four years of war just past, I believe that scarcely a week elapsed during which he was not directly or indirectly the victim of their fire.
The effects were most disastrous, but aided by his wife and an elderly man who had remained in their employ, he would patiently recommence scrubbing, sweeping and cleaning, carefully reinstating each object or fragment thereof, in or as near as possible to its accustomed place.
It was nothing less than miraculous to survey those long lines of wardrobes that seemed to hold together by the grace of the Almighty alone; gaze upon whole rows of tables no one of which had the requisite number of legs; behold mere skeletons of chairs, whose seats or backs were missing; sofas where gaping wounds displayed the springs; huge piles of plates each one more nicked or cracked than its predecessor; series of flower pots which fell to pieces in one's hands if one were indiscreet enough to touch them.
"I don't see the point in straightening things out so often"—was my casual comment.
"Why, Madame, what on earth would we do about the inventory when peace comes, if we were not to put a little order into our stock?" was the immediate reply.
I was sorry I had spoken.
Among the other numerous places of interest was the store of a dealer in haberdashery and draperies. An honest, well equipped old fashioned French concern, whose long oak counters were well polished from constant use. The shelves were piled high with piece after piece of wonderful material, but not a single one of them had been exempt from the murderous rain of steel; they were pierced, and pierced, and pierced again.
"So pierced that there is not a length sufficient to make even a cap!" explained Madame L., "but you just can't live in disorder all the time, and customers wouldn't like to see an empty store. Everything we have to sell is in the cellar!"
And true enough this subterranean existence had long ceased to be a novelty, and had become almost a habit.
From the basement windows of every inhabited dwelling protruded a stove pipe, and the lower regions had gradually come to be furnished almost as comfortably as the upper rooms in normal days. Little by little the kitchen chair and the candle had given way to a sofa and a hanging lamp; beds were set up and rugs put in convenient places.
"We live so close to the trenches that by comparison it seems like a real paradise to us," gently explained Madame Daumont, the pork butcher. Her charcuterie renowned far and wide for its hot meat pates, ready just at noon, had been under constant fire ever since the invasion, but had never yet failed to produce its customary ovenful at the appointed hour.
"At the time of the battle of Crouy," she confessed, "I was just on the point of shutting up shop and leaving. I'm afraid I was a bit hasty, but three shells had hit the house in less than two hours, and my old mother was getting nervous. The dough for my pates was all ready, but I hesitated. Noon came, and with it my clientele of Officers.
"'Eh bien, nos pates? What does this mean!'
"'No, gentlemen, I'm sorry, but I cannot make up my mind to bear it another day. I'm leaving in a few moments.'
"'What? Leaving? And we who are going out to meet death have got to face it on empty stomachs?'
"They were right. In a second I thought of my own husband out there in Lorraine. So I said to them 'Come back at four o'clock and they'll be ready.'"
And then gently, and as though to excuse herself, she added—
"There are moments though when fear makes you lose your head, but there doesn't seem to be anything you can't get used to."
"You soon get used to it" was the identical expression of a young farmer's aid who sold fruit, vegetables and flowers beneath an archway that had once been the entrance to the Hotel de la Clef. She had attracted my attention almost immediately, the brilliant colours of her display, and her pink and white complexion, standing out so fresh and clear against the background of powder-stained stones and chalky ruin heaps.
The next day, after an extra heavy nocturnal bombardment, we went out in search of a melon. A shell had shattered her impromptu showcase, dislocated a wall on one side of the archway, which menaced immediate collapse. In fact, the place had become untenable.
"Oh, it's such a nuisance to have to look for another sure spot," was the only lament. "Just see, there's a whole basket of artichokes gone to waste—and my roses—what a pity!"
An explosion had gutted the adjacent building leaving an immense breach opening on to the street from what had once been an office or perhaps a store-room.
"Just wait a moment," she pleaded, "until I get set up inside there. You can't half see what I've got out here."
Five minutes later I returned and explained the object of my quest.
"We've only got a very few, Madame, our garden is right in their range, and we had a whole melon patch destroyed by splinters, only day before yesterday. I had three this morning, but I sold them all to the gentleman of the artillery, and I've promised to-morrow's to the Brigade Officers. I hardly think I shall be able to dispose of any more before the end of the week. But why don't you go and see 'Pere Francois'? He might have some."
"You mean old Pere Francois who keeps the public gardens?"
"Oh, I know him very well. I've often exchanged seeds and slips with him. Does he still live where he used to?"
"I believe so."
We were not long seeking him out, and in response to our knocking his good wife opened the door.
"Oh, he's out in his garden," was her reply to our queries. "You can't keep him away from it. But he's going crazy, I think. He wants to attend to everything all by himself now. There isn't a soul left to help him, and he'll kill himself, or be killed at it as sure as I'm alive. You'll see, the shells won't miss him. He's escaped so far but he may not always be so lucky. He's already had a steel splinter in his thumb, and one of them tore a hole in his cap and in his waistcoat. That's close enough, I should think. But there's no use of my talking; he just won't listen to me. He's mad about gardening. That's what he is!"
On the old woman's assurance that we would find him by pounding hard on the gateway leading to the Avenue de la Gare, we hastened away, leaving her to babble her imprecations to a lazy tabby cat who lay sunning itself in a low window box.
The old fellow being a trifle deaf we were destined to beat a rather lengthy tattoo on the high iron gate. But our efforts were crowned with success, for presently we heard his steps approaching, his sabots crunching on the gravel path.
His face lighted up when he saw us.
"Oh, I remember you, of course I do. You're the lady who used to have the American sweet peas and the Dorothy Perkins. I know you! And the dahlias I gave you? How did they turn out?"
