The Turn of the Tide: Adventures in the Little House on the Marne

HUIRY-SUR-MARNE,
September 8, 1914.
I HAD gone to bed early on the night of Friday, September 4, and passed an uneasy night. It was before four when I got up and opened my shutters. It was a lovely day. Perhaps I have told you that the weather all last week was simply perfect.
I went downstairs to get coffee for the picket, but when I got out to the gate there was no picket there. There was the barricade, but the road was empty. I ran up the road to Amélie’s. She told me that they had marched away about an hour before. A bicyclist had evidently brought an order. As no one spoke English, no one understood what had really happened. Père had been to Couilly — they had all left there. So far as any one could discover there was not an English soldier, or any kind of a soldier, left anywhere in the commune.
This was Saturday morning, September 5, and one of the loveliest days I ever saw. The air was clear. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. But otherwise it was very still. I walked out on the lawn. Little lines of white smoke were rising from a few chimneys at Joncheroy and Voisins. The towns on the plain, from Montyon and Penchard on the horizon to Mareuil in the valley, stood out clear and distinct. But after three days of activity, three days with the soldiers about, it seemed, for the first time since I came here, lonely; and for the first time I realized that I was actually cut off from the outside world. All the bridges in front of me were gone, and the big bridge behind me. No communication possible with the north, and none with the south except by road over the hill to Lagny. Esbly evacuated, Couilly evacuated, Quincy evacuated. All the shops closed. No government, no postoffice, and absolutely no knowledge of what had happened since Wednesday. I had a horrible sense of isolation.
Right after breakfast I had the proof that I was right about the Germans. Evidently well informed of the movements of the English, they rode boldly into the open. Luckily they seemed disinclined to do any mischief. Perhaps the place looked too humble to be bothered with. They simply asked — one of them spoke French, and perhaps they all did — where they were, and were told, ‘Huiry, commune of Quincy.’ They looked it up on their maps, nodded, and asked if the bridges on the Marne had been destroyed, to which I replied that I did not know, — I had not been down to the river. Half a truth and half a lie, but goodness knows that it was hard enough to have to be polite. They thanked me civilly enough and rode down the hill, as they could not pass the barricade unless they had wished to give an exhibition of ‘high school.’ Wherever they had been they had not suffered. Their horses were fine animals, and both horses and men were well groomed and in prime condidition.
Luckily for me, part of the morning was killed by what might be called an incident, or a disaster, or a farce —just as you look at it. Just after the Germans were here I went down the road to call on my new French friends at the foot of the hill, to hear how they had passed the night, and incidentally to discover if there were any soldiers about. Just in the front of their house I found an English bicycle scout, leaning on his wheel and trying to make himself understood in a one-sided monosyllabic dialogue with the two girls standing in their window.
I asked him who he was. He showed his papers. They were all right, — an Irishman — Ulster — Royal Innisfall Fusiliers — thirteen years in the service.
I asked him if there were any English soldiers left here. He said there was still a bicycle corps of scouts at the foot of the hill, at Couilly. I thought that funny, as Père had said the town was absolutely deserted. Still, I saw no reason to doubt his word, so when he asked me if I could give him his breakfast, I brought him back to the house, set the table in the arbor, and gave him his coffee and eggs. When he had finished he showed no inclination to go — said he would rest a bit. As Amélie was in the house, I left him and went back to make the call that my encounter with him had interrupted. When I returned an hour later I found him fast asleep on the bench in the arbor, with the sun shining right on his head. His wheel, with his kit and gun on it, was leaning up against the house.
It was nearly noon by this time, and hot, and I was afraid he would get a sunstroke; so I waked him and told him that if it was a rest he needed, — and he was free to take it, — he could go into the room at the head of the stairs, where he would find a couch and lie down comfortably. But his sleepiness seemed suddenly to have disappeared, so he asked for the chance to wash and shave; and half an hour later he came down all slicked up and spruce, with a very visible intention of paying court to the lady of the house. Irish, you see, — white hairs no obstacle. I could not help laughing. ‘Hoity toity,’ I said to myself, ‘I am getting all kinds of impressions of the military.’
