'The Mother Everlasting'

I MET her in Paris, late one night in April 1920, in front of the Café de la Regence. The big café was a hubbub of noise, and even the tables on the street were filling fast, as the crowds poured out of the great theatre close by. I caught glimpses here and there of gorgeous cloaks and evening gowns, I heard the laughter and the hoots of taxicabs and limousines; lights from all about the square threw a rich glamour on it all. Then she came slowly up the street. She came in a huge twowheel cart, with a great shaggy horse of Normandy, his clumsy and enormous hoofs making a slow clop-clop on the pavement. The blue-painted cart behind was piled high with heads of lettuce, chicory, and scarole, in symmetrical array; and up on the wide driver’s seat, beneath the low blue canvas hood, she sat with the reins in her lap, fast asleep — a powerful woman of middle age, a strong clean splendid specimen of the best peasantry of France.

On an impulse, I rose and paid my bill and followed her to the market place. I found it filling with carts like hers, ranging themselves at the sides of the square. Her own did the same, the huge horse moving to his place without need of guidance, for he had done it all his life. He stopped, and the woman opened her eyes. She sat slowly up and caught sight of me; I smiled, and we talked for a little while. I asked her what she had been doing that day, and in her deep quiet voice she said: —

‘This morning I left here at five o’clock and drove my cart out to my home. I reached it at nine. I slept for a little, then ate my lunch and worked all through the afternoon transplanting lettuce and chicory. At six came my supper. After that I harnessed my horse, loaded my cart, and started for town. And here I will stay until five o’clock, when again I will return to my home. I have done that every day since I was young. And my father and my grandfather — every day before I was born.’

‘May I come to your garden tomorrow?’ I asked. ‘I am an American writer, and I should be interested to see one of the market gardens of Paris. I have heard of them, even in my country.’

‘Yes, you may come,’ she answered. ‘And since you are a writer, I will tell you, if you like, a story of the war, and my son.’

I went out to her place the next afternoon. On the broad southern slope of a great low hill overlooking the city were some of its market gardens, the world-famous jardins maraîchers, in which, with incredible toil and care, all summer and all winter too, salads and other green things had been raised for the most luxurious homes and cafés of Paris, London, and Berlin, and even of St. Petersburg, in its grand days before the war. The garden I entered was like the rest, about an acre in extent and surrounded by walls to keep out the wind. In the open, and under glass frames, and again beneath hundreds of cloches, — huge bells of glass which concentrated and increased the heat of the sun, — were nearly a hundred thousand heads of chicory, lettuce, and scarole, from full-grown plants to tiny sprouts just peeping through the warm rich soil. Each plant had a story of labor to tell, for every one of that hundred thousand had to be transplanted by hand three and four times during its growth! And she had but two helpers there, a lean young man and a nice-looking girl, who were working silently at the other end of the garden, while the woman talked to me.

‘I will tell you about my son,’ she said. ‘As I was trained by my father from the time when I was small, so I trained my little boy. I suckled him while working here; and as he grew older his father and I taught him how to know the soil — with his mind, with his eyes, with his hands, with his tongue. He could taste that soil and tell you what it lacked, if it was wrong. And the little boy ate hungrily and slept without dreaming and grew strong — strong from his life so close to the Earth. He drew life from her breast as he had from mine. Closer and closer I brought him to her. For she is the mother everlasting — she would be here when I was gone.

‘But then came the war and took my men. My husband was the first to go — and two months later he was killed. Three years passed, till my son was eighteen; and then him, too, they took away. They took him far! What luck was mine! In the winter of 1917, the Russians made peace with Germany; a few French regiments were sent to enter Russia from the north; and among those few, my son. He was carried far up into snow and ice, and there he was taken prisoner and lost for me like a leaf in a storm.