I grew red and sought to change the conversation. Perhaps he saw and understood.
"Come and see mine anyway!"
That sight alone would have made the trip worth while.
"I cut the grass this very morning so as they'd show off better! They're so splendid this year that I've put some in the garden at the Hotel de Ville."
Further on the Gloire de Dijon, La France and Marechal Niels spread forth all their magnificent odorous glory onto the balmy air of this Isle de France country, whose skies are of such exquisite delicate blue, whose very atmosphere breathes refinement.
I felt my old passion rising;—that passion which in times gone by had drawn us from our sleep at dawn, and scissors and pruning knife in hand, how many happy hours had H. and I thus spent; he at his fruit trees, I at my flower beds, cutting, trimming, scraping, clipping; inwardly conscious of other duties neglected, but held as though fascinated by the most alluring infatuation in the world—the love of nature. Here now in this delightful garden kept up by the superhuman efforts of a faithful old man, the flame kindled anew.
In an instant H. had discovered the espaliers where Doyenne du Cornice and Passe Cressane were slowly but surely attaining the required degree of perfection beneath Pere Francois' attentive care. As I stood open mouthed in wonder before the largest bush of fuchsias I had ever yet beheld, an explosion rent the air, quickly followed by a second, the latter much closer to us.
"Boche bombs! Come quick," said Pere Francois without seeming in the least ruffled.
Led by the old man we hastened to a tiny grotto, in whose depths we could hear a fountain bubbling. Legion must have been the loving couples that have visited this spot in times gone by, for their vows of fidelity were graven in endearing terms on the stony sides of the retreat. Leon et Marguerite pour toujours, Alice et Theodore, Georges et Germaine were scrawled above innumerable arrow-pierced hearts.
"All things considered, I'd rather they'd send us over a shell or two than bomb us from above!" ejaculated Pere Francois, who spoke from experience.
"It was one of those hateful things that hit my Japanese pepper tree on the main lawn, and killed our only cedar. The handsomest specimen we had here! It makes me sick every time I throw a log of it on to the fire in the Winter. I can't tell you how queer it makes me feel. Of course, it's bad enough for them to kill men who are their enemies, but think of killing trees that it takes hundreds of years to grow. What good can that do them?"
The Boche deemed at a safe distance, we visited the vegetable garden where we purchased our melon and were presented with any number of little packets containing seeds. We protested at the old man's generosity and sought to remunerate him.
"Nothing of the kind; I wouldn't think of accepting it. It's my pleasure. Why it's been ages since I had such a talk as this. I'm so glad you came. So glad for my roses too!" and he started to cut a splendid bouquet.
"I've been saying to myself every day," he continued, "Isn't it a pity that nobody should see them? But now I feel satisfied."
At the gateway we held out our hands which he took and shook most heartily, renewing his protestations of delight at our visit, and begging us to "Come again soon."
"To be happy one must cultivate his garden," murmured H., quoting Voltaire as we made off down the road. And within a day or two we again had an excellent proof of this axiom when we discovered that Abbe L. still resided in his little home whose garden extended far into the shadow of St. Jean des Vignes.
That worthy ecclesiastic gave over every moment that was not employed in the exercise of his sacred functions to the joys of archaeological research, and was carefully compiling a history of the churches in the arrondissement of Soissons and Chateau-Thierry. He had been our guest at Villiers, and I remember having made for him an imprint of two splendid low-relief tombstones which date back to the 15th century, and were the sole object and ornament of historic interest in our little village chapel.
This history was the joy and sole distraction of his entire existence, and he never ceased collecting documents and photographs, books, plans and maps, all of which though carefully catalogued, threatened one day to take such proportions that his modest dwelling would no longer suffice to hold them.
We found him comfortably installed behind a much littered kitchen table in a room that I had heretofore known as his dining room. I was a bit struck by its disorder, and the good man was obliged to remove several piles of papers from the chairs before inviting us to be seated.
"I trust you will forgive this confusion," he begged, "but you see a shell hit my study yesterday noon, and has forced me to take refuge in this corner of the house which is certainly far safer."
"I've had an excellent occasion to work," he continued. "Our duties are very slight these days, and the extreme quiet in which we live is most propitious for pursuing the task I have undertaken."
"But, Monsieur l'Abbe," we cried. "What a paradox! And the bombardment?"
"Really, you know, I've hardly suffered from it—except when that shell struck the house the other morning. Of course, the whole edifice shook, and at one time I thought the roof was coming through upon my head. My ink bottle was upset and great streams trickled to the floor. But Divine intervention saved my precious manuscript which I was in the very act of copying, and although my notes and files were a bit disarranged, they were easily sorted and set to rights. So you see there was nothing really to deplore and God has graciously seen fit to let me continue my work. It is such a joy to be able to do so."
Strange placidity! the immediate countryside for miles around having long since been delivered up to brutal destruction, wanton waste, hideous massacre, and a goodly number of the churches of which the pious man was taking so much pains to record the history, were now but anonymous heaps of stone.
All the way home I could not refrain from philosophising on the happiness of life, perfect contentment, and the love of good. My reflections, while perhaps not particularly deep nor brilliant, were none the less imbued with a sense of gratitude to the Almighty, and filled with pity and respect for poor human nature.
It is certain that for such people, the idea of escaping the terrors, the dangers and the sight of most horrible spectacles, had not weighed an instant in the balance against the repugnance of altering life-long habits, or abandoning an assemblage of dearly beloved landscapes and faces.
Naturally enough, a certain number of commercial minded had remained behind, tempted by the possibility of abnormal gain through catering to the soldier; and to whatever had been their habitual merchandise, was soon added a stock of mandolins, accordions, cheap jewelry, kit bags, fatigue caps and calico handkerchiefs—in fact all that indispensable, gaudy trumpery that serves to attract a clientele uniquely composed of warriors.