While I was, with amusement, putting up fences, the gardener next door came down the hill in great excitement to tell me that the Germans were on the road above, and were riding down across Père’s farm into a piece of land called ‘la terre blanche,’ where Père has recently been digging out great rocks, making it an ideal place to hide. He knew that there was an English scout in my house and thought I ought to know. I suppose he expected the boy in khaki to grab his gun and capture them all. I thanked him and sent him away. I must say my Irishman did not seem a bit interested in the Germans. His belt and pistol lay on the salon table, where he put them when he came downstairs. He made himself comfortable in an easy chair, and continued to give me another dose of his blarney. I suppose I was getting needlessly nervous. It was really none of my business what he was doing here. Still he was a bit too sans gêne.
Finally he began to ask questions. ‘Was I afraid?’ I was not. ‘Did I live alone?’ I did. As soon as I had said it I thought it was stupid of me, especially as he at once said, —
‘ If you are, yer know, I’ll come back here to sleep to-night. I’m perfectly free to come and go as I like, — don’t have to report until I’m ready.’
I thought it wise to remind him right here that if his corps was at the foot of the hill, it was wise for him to let his commanding officer know that the Germans for whom two regiments had been hunting for three days had come out of hiding. I fancy if I had not taken that tack he’d have settled for the day.
‘Put that thing on,’ I said, pointing to his pistol, ‘get your wheel out of the barn, and I’ll take a look up the road and see that it’s clear. I don’t care to see you attacked under my eyes.’
I knew that there was not the slightest danger of that, but it sounded businesslike. I am afraid he found it so, because he said at once, ‘ Could you give me a drink before I go?’
‘Water?’ I said.
‘No, not that.’
I was going to say ‘no,’ when it occurred to me that Amélie had told me that she had put a bottle of cider in the buffet, and — well, he was Irish, and I wanted to get rid of him. So I said he could have a glass of cider, and I got the bottle, and a small, deep champagne glass. He uncorked the bottle, drank it off, and thanked me more earnestly than cider would have seemed to warrant. While he got his wheel out, I went through the form of making sure the road was free. There was no one in sight. So I sent him away with directions for reaching Couilly without going over the part of the hill where the Uhlans had hidden, and drew a sigh of relief when he was off. Hardly fifteen minutes later some one came running up from Voisins to tell me that just around the corner he had slipped off his wheel, almost unconscious, evidently drunk. I was amazed. He had been absolutely all right when he left me. As no one understood a word he tried to say, there was nothing to do but go and rescue him. But by the time I got to where he had fallen off his wheel, he was gone, — some one had taken him away, — and it was not until two days later that I discovered the truth of the matter.
Yesterday afternoon an exhausted soldier was in need of a stimulant, and one of his comrades, who was supporting him, asked me if I had anything. I had nothing but the bottle out of which the Irish scout had drunk. I rushed for it and poured some into the tin cup held out to me. Just as the poor fellow was about to drink, his comrade pulled the cup away, smelt it, and exclaimed, ‘Don’t drink that — here, put some water in it. That’s not cider. It’s eaude-vie des prunes.'
I can tell you I was startled. I had never tasted eau-de-vie des prunes, — a native brew, stronger than brandy, and far more dangerous, — and my Irishman had pulled off a full champagne glass at a gulp, and never winked. No wonder he fell off his wheel. The wonder is that he did not die on the spot. I was humiliated. Still, he was Irish and perhaps he did n’t care. I hope he did n’t. But only think, he will never know that I did not do it on purpose. He was probably gloriously drunk. Anyway, it prevented his coming back to make that visit he threatened me with.