‘Of Russia, I had known till then only that salads had gone from here to the city of St. Petersburg, to the tables of the rich. A country of grand dukes and slaves — and the slaves had risen in revolt. In the newspapers I read how the crazy workingmen were plundering and slaughtering, and how plague and famine were quickly spreading over the land. And I read how they hated the French. What chance to live had my poor son, shut up in some prison camp, and slowly but surely starved to death? Months passed, and life was hard for me. But I worked, and my work was quiet here. For hundreds of years we have been like that, we who live upon the land. When trouble comes, we work all day, from dawn and on into the dark, till we can barely see our hands. And the Earth draws all our sorrows down into herself, and buries them. “Now my son is dead,” I thought. “The pain is all ended. He lies in the soil.”’

While she was speaking, her limbs had relaxed; and on her big face a smile appeared, and grew slowly brighter. She was looking at the lean young man and the girl at the other end of the garden.

‘But then he came back to me,’ she said. ‘He came like a ghost, while I was at work; and when I looked up, I was afraid. But he spoke, and I saw that he was alive — and though fearfully thin, he was not ill! He was well, and had come home!

’What happened then, I need not say. But when it was all over, the foolish laughter and the tears, piece by piece I learned his story. It began as I had dreamed. Caught one night in a forest, half blinded in a storm of snow, he had been captured and taken down to somewhere in the South of Russia and thrown into a prison camp. Wounded, ill, and starving, he could remember little of that; for he had been wounded on the head, and under the privations he soon became like an imbecile, all power of thinking taken away. “I can remember nothing,” he said. “I was like a man who is dead. ”’

A slight choking in her voice made me look quickly up at her, and I saw tears streaming down her cheeks.

‘But then, monsieur, but then,’ she said, ‘what happened is difficult to believe, unless you have led a life like mine. But then it is the simplest thing that can happen on the earth. My son’s whole mind was now asleep — but something deeper than his mind came back to life and saved him there. Ever since he was a little boy I had trained him, as I told you. I had trained his hands and eyes and even his tongue to know the Earth, the mother everlasting. And in that vile prison camp, when at last for lack of all food they turned the prisoners away, although his mind was still so dead that he remembers nothing now, his feet led him back to the soil — a little neglected piece of land on the edge of that small Russian town. And there his hands, his tongue, and his eyes took up by long habit the work they had loved. They cleared away the refuse and built a north wall to keep out the wind. They found an old spade and tilled the earth. Then every little lump of soil was crushed by hands and fingers not like those of common peasants, but like those of our family. They studied that soil till they knew what it lacked, and then they went searching everywhere until they found a little lime. They found some seed and planted it; they toiled from daylight until dark. And all this they did so amazingly well that those great idle stupid Russians saw that idiot boy transform the land into a garden there!

‘They watched him and wondered, they took what he raised, but they fed and sheltered him as masters will nourish a valuable slave. Months passed. His mind woke up one day, came out of its long heavy sleep; and then he looked about him and saw what his hands had made. At first he thought it some strange dream. “What am I doing here,” he asked, “in this strange and dirty land?” But memories came of the war and of me; and then, as he worked quietly on, he began to plan how to get back to his home. To his garden Russian soldiers came, for most of them were peasant boys who wondered at that miracle. Though he had learned but a few Russian words, my son taught them with his hands, and some of those young soldiers began to make other gardens close by. They grew more and more friendly to my son and asked him to join their soviet. But he replied that he wished to go home. He told them all his story — and, having good hearts, those peasant boys felt the justice of his case. Grateful to him for all he had done, they forced the officials to give him a pass. And so at last he came back to me.

‘And here we are as we were before, except that in place of my husband, now you see the wife of my son. She comes of a family of gardeners which is almost as good as mine. She loved my son before the war, and worked and waited for his return. As though the Earth had whispered, she vowed she knew he was not dead. So here they are married and starting their lives. Always they will work in this place. But for to-day she has worked enough.'

In her deep low voice she called to the girl, who stopped working and went toward the house. The big woman watched her with a smile of quiet hungry tenderness.

‘For she is soon to have a child,— a boy, I hope, — another one of us,’ she said.

A bit later I left the mother and son, side by side but working in silence, bending low over the warm rich soil.