But, besides these merchants, there were still to be counted a certain number of well-to-do citizens, professors, government employes, priests and magistrates, all simple honest souls who had stayed because they were unable to resign themselves to an indefinite residence away from Soissons, and there was no sacrifice to which they were not resolved in advance, so long as it procured them the joy of remaining.
I accompanied the President of the local French Red Cross Chapter on a visit to a lady who was much interested in an ouvroir, and who lived in a splendid old mansion located near the ruins of the Palais de Justice.
The little bell tinkled several times, resounding clearly in the deathlike silence, and presently a young maid-servant made her appearance at a small door that opened in the heavy portico.
"Is Madame at home?"
"Oh, no, Madame! Why didn't Madame know that both Monsieur and Madame left for the seashore last evening? Shall I give Madame their address at Houlgate? They've been going there for the last twenty years. They will be back the first of September as usual."
"How stupid of me," exclaimed my companion. "I might have known though. We shall discover what we wish to know from Madame V."
We found the last mentioned lady and her daughter in a pretty dwelling on the boulevard Jeanne d'Arc. After presentations and greetings:
"You are not leaving town this Summer?"
"Not this season; unfortunately our country house is at present occupied by the Germans, and as the mountains are forbidden, and the sea air excites me so that I become quite ill, I fear we shall have to remain at home, for the time being at least. The garden is really delightfully cool though—we sit out there and sew all day."
I asked permission to admire the exquisite embroidered initials which both mother and daughter were working.
"I'm so glad you like them. Do you know we found that monogram on an old 18th century handkerchief? We merely enlarged it, and really feel that we have something quite unusual. But my table cloths are well worth it, they were the very last that were left at the Cour Batave. I doubt if any finer quality will ever be woven."
"Your daughter will have a wonderful trousseau."
"She will have something durable at least, Madame, a trousseau that will stand the test of time and washing," replied the good mother smiling blandly, touched by my appreciation.
"I still have sheets which came down to me from my great grand-mother, and I hope that my own great grand-sons will some day eat from this very cloth."
"But they will never guess under what strange circumstances it was hemmed and embroidered," gently proffered the young girl raising her big blue eyes and smiling sweetly.
"Bah, what difference does that make so long as they are happy and can live in peace? That's the principal thing, the one for which we're all working, isn't it?"
Such is the spirit that pervades all France. It is simple, undemonstrative heroism, the ardent desire of a race to last in spite of all. What more imperturbable confidence in its immortality could be manifested than by this mother and daughter calmly discussing the durability of their family linen, within actual range of Teuton gunfire that might annihilate them at any moment?
As we were about to leave Monsieur S. came up the front steps. He had been out in company of a friend, making his habitual daily tour of the city. Like most middle aged, well-to-do bourgeois his attire was composed of a pair of light trousers, slightly baggy at the knee, and a bit flappy about the leg; a black cutaway jacket and a white pique waistcoat. This classic costume usually comports a panama hat and an umbrella. Now Monsieur S. had the umbrella, but in place of the panama he had seen fit to substitute a blue steel soldier's helmet, which amazing military headgear made a strange combination with the remainder of his civilian apparel. Nevertheless he bowed to us very skilfully, and at that moment I caught sight of a leather strap, which slung over one shoulder, hung down to his waist and carried his gas mask.
For several days I laboured under the impression that this mode was quite unique, but was soon proved mistaken, for on going to the Post Office to get my mail (three carriers having been killed, there were no longer any deliveries) I discovered that it was little short of general. Several ladies had even dared risk the helmet, and the whole assembly took on a war like aspect that was quite apropos.
Thus adorned, the octogenarian Abbe de Villeneuve, his umbrella swung across his back, his cassock tucked up so as to permit him to ride a bicycle, was a sight that I shall never forget.
"Why, Monsieur le Cure, you've quite the air of a sportsman."
"My child, let me explain. You see I can no longer trust to my legs, they're too old and too rheumatic. Well then, when a bombardment sets in how on earth could I get home quickly without my bicycle?"
As visitors to the front, we were guests of the French Red Cross Society while in Soissons. The local president, whose deeds of heroism have astonished the world at large, is an old-time personal friend.
A luncheon in our honour was served on a spotless cloth, in the only room of that lady's residence which several hundred days of constant bombardment had still left intact. Yet, save for the fact that paper had replaced the window panes, nothing betrayed the proximity of the German. Through the open, vine grown casement, I could look out onto a cleanly swept little court whose centre piece of geraniums was a perfect riot of colour.
Around the congenial board were gathered our hostess, the old Cure de St. Vast, the General in command of the Brigade, his Colonel, three Aides-de-Camp, my husband and myself.
Naturally, the topic of conversation was the war, but strange as it may seem, it was we, the civilians, that were telling our friends of the different activities that were afoot and would eventually bring the United States to the side of the Allies.
Towards the middle of the repast our enemies began sending over a few shells and presently a serious bombardment was under way. Yet no one stirred.
Dishes were passed and removed, and though oft times I personally felt that the pattering of shrapnel on the tin roof opposite was uncomfortably close, I was convinced there was no theatrical display of bravery, no cheap heroism in our companions' unconsciousness. They were interested in what was being said—voila tout.
Presently, however, our hostess leaned towards me and I fancied she was about to suggest a trip cellarward, instead of which she whispered that on account of the bombardment we were likely to go without dessert since it had to come from the other side of town and had not yet arrived.
