Impressions of the Fifth Year
To a visitor who has not crossed the Atlantic eastward since August, 1914, the first overwhelming impression is one of complete unreality. The incredulity of the farmer, who irritated his Kansan neighbors by maintaining that the war had no existence outside the ‘damned lying newspapers,’ becomes not only intelligible but natural. The thing itself is so incredible to rational thinking that even its remoter manifestations seem grotesque. One thinks of it as of a prodigious joke, in which the world conspires to conduct the neophyte through some solemn farce of preposterous initiation. To the summer tourist, what could be more unreal than the ostentatious secrecy of sailing, the ships painted in whorls or cubes or checkers, as a child would paint his Noah’s Ark or a vorticist his exhibition canvas; the cruisers, destroyers, balloons, and hydroplanes enveloping the convoy; the passengers, with life-preservers on their shoulders, looking for all the world like stage figures in some masque of Pilgrim’s Progress; and at night the blackened ports and the secret flashings from bridge to bridge, as if the ships were winking at each other in enjoyment of some monumental humbug?
Gradually the sense of illusion weakens. The decks, crowded with khaki, moving bands of gray-green topping the camouflage of the ship’s side, grow very real. You lean over the rail, and imagine King Philip’s miniature Armada silhouetted against the immensity of this modern fleet. The huge portent begins to seem actual, and after the fleet comes to anchor and you step ashore from the lighter, you watch the battalions of American boys file past, —
And they step to it like men, sir, —
and the full meaning of it all sweeps over you. It is very far from home for these boys to fight and die.
I spoke to a group of them standing at rest in the luggage-shed, waiting for their coffee.
‘Where do you come from?’
‘Pike County, Alabama, sir.’
‘Ever been away from home before?’
‘Not outside Pike County, sir.’
‘This is different, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, sir, I reckon it will be some different.’
St. Mihiel, Château-Thierry, the Argonne. — It will be ‘some different.’
A few months of Europe change these young Americans fast. At first, newworld separateness flames up and their prejudice for a time strikes deeper. They express themselves cogently on the subject of the bargaining Frenchwoman who sells them two scrawny apples for a franc, or volunteer their candid opinion of the British Tommy who talks an alien slang and smokes tobacco inferior to Bull Durham.
‘Hello, you bloomin’ Britisher!’ one will shout to Thomas Atkins as he strides past. ‘Hello, you damned Yank!’ returns Thomas stolidly. And the pair go off together to damn each other’s eyes in two mugs of pitifully thin beer, retailed at fourpence each.
It is after the fiery baptism that the real change begins to show. I remember a visit to a hospital not far from the front, where the wounded were coming in very fast. There was no complaint, no ‘grousing,’ none of that easing of their souls’ burden so dear to a patient’s heart in the free wards at home. Here the nurses are all ‘angels — better than angels, sir’; and the doctors, ‘human all right.’ My experience did not embrace permanent hospitals, where tedious convalescence frazzles the temper; but in all the wards through which I passed, I heard no word of complaint or criticism, only gratitude and a sharp unceasing eagerness to go back to the front again. Among the walking wounded, I can still see a negro boy, colored like a domino, with his white teeth and ebon face. There were two bullet wounds in his right arm.
‘Much hurt?’ somebody asked.
‘Yes, sirree. It done hurt suthin ’orful; but we went through dat brush two miles in three hours, we done did, sir. If you don’t believe it, ask the major.’
Again, in a ward of badly wounded, moans and muffled shrieks were coming from one bed. They were the only sounds of despair which had reached my ears. I went to the boy’s side. He was a young Italian from Fall River, clutching his string of beads as he writhed in bed. Then, from the next cot, a low voice called to me, ‘He ain’t grousing, that Dago. He’s just coming out of ether.’ And those groans were the only discordant note I had heard that day.
I turned to the man who had spoken. He was lying very quiet, his face drawn and his new-grown beard giving him that look of primitive sainthood one sees so often in serious cases.
‘How are you?’ I asked.
‘Fine,’ said he. ‘I’m lucky. It’s that poor chap on the other side, in the corner, who is in trouble. The gas has skinned him good and plenty.’