All this excitement kept me from listening too much to the cannon, which had been booming ever since nine o’clock. Amélie had been busy running between her house and mine, but she has, among other big qualities, the blessed habit of taking no notice. I wish it were contagious. She went about her work as if nothing were hanging over us. I don’t believe she shirked a thing. It seemed to me absurd to care whether the dusting was done or not, whether or not the writing-table was in order, or the pictures straight on the wall.
As near as I can remember, it was a little after one o’clock when the cannonading suddenly became much heavier, and I stepped out into the orchard, from which there is a wide view of the plain. I gave one look; then I heard myself say, ‘Amélie,’ — as if she could help, — and I retreated. Amélie rushed by me. I heard her say, ‘Mon Dieu!’ I waited, but she did not come back. After a bit I pulled myself together, went out again, and followed down to the hedge where she was standing, looking off to the plain.
The battle had advanced right over the crest of the hill. The sun was shining brilliantly on silent Mareuil and Chauconin, but Montyon and Penchard were enveloped in smoke. From the eastern and western extremities of the plain we could see the artillery fire, but owing to the smoke hanging over the crest of the hill on the horizon, it was impossible to get an idea of the positions of the armies. In the west it seemed to be somewhere near Claye, and in the east it was in the direction of Barcy. I tried to remember what the English soldiers had said, — that the Germans were, if possible, to be pushed east, in which case the artillery at the west must be either the French or English. The hard thing to bear was, that it was all conjecture.
So often, when I first took this place on the hill, I had looked off at the plain and thought, ‘What a battlefield! ’ forgetting how often the Seine et Marne had been that, from the days when the kings lived at Chelles down to the days when it saw the worst of the invasion of 1870. But when I thought that, I had visions very different from what I was seeing. I had imagined long lines of marching soldiers, detachments of flying cavalry, like the war pictures at Versailles and Fontainebleau. Now I was actually seeing a battle, and it was nothing like that. There was only noise, belching smoke, and long drifts of white clouds concealing the hill.
By the middle of the afternoon Montyon came slowly out of the smoke. That seemed to mean that the heaviest firing was over the hill and not on it, — or did it mean that the battle was receding? If it did, then the Allies were retreating. There was no way to discover the truth. And all this time the cannon thundered in the southeast, in the direction of Coulommiers, on the route into Paris by Ivry.
A dozen times during the afternoon I went into the study and tried to read. Little groups of old men, women, and children were in the road, mounted on the barricade which the English had left. I could hear the murmur of their voices. In vain I tried to stay indoors. The thing was stronger than I, and in spite of myself, I would go out on the lawn and, field-glass in hand, watch the smoke.
Between me and the terrible thing stretched a beautiful country, as calm in the sunshine as if horrors were not. In the field below me the wheat was being cut. I remembered vividly afterward that a white horse was drawing the reaper, and women and children were stacking and gleaning. Now and then the horse would stop, and a woman, with her red handkerchief on her head, would stand, shading her eyes a moment, and look off. Then the white horse would turn and go plodding on. The grain had to be got in if the Germans were coming, and these fields were to be trampled as they were in 1870. Talk about the duality of the mind — it is sextuple. I would not dare tell you all that went through mine that long afternoon.
It was just about six o’clock when the first bomb that we could really see came over the hill. The sun was setting. For two hours we saw them rise, descend, explode. Then a little smoke would rise from one hamlet, then from another; then a tiny flame — hardly more than a spark — would be visible; and by dark the whole plain was on fire, lighting up Mareuil in the foreground, silent and untouched. There were long lines of grain-stacks and mills stretching along the plain. One by one they took fire, until, by ten o’clock, they stood like a procession of huge torches across my beloved panorama.
It was midnight when I looked off for the last time. The wind had changed. The fires were still burning. The smoke was drifting toward us — and oh! the odor of it! I hope you will never know what it is like.
I was just going to close up when Amélie came to the door to see if I was all right. My mind was in a sort of riot. It was the suspense, — the not knowing the result, or what the next day might bring. You know, I am sure, that physical fear is not one of my characteristics. Fear of Life, dread of Fate, I often have, but not the other. Yet somehow when I saw Amélie standing there I felt that I needed the sense of something living near me. So I said, ‘Amélie, do you want to do me a great service?’