Then a shell burst quite close, and at the same time the street bell rang. The cordon was pulled, and through the aperture made by the backward swing of the great door, I caught sight of a ruddy cheeked, fair haired maiden in her early teens, bearing a huge bowl of fresh cream cheese in her outstretched hands.
Steadily she crossed the court, approached the window where she halted, smiled bashfully, set down her precious burden, and timidly addressing our hostess:
"I'm sorry, Madame," said she, "so sorry if I have made you wait."
And so it goes.
I remember a druggist who on greeting me exclaimed:
"A pretty life, is it not, for a man who has liver trouble?" And yet he remained simply because it was a druggist's duty to do so when all the others are mobilised.
There was also the printer of a local daily, who continued to set up his type with one side of his shop blown out; who went right on publishing when the roof caved in, and who actually never ceased doing so until the whole structure collapsed, and a falling wall had demolished his only remaining press.
Monsieur le Prefet held counsel and deliberated in a room against whose outside wall one could hear the constant patter of machine gun bullets raining thick from the opposite bank of the river. Monsieur Muzart, the Mayor, seemed to be everywhere at once, and was always the first on the spot when anything really serious occurred.
Add to these the little dairy maids, who each morning fearlessly delivered the city's milk; or the old fellow on whom had devolved the entire responsibility of the street-cleaning department and who went about, helmet clad, attending to his chores, now and then shouting a hearty "Whoa Bijou" to a faithful quadruped who patiently dragged his dump cart, and over whose left ear during the entire Summer, was tied a bunch of tri-colour field flowers.
I had almost forgotten to mention two extraordinary old women, whom I came upon seated out in a deserted street, making over a mattress, while gently discussing their private affairs. It was the end of a warm July afternoon. A refreshing coolness had begun to rise from the adjacent river, and in the declining sunlight I could see great swarms of honey bees hovering about a climbing rose bush whose fragrant blossoms hung in huge clusters over the top of a convent wall near by. I could not resist the temptation. Pressed by the desire to possess I stepped forward and was about to reach upward when a masculine voice, whose owner was hidden somewhere near my elbow called forth:
"Back, I say! Back! you're in sight!"
I quickly dived into the shadow for cover just in time to hear the bullets from a German machine gun whizz past my ear!
"You can trust them to see everything," murmured one of the old women, not otherwise disturbed. "But if you really want some roses just go around the block and in by the back gate, Madame."
How in the presence of such calm can we believe in war?
Ah, France! elsewhere perhaps there may be just as brave—but surely none more sweetly!
The little village was just behind the lines. The long stretch of roadway, that following the Aisne finally passed through its main street, had been so thoroughly swept by German fire that it was as though pockmarked by ruts and shell holes, always half full of muddy water.
A sign to the left said—
Chemin, defile de V.—
There could be no choice; there was but to follow the direction indicated, branch out onto a new highway which, over a distance of two or three miles, wound in and out with many strategic contortions; a truly military route whose topography was the most curious thing imaginable. If by accident there happened to be a house in its way it didn't take the trouble to go around, but through the edifice.
One arrived thus in the very midst of the village, having involuntarily traversed not only the notary's flower garden, but also his drawing-room, if one were to judge by the quality of the now much faded wall paper, and the empty spots where portraits used to hang.
The township had served as target to the German guns for many a long month, and was seriously amoche, as the saying goes. "Coal scuttles" by the hundred had ripped the tiles from almost every roof. Huge breaches gaped in other buildings, while some of them were completely levelled to the ground. Yet, in spite of all, moss, weeds and vines had sprung up mid the ruins, adding, if possible, the picturesque to this scene of desolation. One robust morning glory I noted had climbed along a wall right into the soot of a tumble-down chimney, and its fairylike blossoms lovingly entwined the iron bars whereon had hung and been smoked many a succulent ham.
The territorials (men belonging to the older army classes), had installed their mess kitchens in every convenient corner: some in the open court-yards and others beneath rickety stables and sheds, where the sunlight piercing the gloom caught the dust in its rays and made it seem like streams of golden powder, whose brightness enveloped even the most sordid nooks and spread cheer throughout the dingy atmosphere.
Fatigue squads moved up and down the road, seeking or returning with supplies, while those who were on duty, pick and shovel in hand, moved off to their work in a casual, leisurely manner one would hardly term military.
Of civilians there remained but few. Yet civilians there were, and of the most determined nature: "hangers-on" who when met in this vicinity seemed almost like last specimens of an extinct race, sole survivors of the world shipwreck.
At the moment of our arrival an old peasant woman was in the very act of scolding the soldiers, who to the number of two hundred and fifty (a whole company) filled to overflowing her modest lodgings, where it seemed to me half as many would have been a tight squeeze. It was naturally impossible for her to have an eye on all of them. In her distress she took me as witness to her trials.
"Just see," she vociferated, "they trot through my house with their muddy boots, they burn my wood, they're drying up my well, and on top of it all they persist in smoking in my hay-loft, and the hay for next Winter is in! Shouldn't you think their Officers would look after them? Why, I have to be a regular watch-dog, I do!"
"That's all very well, mother," volunteered a little dried up Corporal. "But how about their incendiary shells? You'll get one of them sooner or later. See if you don't!"
"If it comes, we'll take it; we've seen lots worse than that! Humph! That's no reason why you should mess up a house that belongs to your own people, is it? I'd like to know what your wife would say if she caught you smoking a pipe in her hay loft?"
Shouts of laughter from the culprits. Then a tall, lean fellow, taking her side, called out:
"She's right, boys, she had a hard enough job getting the hay in all by herself. Put out your pipes since that seems to get on her nerves. Now then, mother, there's always a way of settling a question between honest people. We won't smoke in your hay any more; that is, provided you'll sell us fresh vegetables for our mess."