And so it was. There lay the boy, biting his bloodless lips, from which no sound escaped, his left arm suspended from a swing, that it might be spared the agony of touching the bed-clothes.
‘ But you yourself,’ I said, continuing the talk, ‘where were you hit?’
‘Oh, I’m all right,’ came the familiar refrain; ‘ I’m lucky.’ And, pushing back the sheet with his left hand, he bared the stump of his right arm, severed at the shoulder.
‘When did that happen?’
‘Last night. But I’m all right. I’m lucky.’
They are wonderful, these young men, filled with an austere exaltation which is the only chivalrous element in this brutal war. That, too, will go if the war should last. For one year — possibly for two — the tonic virtue of the fight persists. Then comes disillusion, cynicism, unbelief in God and man.
Nothing in Great Britain, I think, is so remarkable as the faces of the people. In offices, in the shops, in the shell-factories, in the parks, everywhere, are quiet, untroubled faces. Neither casualty lists nor victories in Flanders find expression on the streets. There are no more Mafeking nights. The people are too tired, too sick at heart with hope deferred, too disillusioned about the glories of victory. Every day or two the papers print the list of honors which it has pleased His Majesty to confer, and also that other Roll of Honor which stretches from Antwerp to Aleppo, and has filled a million British graves in Flanders and Northern France alone. But, just as a universal sorrow is robbed both of loneliness and of that secret sense of injustice which lends so much of bitterness to grief, so honors, in widest commonalty spread, abandon much of their distinctive value. But however such thoughts may help to repress grief and to restrain pride, there can be no explanation except in character for the placid manner and calm expression which greet you everywhere. Mourning is almost unknown. Once in a while — scarcely more often than in New York — a man wears a black band on his arm; and, now and then, one sees a shop-girl with the photograph of her husband or lier lover pinned against her breast; but, largely speaking, there is no formality of grief; and to see, after crossing the Channel, every other Frenchwoman swathed in black, strikes one by contrast as with a blow.
It has its spiritual effect, this unselfish willingness not to be cut off from others; and the sorrow becomes a common sorrow with a common strength to bear it. The individual courage put forth is quite beyond praise. So normal seems life that the visitor cannot tell which of the company it is into whose house desolation has lately entered. Sitting beside me one evening, at a dinner in a provincial city, making himself particularly agreeable, was a gentleman whose family history was quite unknown to me. Nothing about him suggested misfortune. His ready smile and pleasant eager talk were rather of a man fortunate and unhurt. After the dessert, our host made a brief speech, alluding to the loss to the community of the young lives spilled in Flanders. Then, below his breath, my neighbor whispered, ‘Three weeks ago to-night, and my boy would have been twentyfive to-day! ’
Without this discipline of mind and heart, England could not have geared herself for the five years’ struggle. The people could not have kept the pace. Leisure is the fruit of an older generation than we Americans enjoy, and the English are a leisurely people. The masses spare their brains more than ours do, and the classes are more apt to cash in the margin of comfortable and intelligent leisure. But for years now the nation has been at work — hard, grinding, cruel work. The extraordinary sex-revolution which has added six million women over thirty years of age to the voting lists, and has sent a million and a half in the earlier prime to the munition factories and other industries behind the war, is, of course, the salient fact; but what strikes the observer most is, on the one hand, the force of the shock which has given political freedom with so little opposition to a body of voters as large as that which previously exercised the suffrage, and on the other hand, the extraordinarily high quality of the labor which has been added to the motive-power of Great Britain. Go into any of the colossal munition plants which dot the industrial centres, and you will be little short of amazed at the intelligence and well-being of this mighty army. In our own mills and machine-shops, there is a factory pallor on the women’s faces, and that tensity of look and gesture which with us is the register of piece-work. There the young women are as ruddy and as free from nervousness as if they had just come in from the fields. Their manual skill is fast overtaking that of the men, although, by custom still jealously preserved, their weekly wage is apt to average some fifteen shillings less. And even in shops where only heavy work is done, through some simple device of block and tackle women take an ever-increasing share of the burden.1
It is interesting to speculate how the whole history of modern labor might have been changed, had the safeguards of welfare-work, sanitation, good food, good quarters, which now protect woman labor, found their prototypes in the brutal days of factory development.