She said she’d like to try.
‘Well then,’ I replied, ‘don’t you want to sleep here to-night?’
With her pretty smile, she pulled her nightdress from under her arm: that was why she had come. So I made her go to bed in the big bed in the guestchamber, and leave the door open; and do you know, she was asleep in five minutes, and snoring, and I smiled to hear her, and thought it the most comforting sound I had ever heard.
As for me, I did not sleep a moment. I could not forget the poor fellows lying dead out there in the starlight — and it was such a beautiful night.
It was about my usual time, four o’clock, the next morning, — Sunday, September 6, — that I opened my blinds. Another lovely day. I was dressed and downstairs when, a little before five, the battle recommenced.
I rushed out on the lawn and looked off. It had moved east — behind the hill between me and Meaux. All I could see was the smoke which hung over it. Still it seemed nearer than it had the day before. I had just about room enough in my mind for one idea: ‘The Germans wish to cross the Marne at Meaux, on the direct route into Paris. They are getting there. In that case to-day will settle our fate. If they reach the Marne that battery at Coutevroult will come into action,’ — that was what Captain Edwards had said, — ‘and I shall be in a direct line between the two armies.’
Amélie got breakfast as if there were no cannon, so I took my coffee, and said nothing. As soon as it was cleared away I went up into the attic, and quietly packed a tiny square hat-trunk. I was thankful that this year’s clothes take up so little room. I put in changes of underwear, stockings, slippers, an extra pair of low-heeled shoes, plenty of handkerchiefs, just the essentials in the way of toilette stuff, a few bandages and such emergency things, and had room for two dresses. When it was packed and locked it was so light that I could easily carry it by its handle on top. I put my long black military cape, which I could carry over my shoulder, on it, with hat and veil and gloves. Then I went downstairs and shortened the skirt of my best walking suit, and hung it and its jacket handy. I was ready to fly, — if I had to, — and in case of that emergency nothing to do for myself.
I remember that it was about four in the afternoon, and I was sitting in the arbor under the crimson rambler, which was a glory of bloom, when Père came and stood near by on the lawn, looking off. With his hands in the pockets of his blue apron, he stood silent for a long time. Then he said, ‘Listen to that. They are determined to pass. This is different from 1870. In 1870 the Germans marched through here with their guns on their shoulders. There was no one to oppose them. This time it is different. It was harvest time that year, and they took everything, and destroyed what they did not take. They bedded their horses in the wheat.’
You see Père’s father was in the Franco-Prussian War, and his grandfather was with Napoleon at Moscow, where he had his feet frozen. Père is over seventy, and his father died at ninety-six. Poor old Père just hates the war. He is as timid as a bird — he can’t kill a rabbit for his dinner. But with the queer spirit of the French farmer he has kept right on working as if nothing were going on. All day Saturday and all day Sunday he was busy digging stone to mend the road.
The cannonading ceased a little after six, — thirteen hours without intermission. I don’t mind confessing to you that I hope the war is not going to give me many more days like that one. I ’d rather the battle would come right along and be done with it. The suspense of waiting all day for that battery at Coutevroult to open fire was simply nasty.
I went to bed as ignorant of how the battle had turned as I was the night before. Oddly enough, to my surprise, I slept, and slept well.
I did not wake on the morning of Monday, September 7 — yesterday — until I was waked by the cannon at five. I jumped out of bed and rushed to the window. This time there could be no doubt of it: the battle was receding. The cannonading was as violent, as incessant as it had been the day before, but it was surely farther off to the northeast of Meaux. It was another beautiful day. I never saw such weather.
Amélie was on the lawn when I came down. ‘They are surely retreating,’ she called as soon as I appeared. ‘They surely are,’ I replied. ‘It looks as if they were somewhere near Lizy-surl’Ourcq’; and that was a guess of which I was proud a little later. I carry a map round these days as if I were an army officer.