The old woman was trapped and had to surrender, which she did, but most ungraciously, all the while moaning that she would more than likely die of starvation the following Winter. So a moment later the group dispersed on hearing the news that the "Auto-bazaar" had arrived.
This auto-bazaar certainly contained more treasures than were ever dreamed of in ancient Golconda. There was everything the soldier's heart might desire, from gun grease and cigarette paper down to wine and provisions; the whole stored away in a literal honey-comb of shelves and drawers with which the sides were lined.
The men all hurried forward. Loaded with water bottles, their hands full of coppers, they clustered about it.
From his dominating position at the rear end of the truck, the store-keeper announced:
"No more pork pie left!"
This statement brought forth several indignant oaths from the disappointed.
"It's always that way, they're probably paid to play that joke on us. It was the same story last time! We'll send in a complaint. See if we don't."
But these grumblings were soon outvoiced by the announcement—
"Plenty of head-cheese and camembert. Now then! boys, who's ready?"
The effect was instantaneous.
Smiles broke out on every countenance. The good news was quickly spread abroad, and presently the sound of plates and dishes, clinking cups, and joyful laughter recalled a picnic which we had organised in the vicinity, one warm July afternoon some four years ago.
A military band rehearsing a march in an open field just behind us added life and gaiety to the scene, and reminded me of the "Merry-go-round," the chief attraction of that defunct country fair, and upon which even the most dignified of our friends had insisted riding.
After all, could it be possible that this was the very midst of war? Was it such a terrible thing, since the air fairly rung with merriment?
"Make room there," called a gruff voice, not far distant.
"Stand aside! Quick now!"
The crowd parted, and a couple of stretcher bearers with their sad human burden put an end to my soliloquy. My afternoon was stained with blood. On their litter they bore a lad whose bloodless lips, fluttering eyelids, and heaving breast, bespoke unutterable suffering.
One must have actually witnessed such sights to realise the enormity of human agony, grasp the torment that a stupid bit of flying steel can inflict upon a splendid human frame—so well, so happy, so full of hope but a second since. Oh, the pity of it all!
"Who is it?" the men whisper.
"Belongs to the 170th. They replaced us. He was caught in the Boyau des Anglais."
"That's a wicked spot, that is!"
"Is he one of ours?" questioned a man from an upper window, stopping an instant in the act of polishing his gun.
"No," answers some one.
The enquirer recommenced his work, and with it the refrain of his song, just where he had left off.
"Sur les bords de la Riviera," sang he blithely.
Little groups formed along the wayside. Seated on the straw they finished their afternoon meal, touching mugs, and joking together. Near them the artillerymen greased and verified their axles; others brushed and curried the horses. In one spot a hair dresser had set up his tonsorial parlor in the open, and his customers formed in line awaiting their turns.
Further on the permissionaires blacked their boots and furbished their raiment, making ready to leave for home. Swarms of humming birds and bees clustered about a honeysuckle vine which clung to the fragments of a fence near by, and whose fragrance saturated the air.
The friend, whose regiment number we had recognised, and stopped to see, came up from behind and touched me on the shoulder.
"Well, of all things! What on earth are you doing here?"
We explained our mission, and then inquired about mutual acquaintances.
"Pistre? Why he's with the munitions in the 12xth. We'll go over and see him. It's not far. But hold on a minute, isn't Lorrain a friend of yours?"
"Well, his son's my lieutenant. I'll go and get him. He'd be too sorry to miss you."
He disappeared and a few moments later returned followed by his superior, a handsome little nineteen year old officer, who came running up, his pipe in his mouth, his drinking cup still in his hand. The lad blushed scarlet on seeing us, for he doubtless recalled, as did I, the times not long gone by, when I used to meet him at a music teacher's, his long curls hanging over his wide sailor collar.
The idea that this mere infant should have command over such a man as our friend Nourrigat, double his age, and whose life of work and struggle had been a marvel to us all, somewhat shocked me.
I think the little chap felt it, for he soon left us, pleading that he must be present at a conference of officers.
"A brave fellow and a real man," commented Nourrigat, as the boy moved away. "His whole company has absolute confidence in him. You can't imagine the calm and prestige that kid possesses in the face of danger. He's the real type of leader, he is! And let me tell you, he's pretty hard put sometimes."
And then in a burst of genuine enthusiasm, he continued:
"It's wonderful to be under twenty, with a smart little figure, a winsome smile, and a gold stripe on your sleeve. The women willingly compare you to the Queen's pages, or Napoleon's handsome hussars. That may be all very well in a salon, or in the drawings you see in 'La Vie Parisienne,' but it takes something more than that to be a true officer. He's got to know the ropes at playing miner, bombarder, artilleryman, engineer, optician, accountant, caterer, undertaker, hygienist, carpenter, mason—I can't tell you what all. And in each particular job he's got to bear the terrible responsibility of human lives; maintain the discipline and the moral standard, assure the cohesion of his section. Moreover, he's called upon to receive orders with calm and reserve under the most difficult and trying circumstances, must grasp them with lightning speed and execute them according to rules and tactics. A moment of hesitancy or forgetfulness, and he is lost. The men will no longer follow him. I tell you it isn't everybody that's born to be a leader!"
"But, was he educated for the career?" we questioned.
"I don't think so. I imagine he's just waiting for the end of the war to continue his musical studies—that is if he comes out alive."
"I? Why I've no particular ambition. I suppose I could have gone into the Camouflage Corps if I'd taken the trouble to ask. But what's the use of trying to shape your own destiny?"
"You've gotten used to this life?"