What will become of this woman labor after the war? Vague predictions are made that, of the fifteen hundred thousand workers added to labor from woman’s ranks during the past four years, at least half will be reabsorbed by the return of normal home conditions. My own belief is that this is largely exaggerated. Liberty and high wages are alluring bait, and of the considerable number of women operatives with whom I talked no one (except a young woman who was to be married the next day) expressed the slightest desire to step out when the war was over, and to owe her pinmoney to the bounty of a father or a husband. What will be done when the armies tramp home from Flanders, everybody wonders, but nobody knows. Yet it is not dangerous to prophesy that a nation painfully in need of labor will not reject the services of women in large-scale production because objections are made by labor unions controlled by precedents created to run a small-scale world.
To an American, the adventure of going to England now is for the first time to discover Englishmen. Something has happened. That insensible curtain, crisp and starched, which has hung between them and us so long has gone. Whether temporarily or forever, it is, I think, for Americans to say; but gone it is to-day, whisked away in the night. I do not say that everything has changed. We Americans are still chastened matutinally by the Morning Post, while the philosophic editor of Blackwood’s still applies the unmethodic caustic of his ‘musings.’ But these are unchangeable minima in a world of change. What is important is, that with Englishmen we should feel no constraint, nor they with us; that we should both recognize how small are our divergencies, and how immense our common aims. The attempts to bring us together in the past have been too self-conscious. There has been too much talk of Hands across the Sea, and Blood calling to Blood; for if the blood of earth’s peoples were to call to their blood in America, no Tower of Babel could hold the tumult. And as for the hands across the sea, Briareus himself could not shake them. But our common literature, — a literature based on English forms alone, — common speech, and common institutions have created in us a kindred instinct which shall save us at the last. For instinct it is which has brought us where we stand. Ypres and Passchendaele, Peronne and Albert were magic words to us; they were the secret code which meant that Great Britain might bleed to death for a cause which is our own. Each name of them meant hurry, hurry; and that message, though we knew it not at the time, was registered in our hearts and souls.
The change which revealed Englishmen to Americans came very suddenly. I think it came the 21st of March. On that day, England was in peril. The unbreakable front had been broken, and the worst defeat in British military history had been incurred at the very climax of the war. England did not despair. She would die fighting, but for the first time the thought would not down that she might not win. In September, 1914, the peril may have been as imminent, but the Empire had not then begun to put forth its strength; nor was it universally known that a bad defeat could not be retrieved. That burly self-confidence which in the affairs of the world has been perhaps the best inheritance of the Anglo-Saxon was shaken to its foundations, and in that instant of wild doubt a new sense of faith was born in a larger but a divided destiny.
It is of the complete acceptance of America that I speak. The tide of confidence in us had been rising ever since that April evening in 1917, when the President pledged all that we are and have to the Allied cause. But at that time the straitening resources of British finance, the desperate shrinkage of British shipping, were imperfectly understood except by a few. The map of empire sprawling red over the globe brought in those days a comfort almost physical to British households. It was the tragedy of the Fifth Army, which, like a lightning-stroke, showed the situation as it was.
How remote those terrible March days seem now! No wonder the fire of idealistic enthusiasm has burned lower. Englishmen live in a temperate clime, and their souls live with them.
Consider, too, the human argument. The danger is past. How natural to think that, perhaps, after all it was never quite so present as it seemed! At any rate, it is France and England who have fought, and, great God, how they have suffered! At the very end, America enters. Her fresh strength tips the scale, and she is able to buy with money what has cost her sister nations tears and blood. And now it is America, with armor almost undented, who offers to dictate the peace, who counsels moderation, who talks of the danger of future wars as if this one did not suffice to fill the full horizon of her thoughts. And this America, who buys at bargain rates the leadership of the world, still stands aloof from those who fight, beside her. She will be their associate, but not their ally; their friend, but not their brother.