As Amélie had not been for the milk the night before, she started off quite gayly for it. She has to go to the other side of Voisins. It takes her about half an hour to go and return; so — just for the sake of doing something — I thought I would run down and see how the little French family at the foot of the hill had got through the night.
Amélie had taken the road across the fields. It is rough walking, but she does n’t mind. I had stopped to tie a fresh ribbon about my cap, — a tricolor, — and was about five minutes behind her. I was about halfway down the hill when I saw Amélie coming back, running, stumbling, waving her milk-can and shouting, ‘Madame — un anglais, un anglais.’ And sure enough, coming on behind her, his face wreathed in smiles, was an English bicycle scout, wheeling his machine. As soon as he saw me, he waved his cap, and Amélie breathlessly explained that she had said, ‘Dame americaine,’ and he had dismounted and followed her at once.
We went together to meet him. As soon as he was near enough, he called out, ‘Good morning. Everything is all right. Germans been as near you as they will ever get. Close shave.’
‘Where are they ? ’ I asked as we met.
‘Retreating to the northeast — on the Ourcq.’

I could have kissed him. Amélie did. She simply threw both arms round his neck and smacked him on both cheeks, and he said. ‘Thank you, ma’am,’ quite prettily; and, like the nice clean English boy he was, he blushed.
‘You can be perfectly calm,’ he said. ‘Look behind you.’
I looked, and there along the top of my hill I saw a long line of bicyclists in khaki.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked,
a little alarmed. For a moment I thought that if the English had returned, something was going to happen right here.
‘ English scouts,’ he replied. ‘ Colonel Snow’s division, clearing the way for the advance. You’ve a whole corps of fresh French troops coming out from Paris on one side of you, and the English troops are on their way to Meaux.’ ‘But the bridges are down,’ I said.
‘The pontoons are across. Everything is ready for the advance. I think we’ve got ’em.’ And he laughed as if it were all a game of cricket.
By this time we were at the gate. He stood leaning on his wheel a moment, looking over the hedge.
‘Live here with your daughter?’ he asked.
I told him that I lived here alone with myself.
‘ Was n’t that your daughter I met?’ I did n’t quite fall through the gate backwards. I am accustomed to saying that I am old. I am not yet accustomed to have people notice it when I do not call their attention to it. Amélie is only ten years younger than I am, but she has the figure and bearing of a girl.
The lad recovered himself at once, and said, ‘ Why, of course not, she does n’t speak any English.’ I was glad that he did n’t even apologize, for I expect that I look fully a hundred and something. So with a reiterated ‘ Don’t worry — you are all safe here now,’ he mounted his wheel and rode up the hill.
I watched him making good time across to the route to Meaux. Then I came into the house and lay down. I suddenly felt horribly weak. My house had taken on a queer look to me. I suppose I had been, in a sort of subconscious way, sure that it was doomed. As I lay on the couch in the salon and looked round the room, it suddenly appeared to me like a thing I had loved and lost and recovered, — resurrected, in fact; a living thing to which a miracle had happened. I even found myself asking, in my innermost soul, what I had done to deserve this fortune. How had it happened, and why, that I had come to perch on this hillside, just to see a battle, and have it come almost to my door, to turn back and leave me and my belongings standing here untouched, as safe as if there were no war, — and so few miles away destruction extending to the frontier?
The sensation was uncanny. Out there in the northeast still boomed the cannon. The smoke of the battle still rose straight in the still air. I had seen the war. I had watched its destructive bombs. For three days its cannon had pounded on every nerve in my body; but none of the horror it had sowed from the eastern frontier of Belgium to within four miles of me, had reached me except in the form of a threat. Yet out there on the plain, almost within my sight, lay the men who had paid with their lives — each dear to some one — to hold back the battle from Paris, — and incidentally from me.

  1. This is an authentic letter written by an American lady to a friend in this country. Earlier letters in the correspondence were published in the July and August numbers. — THE EDITORS.