"Not in the least. I abominate and adore it all in the same breath. Or, to be more explicit, I admire the men and abhor the military pictures, the thrilling and sentimental ideas of the warrior with which the civilian head is so generously crammed. I love military servitude, and the humble life of the men in the ranks, but I have a genuine horror of heroes and their sublimity.
"Just look over there," he went on, waving his hand towards a long line of seated poilus who were peacefully enjoying their pipes, while wistfully watching the smoke curl upward. "Just look at them, aren't they splendid? Why they've got faces like the 'Drinkers' in the Velasquez picture. See that little fellow rolling his cigarette? Isn't he the image of the Bacchus who forms the centre of the painting? That's Brunot, and he's thinking about all the god-mothers whose letters swell out his pockets. He can't make up his mind whether he prefers the one who lives in Marseilles and who sent him candied cherries and her photograph; or the one from Laval who keeps him well supplied with devilled ham which he so relishes. The two men beside him are Lemire and Lechaptois—both peasants. When they think, it's only of their farms and their wives. That other little thin chap is a Parisian bookkeeper. I'd like to bet that he's thinking of his wife, and only of her. He's wondering if she's faithful to him. It's almost become an obsession. I've never known such jealousy, it's fairly killing him.
"That man Ballot, just beyond"—and our friend motioned up the line—"that man Ballot would give anything to be home behind his watch-maker's stand. In a moment or so he'll lean over and begin a conversation with his neighbour Thevenet. They've only one topic, and it's been the same for two years. It's angling. They haven't yet exhausted it.
"All of them at bottom are heartily wishing it were over; they've had enough of it. But they're good soldiers, just as before the war they were good artisans. The metier is sacred—as are the Family and Duty. 'The Nation, Country, Honour' are big words for which they have a certain repugnance.
"'That's all rigmarole that somebody hands you when you've won the Wooden Cross and a little garden growing over your tummy,' is the way they put it in their argot. 'The Marseillaise, the Chant du Depart are all right for the youngsters, and the reviews—and let me tell you, the reviews take a lot of furbishing and make a lot of dust. That's all they really amount to.'
"When they sing, it's eternally 'The Mountaineers' who, as you know, are always 'there,' 'Sous les Ponts de Paris,' 'Madelon' and other sentimental compositions, and if by accident, in your desire to please, you were prone to compare them to the heroes of Homer, it's more than likely your pains would be rewarded by the first missile on which they could lay their hands and launch in your direction. They will not tolerate mockery.
"No"—he went on, filling his pipe, and enunciating between each puff. "No, they are neither supermen nor heroes; no more than they are drunkards or foul mouthed blackguards. No, they are better than all that—they are men, real men, who do everything they do well; be it repairing a watch, cabinet-making, adding up long columns of figures or peeling potatoes, mounting guard, or going over the top! They do the big things as though they were small, the small things as though they were big!
"Two days ago the captain sent for two men who had been on patrol duty together. He had but one decoration to bestow and both chaps were in hot discussion as to who should not be cited for bravery.
"'Now, boys, enough of this,' said the captain. 'Who was leading, and who first cut the German barbed wire?'
"'Well then, Dubois, what's all this nonsense? The cross is yours.'
"'No, sir, if you please, that would be idiotic! I'm a foundling, haven't any family. What's a war cross more or less to me? Now Paul here keeps a cafe; just think of the pleasure it will give his clientele to see him come back decorated.'
"The captain who knows his men, understood Dubois' sincerity, and so Paul got the medal.
"I believe it was Peguy who said that 'Joan of Arc' has the same superiority over other saints, as the man who does his military service has over those who are exempt.' But it's only the soldiers who really understand that, and when they say On les aura, it means something more from their lips, than when uttered by a lady over her tea-cups, or a reporter in his newspaper."
During this involuntary monologue we had strolled along the road which Nourrigat had originally indicated as the direction of our friend Pistre. Presently he led us into the church, a humble little village sanctuary. A shell had carried away half the apse, and sadly damaged the altar. The belfry had been demolished and the old bronze bell split into four pieces had been carefully fitted together by some loving hand, and stood just inside the doorway.
St. Anthony of Padua had been beheaded, and of St. Roch there remained but one foot and half his dog. Yet, a delightful sensation of peace and piety reigned everywhere. From the confessional rose the murmur of voices, and the improvised altar was literally buried beneath garlands of roses.
In what had once been a chapel, a soldier now sat writing. His note books were spread before him on a table, a telephone was at his elbow.
Chalk letters on a piece of broken slate indicate that this is the "Bureau de la 22e."
An old bent and withered woman, leaning on a cane, issued from this office-chapel as we approached.
"Why that's mother Tesson," exclaimed Nourrigat. "Good evening, mother; how's your man to-day?"
"Better, sir. Much better, thank you. They've taken very good care of him at your hospital."
The old couple had absolutely refused to evacuate their house. The Sous-Prefet, the Prefet, all the authorities had come and insisted, but to no avail.
"We've lost everything," she would explain. "Our three cows, our chickens, our pigs. Kill us if you like, but don't force us to leave home. We worked too hard to earn it!"
And so they had hung on as an oyster clings to its rock. One shell had split their house in twain, another had flattened out the hayloft. The old woman lay on her bed crippled with rheumatism, her husband a victim of gall stones. Their situation was truly most distressing.
But there were the soldiers. Not any special company or individual—but the soldiers, the big anonymous mass—who took them in charge and passed them on from one to another.
"We leave father and mother Tesson to your care," was all they said to the new comers as they departed. But that was sufficient, and so the old couple were nursed, clothed and fed by those whom one would suppose had other occupations than looking after the destitute.
Three times the house was brought to earth. Three times they rebuilt it. The last time they even put in a stove so that the old woman would not have to bend over to reach her hearth. New beds were made and installed, the garden dug and planted. The old man was operated upon at the Division Hospital, and when he became convalescent they shared the contents of their home packages with him.