This sentiment, less formulated than felt in England, has standing neither in morals nor in logic. We have the highest precedent for that; but to those who wrongfully sympathize with the laborers who have borne the burden and heat, but receive every man a penny, even as they who have come in at the eleventh hour in the comfortable coolness of the twilight — to those the argument comes home. I would not labor the point; for to do so would be to falsify the impression of true and cordial fellowship, which Britain offers and which every American must feel. But plainness is what we want, and truth, and this is truth; and to-day it should not be passed over or quite forgotten.
So the current of natural feeling runs. And then, perhaps, though one suspects rather than hears the criticism, there is a note of the absolute in the President’s diction, of the final, the perfect, the immutably right, which grates on the ear of European statesmen, accustomed to compromise in this naughty world. Moses, of course, was everlastingly right; but many there were who were temporarily at odds with him.
And if we think of ministerial personalities, with reasonable effort it is possible to conceive the state of mind of a Methodist and Welshman with hortatory gifts and Celtic imagination sitting quiet in the front pew while a Presbyterian dominie expounds the whole moral law at length and with precision. There, is a great deal in human nature besides right and wrong, and argument is not always accepted strictly on its merits.
When the time for the discussion of peace-terms comes, let us remember that the British are a tired people, who have suffered all and more than all that a race should be called upon to bear, and who through the miraculous success of the last few months see within their grasp a reward for their labors more tangible than the justice and security for which they have waged this war. Let us remember that for more than four years of terrible and desperate circumstance, they have kept their courage and their faith.
No one knows England now who has not stood at the docks of a Channel port and watched stream past the never-ending daily lines of khaki, east to the front and westward home on leave. After a year in trench-muck, fifteen days in which you can be clean and smoke when you like and talk with women and trot children on your knees, is not a bad sort of Paradise; and when you think that if the Channel steamer is late there is no allowance at the other end, a little kicking at delays is not amiss. But it is a quiet crowd, the homeward-going one. They are not like boys from school, these older serious boys, for they know that holidays do not last long, and that they will go back and back till finally the long vacation comes. They are not depressed, but not exuberant, and I rather think the livelier crowd is the one returning to the front. There are more jokes in it and more whistling; and as each Tommy bends under his mountainous pack (for pack and rifle never leave him lest he be called suddenly for home service), you look into his rough, red face, and wonder whether his gift for taking the world as he finds it is not after all quite the most useful that any fairy godmother has to bestow.
Much has been said about the war being brought home to England, yet it is not generally realized how true this is to the physical sense. Officers on morning inspection duty in the front trenches frequently dine at the Savoy or Ritz, and go on to the opera that same night. The strange jumble of life can offer no sharper contrasts, and the violent intertwisting of it all lends a touch of the dramatic to a war singularly devoid of theatrical effects. This war is too big for drama. It has panoramas, but few pictures, and is in its essence an unthinkably prodigious mass of detail. It is this infinite devotion to little things which gives rise to the boredom of which private and officer alike complain. The higher command and the King — the fount of honor — do what they can through picturesque rewards. Orders, medals, bars, clasps, D.S.O.’s, D.S.M.’s, V.C.’s, Mentions in Dispatches, fall in grateful showers — but nothing takes away the deadly, stifling sense of tedium. Men become mechanical. They go to life or death as they are called. Every soldier, as the saying is, has his number upon one bullet, none else can touch him. Fatalism has robbed life of its last adventure.
In a material way, what is done for the troops at the front is not short of amazing. A man could, as it were, taste his way forward by the quality of the food he eats. In London there is no sugar, almost no milk, eggs at ninepence each, very little jam, the staff of British life; but as you cross the Channel, the fare enriches itself automatically, as it were, and at divisional headquarters the starved palate comes into its own. Everything is there, and everything delicious. Vive la belle alliance: English viands and French cooking!
One is constantly asked, Is there much hatred of the Germans among the soldiers? Contempt there is, and expletives adequate to express it, but not much hate. Occasionally you see a man vindictive for some personal reason, like one I spoke with who, in happier days, had been a porter at Waterloo station. ‘No peace with the beasts till we bomb Berlin. That’s what I say. They killed my mother and my only sister with one of their dirty bombs; and, before we stop, I’m going to get even! ’ The French do it better. Watch a peasant standing in front of the pile of rubbish which was his home. He shrugs his shoulders. ‘Les Boches, les sales Boches!’ he will say, and that is all. With the victories of September and October, the tide of hate and revenge rose, as was natural. It is no use feeling revengeful unless you are apt to have your hopes come true. But whatever part hatred may play, there is among the British people no general desire to continue the war beyond the attainment of absolute security. The papers of large circulation play continuously upon mob passion, but the people never fully respond. Both in England and America the press is gradually ceasing to represent national opinion. In England, perhaps, the discrepancy is most marked.
At the gate of a little French cemetery, desecrated like a thousand others by the brutalities of war, still stands a splintered shaft, placed there two years ago by the good people of the village, and on it the inscription runs, —
‘Confided to the tender care of the Commune of Machemont. They who are buried here have died for their country. It is their right that beside their graves the people flock and pray.’
The rights of these dead soldiers confided to the little commune, which now itself is dead! The generations pass fast in these communities of northern France, and in that simple monument is their history. First, go the young men, who are forever to be remembered; then, the old; then, ruin and forgetfulness. The place thereof shall know them no more. But, if the stranger look further there in tins ruined graveyard, ploughed by shells, utterly profaned, he will see strange, true records of this world war. Here among the thick-strewn mounds of French boys is a larger grave. ‘Soldats Allemands,’ the inscription runs beneath the Genevan cross; and then the list, Hans and Fritz and Hermann and the rest. And right next them — a curious company for eternal sleep — upright boards bearing at the top the symbol of the crescent, and below, the record: Mokbar ben Ama of the 6° Tirailleurs; and beside him, Embarek B. Mohammed, Caporal, 6° Tirailleurs; and beyond, Christians of other nations, resting side by side in their scarred graves. And above all, in the very centre, a great Crucifix. The Christ, rests upon it, one arm severed at the shoulder, which hangs piteously down. And below, the words of hope, where no hope is: Ego sum resurrectio et vita.
A monstrous jumble of incongruities such as this marks all France to-day. The least prejudiced of nations, she has made all the people of the earth at home within her borders. Black, yellow, white, and brown, all are welcome. For hundreds of miles the native population seems submerged by the inundation. A single division of American troops may fill forty villages, and there are more than forty of them. The millions of British transform vast sections of France into a country which superficially seems as English as Yorkshire. Along the roads streams a procession as cosmopolitan as though the last trump had summoned them from the corners of the earth: Sikhs, Burmese, Indians from Arizona, and from the remotest east, Sengalese, Cingalese, Chinamen, Annamites, Arabs, fierce little brown men from Madagascar, Russians, Portuguese, Italians, Serbians, Czechs, lanky Australians with a jaunty tilt to their slouch hats, New Zealanders who, even to western eyes, wear a different look, and Mississippi negroes chanting their gurgling melodies — a chaos of the flotsam and jetsam of the world, and yet perfect order, every company a cog in a machine too vast for the mind to grasp.
Will France ever emerge again when the alien waters have subsided? She never can be the same. The habits and associations of centuries have been dissolved, families have been scattered, women, the constant element in the French character, have been harried and dispersed. Throughout the devastated districts the purity of French blood has been grievously impaired by the invasion of friends as well as of foes.
It is not until you come to the French front, itself, that France seems herself again. For there is a terrible naturalness to the war. It has gone on so long that all life is geared to it, and men and women, half a dozen miles behind the advancing trenches, begin to lead their normal lives again. The old French spirit is there, still untainted. Watch a group of officers and men standing at rest. Liberty, they are fighting for; Equality will come when peace returns; Fraternity, they have. They are brothers-in-arms, talking and joking together. Often you see a lieutenant with his arm over a private’s shoulder, or a captain rearranging a man’s pack in comfortable fashion, or officers and men exchanging knives and corkscrews at their common lunch: sights to make a British officer shudder and an American wince. And yet the discipline in ranks is not less good because the comradeship is nearer. There is a sensibility in ‘Oui, mon capitaine,’ that is forever lost in our ‘Very good, sir.’