Who were they? This one or that one? Mother Tesson would most surely have been at a loss to name the lad who returned from his furlough bringing two hens and a rooster to start her barnyard. She vaguely remembered that he was from the south, on account of his accent, and that he must have travelled across all France with his cage of chickens in his hand.
They entered her home, smoked a pipe by her fireside, helped her to wash the dishes or shell peas; talked a moment with her old man and left, saying au revoir.
Another would come back greeting her with a cordial "Bonjour, mere Tesson."
"Good day, my son," she would reply.
And it was this constantly changing new found son who would chop wood, draw water from the well, write a letter that would exempt them from taxes, or make a demand for help from the American Committees.
Thus the aged pair had lived happily, loved and respected, absolutely without want, and shielded from all material worry. And when some poor devil who has spent four sleepless nights in the trenches, on his return steals an hour or two from his well earned, much craved sleep, in order to hoe their potato patch, one would doubtless be astonished to hear such a man exclaim by way of excuse for his conduct—
"Oh, the poor old souls! Just think of it! At their age. What a pity."
We found Pistre making a careful toilet with the aid of a tin pail full of water.
"This is a surprise, on my soul!"
We hastened to give him news of his family and friends.
Presently he turned towards Nourrigat.
"How about your regiment? Stationary?"
"I fancy so. We were pretty well thinned out. We're waiting for reinforcements."
"What's become of Chenu, and Morlet and Panard?"
"Gone! all of them."
"Too bad! They were such good fellows!"
And our friends smiled, occupied but with the thought of the living present. Paris, their friends, their families, their professions, all seemed to be forgotten, or completely over-shadowed by the habitual daily routine of marches and halts, duties and drudgery. They were no longer a great painter and a brilliant barrister. They were two soldiers; two atoms of that formidable machine which shall conquer the German; they were as two monks in a monastery—absolutely oblivious to every worldly occupation.
We understand, we feel quite certain that they will be ours again—but later—when this shall all be over—if God spares them to return.
At that same instant two boys appeared at the entrance to the courtyard. They may have been respectively ten and twelve years of age. The perspiration trickled from their faces, and they were bending beneath the weight of a huge bundle each carried on his back.
"Hello, there, fellows," called one of them.
A soldier appeared on the threshold.
"Here Lefranc—here are your two boxes of sardines, and your snuff. There isn't any more plum jam to be had. Oh, yes, and here's your writing paper."
The child scribbled something in an old account book.
"That makes fifty-three sous," he finally announced.
Other soldiers now came up.
The boys were soon surrounded by a group of eager gesticulating poilus.
"Oh, shut up, can't you? How can a fellow think if you all scream at once? Here—Mimile"—and he turned to his aid. "Don't you give 'em a thing."
Then the tumult having subsided, he continued—
"Now then, your names, one at a time—and don't muddle me when I'm trying to count!"
Pistre quickly explained that this phenomenon was Popaul called "Business"—and Mimile, his clerk, both sons of a poor widow who washed for the soldiers. In spite of his tender years "Business" had developed a tendency for finance that bespoke a true captain of industry. He had commenced by selling the men newspapers, and then having saved enough to buy first one and then a second bicycle, the brothers went twice a day to Villers Cotterets, some fifteen miles distant, in quest of the orders given them by the soldiers. At first the dealers tried to have this commerce prohibited, but as the lads were scrupulously honest, and their percentage very modest, the Commandant not only tolerated, but protected them.
Mimile was something of a Jonah, having twice been caught by bits of shrapnel, which necessitated his being cared for at the dressing station.
"All his own fault too," exclaimed Business, shrugging his shoulders. "He's no good at diving. Doesn't flatten out quick enough. Why I used to come right over the road last Winter when the bombardment was on full tilt. I was then working for the Legion and the Chasseurs. No cinch let me tell you! It used to be—'Popaul here—Popaul there—where's my tobacco? How about my eau-de-Cologne?' There wasn't any choice with those fellows. It was furnish the goods or bust—and I never lost them a sou's worth of merchandise either!"
Business knew everything and everybody; all the tricks of the trade, all the tricks of the soldiers. He had seen all the Generals, and all the Armies from the British to the Portuguese.
He had an intimate acquaintance with all the different branches of warfare, as well as a keen memory for slang and patois. He nourished but one fond hope in his bosom—a hope which in moments of expansion he imparts, if he considers you worthy of his confidence.
"In four years I'll volunteer for the aviation corps."
"In four years? That's a long way off, my lad. That's going some, I should say," called a poilu who had overheard the confession.
"Look here, Business, did I hear you say it won't be over in four years?" asked another.
"Over? Why, it'll have only just begun. It was the Americans on the motor trucks who told me so, and I guess they ought to know!"
We watched him distribute his packages, make change and take down his next day's orders, in a much soiled note-book, and with the aid of a stubby pencil which he was obliged to wet every other letter. When he had finished a soldier slipped over towards him.
"I say, Paul," he called out to him, "would you do us the honour of dining with us? We've got a package from home. Bring your brother with you."
Business was touched to the quick.
"I'm your man," he answered. "And with pleasure. But you must let me furnish the aperatif."
"Just as you say, old man."
Brusquely turning about, the future tradesman sought for his clerk who had disappeared.
"Mimile," he shouted, "Mimile, I say, run and tell mamma to iron our shirts and put some polish on our shoes. I'll finish to-day's job by myself."
Not satisfied with the havoc wrought in Soissons and other cities of the front, the Boche is now trying to encircle the head of Paris with the martyr's crown. The capital, lately comprised in the army zone, has been called upon to pay its blood tax, and like all the other heroic maimed and wounded, has none the less retained its good humour, its confidence and its serenity.