There is a strain of philosophy in the French fibre giving strength to the weave. Quite characteristic is an inscription which I chanced to find penciled on the walls of a ruined presbytère, where soldiers had been sleeping. Anyone distressingly familiar with the sort of thing usually scratched on dead walls in America will appreciate its tenor: —
Le pillage c’est la ruine.
La ruine amène la patience,
Et la patience implique la paix.
Donc la guerre produit la paix.
L’abondance suscit l’orgueil,
L’orgueil amène la guerre.
Donc la paix produit la guerre.
Not profoundly original, perhaps, but reflective and sensible.
If you would understand the poilu, you must consider his commissariat. The commissariat of the British is a perfect mechanism. Lorries and soupkitchens roll forward in infinite lines and perfect order. The American army, still in its first year, is an armée de luxe, every appointment admirable, and with an obvious and correct reliance upon the machinery of war, characteristic of our national genius. But the French — they use machines when they can, but petrol is scarce, and men must be fed. Back and forth behind the lines goes every conceivable vehicle which can be pushed or dragged — on two wheels, or on four; sometimes, I think, on three. These charrettes and char-à-bancs; omnibuses which once set down passengers at the Place do la Bastille; great farm wains drawn by oxen; tiny donkey carts that have seen long service with the original donkey between the shafts; lumber wagons with ox and horse yoked together in the old family harness, consisting, in French fashion, largely of rope; and anything and everything that can carry food and drink to the front line. And on top of each plump load reclines a driver in the horizon blue the poilu has made famous, a pipe in one corner of his mouth aud from the other a gentle strain of caustic argument with his beasties: ‘Nom d’un chien! Va t’en! Ghrr —’
There is something indescribably moving about it all — something homely, domestic, intimate, as if a people had risen to defend their own fireside. There is a word the French use that gives something of its meaning. Se débrouiller, they say of a man who makes things go, whatever he has to do it with; and débrouillard is a sort of contriver with odds and ends, who has a homely genius for results. That is your poilu, making his commissary out of old farm contraptions. Yet I am told that the coffee at the front is just as hot, and comes as promptly, as if the rivers of France flowed with gasoline.
There is another picture of this French front that lingers in my mind. A château, the glory of the neighborhood since the eleventh century — one wing of it, the ancient abbey, had been burned by peasants in the Revolution, but the great gothic arches still stood, tier on tier. And now the old mansion itself had been methodically gutted — not for any military reason; there had been no battle near; but because it was beautiful and the people loved it. Against that blackened ruin a regiment lay en repos. Their arms were stacked, and the men were stretched in motionless groups here and there; a dog, lying by his master’s head, mingled his straggling hair with the poilu’s beard. In the great bare doorway stood a group of sheepish-looking prisoners in German Feldgrau, a little embarrassed, and yet perhaps not displeased with the idea that their power had wrought the demolition. It was just such a scene as, in the days of realistic art, Alfred de Neuville loved to paint; and one watched it with a curious feeling that the tableau must have been arranged for the visitor’s benefit. Just then, from the arch still intact, came forward to greet us the lady of the castle. Her hat was stained by the weather, and her gown had long since lost its color, but she smiled as pleasantly and welcomed us as cordially as if she were still the mistress of the beauty which for so many centuries had been bequeathed to her to hold in trust for posterity. And as she led us through the great rooms, now vaulted by the sky and carpeted with dust and ashes, and showed us the white squares on the walls whence Nattier’s canvases had been torn, for removal to some Oberstleutnant’s home in the Vaterland, it was hard for an American heart not to feel the hate which the countess had cast out from her own.
We know the French too little. I have spoken of them as the least prejudiced of people. That is true, but it does not protect them from the charge of a too conscious remoteness from the intellectual interests of other people. Among the literati of Paris, ignorance of English speech is almost an accomplishment; and rich and varied as their preoccupations are, one is tempted to think that nothing alien is humane to them. But the French, who have always appreciated their country too much to travel from it, have ever been hosts to travelers from every other; and now that, literally, the world has come to France, for good or evil the old contracted vision of the race will never be the same.
In this fifth year of war, Americans think of France as a ruined country. And in a restricted sense the physical desolation which has come over Northern France is more complete than it is possible to describe. Flourishing cities like Albert and Merville and a score of others are not merely crumbled ruins — they are dust, to be shoveled into the roadways to make macadam of. But in a larger national sense, France is not ruined, but flourishing as she has seldom flourished before. Rivers of gold pour in from the Golcondas of the world. The Americans alone are spending in France upwards of $150,000,000 monthly — a monthly total of $200,000,000 is not far away. Upon every dollar of this the government, by its ten per cent impost on all sales, raises a considerable portion of its present revenue. If the war goes on for some eight months, the balance of trade, once so enormously in our favor, will actually be against us, and France will be the creditor nation. Although her taxation of her own people is notoriously light at this time, it may very well be that, after the war, alone among the nations, she will be well on the way to a solution of her fiscal problems.
The French are not spendthrifts. The francs which slip so smoothly into the till stick at the bottom. French contributions to their own charities form one of the least heroic chapters of the war. The peasants give of their poverty, and the government gives, but the bourgeois button their pockets; and it is a startling criticism of this attitude to say that, when the Americans ship supplies into French towns, for the use of French sick and refugees, an octroi is actually levied upon them at the town gates. Then, too, very generally prices have risen beyond what is necessary, and bargains were never more smartly driven than with the American soldiers, who have been taught to think of themselves as crusaders flocking to a rescue. The French point of view is, not unnaturally, quite different. For three years, they say, we fought your war, and our legions have kept America inviolate. Meanwhile we have the misfortune of having the war in behalf of all civilization fought on French soil.2
Truly it is a good thing for a man’s soul to talk with his neighbors, and to learn that the white light of truth is made up of many colored strands. Side by side with commercial France is heroic France. After motoring all day through deserts where once were towns, we stopped in front of a splendid old wall, bastioned by towers, and bordered by a moat. In the centre a drawbridge led to the mediæval gothic arch which opened on the court. We entered and stood where Gabrielle d’Estrées had often welcomed her royal lover. Of the three stone pavilions which had overlooked the marble balustrades and the poplar-lined garden beyond, two were crumbled to blackened destruction, and the third, which had housed the humble offices of kitchen and servants’ quarters, was badly impaired. The beauty of the place, the contrast of past and present, would make the eye of the most casual passer glisten with sympathy; but the gentleman who received us, who had lost his only son a year ago, and who had lost as well all that his forefathers had bequeathed him, showed us about as cheerfully and pleasantly as if he could still point to every feature of the architecture he knew so well.
‘Come up to my own quarters,’he said; and led the way up the spiral stair, which went up from the outer kitchen to his tiny bedroom, furnished with a narrow cot, a rickety chair, and a cracked ewer and basin. ‘Here I am now,’ he said. ‘Not much, but sufficient.’ And then, ‘I am not in a position, gentlemen, to offer you a cup of tea, but a glass of tea you shall have.’
So we repaired to the housekeeper’s room, where was a single ancient servitor, her head bandaged for injuries during the fire kindled by the Germans; and there had our glass of tea in chipped tumblers, passing from hand to hand the single spoon which the château afforded.
Bright threads like this of the eternal France are everywhere mingled with the warp the Fates are spinning.
- According to my own incomplete observation, the Carpenters’ Union alone has succeeded in absolutely prohibiting the labor of women. The mediæval spirit has elsewhere been abandoned. — THE AUTHOR.↩
- The American’s instinctive criticism of these characteristics of the French goes too far. The idea of paying rental for the portion of France which is occupied by our forces is instinctively repugnant to us. But should we not pay our own citizens if we dispossessed them of their rights? And shall we do less by the citizens of a friendly country? — THE AUTHOR.↩