"It will take more than that to prevent us from going to the cafes," smiled an old Parisian, shrugging his shoulders.
And this sentiment was certainly general if one were to judge by the crowd who literally invaded the terrasses between five and seven, and none of whom seemed in the least preoccupied or anxious.
Aperatifs have long since ceased to be anything save pleasant remembrances—yet the custom itself has remained strong as a tradition. Absinthes, bitters and their like have not only been abolished, but replaced—and by what? Mineral waters, fruit syrups and tea!
The waiters have been metamorphosed into herbalists. Besides, what am I saying, there are really no more waiters, save perhaps a few decrepit specimens whom flatfoot has relegated beyond the name, their waddling so strangely resembles that of ducks. All the others are serving—at the front.
From my seat I could see two ferocious looking, medal bespangled warriors ordering, the one a linden flower and verbena, the other camomile with mint leaf. And along with the cups, saucers and tea-pots, the waiter brought a miniature caraffe, which in times gone by contained the brandy that always accompanied an order of coffee. At present its contents was extract of orange flower!
There may be certain smart youth who brag about having obtained kirsch for their tilleul, or rum in their tea, but such myths are scarcely credited.
Naturally there is the grumbling element who claim that absinthe never hurt any one, and cite as example the painter Harpignies, who lived to be almost a hundred, having absorbed on the average of two a day until the very last.
But all have become so accustomed to making sacrifices that even this one is passed off with a smile. What can one more or less mean now? Besides, the women gave up pastry, didn't they?
One joked the first time one ordered an infusion or a lemon vichy, one was even a bit disgusted at the taste. And then one got used to it, the same as one is ready to become accustomed to anything; to trotting about the darkened streets, to going to bed early, to getting along without sugar, and even to being bombed.
There is a drawing by Forain which instantly obtained celebrity, and which represents two French soldiers talking together in the trenches.
"If only they're able to stick it out!"
And now at the end of four long years it may be truly said of the civilian that he has "seen it through." Not so gloriously, perhaps, but surely quite as magnificently as his brothers at the front.
In a country like France, where all men must join the army, the left-behind is not an indifferent being; he is a father, a brother, a son, or a friend; he is that feverish creature who impatiently waits the coming of the postman, who lives in a perpetual state of agony, trembles for his dear ones, and at the same time continues his business, often doubling, even trebling his efforts so as to replace the absent, and still has sufficient sense of humour to remark:
"In these days when every one is a soldier, it's a hard job to play the civilian."
Last summer an American friend said to me:
"Of course, there are some changes, but as I go about the streets day in and day out, it hardly seems as though Paris were conscious of the war. It is quite unbelievable."
But that very same evening when slightly after eleven, Elizabeth and I sauntered up the darkened, deserted Faubourg St. Honore—
"Think," she said, catching my arm, "just think that behind each and every one of those facades there is some one suffering, hoping, weeping, perhaps in secret! Think of the awful moment when all the bells shall solemnly toll midnight, every stroke resounding like a dirge in the souls of those who are torn with anxiety, who crave relief, and patiently implore a sleep that refuses to come."
The soldiers know it, know but too well the worth of all the energies expended without thought of glory; appreciate the value of that stoicism which consists in putting on a bold front and continuing the every-day life, without betraying a trace of sorrow or emotion.
Many a husband is proud of his wife, many a brother of his sister, and many a son of his father and his mother.
Even those, who all things considered would seem the farthest from the war, suffer untold tortures. How often last autumn did H. and I pay visits to old artist friends, men well into the sixties with no material worries, and no one at the front; only to find them alone in one corner of their huge studios, plunged in profound reveries, and utterly unconscious of the oncoming night, or the rain that beat against the skylights.
"I know, I know, it's all very well to shake yourself and say you must work. It's easy enough to recall that in 1870 Fantin Latour shut himself up and painted fruit and flowers, and by emulation, buoyed up perhaps by this precedent, you sit down and sketch a still life. What greater joy than to seek out a harmony, find the delicate suave tones, and paint it in an unctuous medium. Yes, it's a joy, but only when head and heart are both in it! The museums too, used to be a source of untold pleasure, but even if they were open you wouldn't go, because the head and the heart are 'Out there' where that wondrous youth is being mowed down—'Out there' where lies our every hope, 'Out there' where we would like to be, all of us! 'Tis hardly the moment to paint ripe grapes and ruddy apples, and to feel that you're only good for that! It's stupid to be old!"
And many, many a dear old man has passed away, unnoticed. When one asks the cause of a death friends shrug their shoulders,
"We scarcely know, some say one thing, some another—perhaps the war!"
"In proportion you'll find that there are as many deaths on the Boulevard as in the trenches," said our friend, Pierre Stevens, on returning from Degas' funeral.
I would you might go with me, all you who love France, into one of those Parisian houses, where after dinner when the cloth has been removed, the huge road maps are spread out on the dining-room table, and every one eagerly bends over them with bated breath, while the latest communique is read. Fathers, mothers, grandmothers, and little children, friends and relatives, solemnly, anxiously await the name of their secteurs—the secteurs where their loved ones are engaged. How all the letters are read, re-read and handed about, each one seeking a hidden sense, the meaning of an allusion; how dark grows every brow when the news is not so good—what radiant expanse at the word victory.
And through fourteen hundred long days this same scene has been repeated, and no one has ever quailed.
The theatres have cellars prepared to receive their audiences in case of bombardment, and one of our neighbours, Monsieur Walter, has just written asking permission in my absence to build an armoured dug-out in the hallway of my home.