That attempt at renewing the joke had two results. I must tell you that one of the few friends who has ever been out here felt that the only annoying thing about my being so absolutely alone was that, if anything happened and I needed help, I had no way of letting anyone know. So I promised, and it was agreed with Amelie, that, in need, I should blow my big whistle—it can be heard half a mile. But that was over two years ago. I have never needed help. I have used the whistle to call Dick.
I whistled and whistled and whistled until I was good and mad. Then I began to yell: "Amelie—Melie—Pere!" and they came running out, looking frightened to death, to find me, red in the face, leaning against the wall—on the Quincy side of the road.
"What's the matter?" cried Amelie.
"Didn't you hear my whistle?" I asked.
"We thought you were calling Dick."
The joke was on me.
When I explained that I wanted some fresh bread to toast and was not allowed to go to their house in Couilly for it, it ceased to be a joke at all.
It was useless for me to laugh, and to explain that an order was an order, and that Couilly was Couilly, whether it was at my gate or down the hill.
Pere's anger was funnier than my joke. He saw nothing comic in the situation. To him it was absurd. Monsieur le General, commandant de la cinquieme armee ought to know that I was all right. If he didn't know it, it was high time someone told him.
In his gentle old voice he made quite a harangue.
All Frenchmen can make harangues.
It was difficult for me to convince him that I was not in the slightest degree annoyed; that I thought it was amusing; that there was nothing personally directed against me in the order; that I was only one of many foreigners inside the zone des armees; that the only way to catch the dangerous ones was to forbid us all to circulate.
I might have spared myself the breath it took to argue with him. If I ever thought I could change the conviction of a French peasant, I don't think so since I have lived among them. I spent several days last summer trying to convince Pere that the sun did not go round the earth. I drew charts of the heavens,—you should have seen them— and explained the solar system. He listened attentively—one has to listen when the patronne talks, you know—and I thought he understood. When it was all over—it took me three days—he said to me:
"Bien. All the same, look at the sun. This morning it was behind Maria's house over there. I saw it. At noon it was right over my orchard. I saw it there. At five o'clock it will be behind the hill at Esbly. You tell me it does not move! Why, I see it move every day. Alors—it moves."
I gave it up. All my lovely exposition of us rolling through space had missed. So there is no hope of my convincing him that this new regulation regarding foreigners is not designed expressly to annoy me.
I often wonder exactly what all this war means to him. He reads his newspaper religiously. He seems to understand. He talks very well about it. But he is detached in a way. He hates it. It has aged him terribly. But just what it means to him I can't know.
Christmas Day, 1915
Well, here I am, alone, on my second war Christmas! All my efforts to get a permis de sortir failed.
Ten days after I wrote you last, there was a rumor that all foreigners were to be expelled from the zone of military operations. My friends in Paris began to urge me to close up the house and go into town, where I could at least be comfortable.
I simply cannot. I am accustomed now to living alone. I am not fit to live among active people. If I leave my house, which needs constant care, it will get into a terrible condition, and, once out of it, there is no knowing what difficulty I might have to get back. The future is all so uncertain. Besides, I really want to see the thing out right here.
I made two efforts to get a permission to go to Voulangis. It is only five miles away. I wrote to the commander of the 5th Army Corps twice. I got no answer. Then I was told that I could not hope to reach him with a personal letter—that I must communicate with him through the civil authorities. I made a desperate effort. I decided to dare the regulations and appeal to the commander of the gendarmes at Esbly.
There I had a queer interview—at first very discreet and very misleading, so far as they were concerned. In the end, however, I had the pleasure of seeing my two letters to Monsieur le General attached to a long sheet of paper, full of writing,—my dossier, they called it. They did not deign to tell me why my letters, sent to the army headquarters, had been filed at the gendarmerie. I suppose that was none of my business. Nor did they let me see what was written on the long sheet to which the letters were attached. Finally, they did stoop to tell me that a gendarme had been to the mairie regarding my case, and that if I would present myself at Quincy the next morning, I would find a petition covering my demand awaiting my signature. It will be too late to serve the purpose for which it was asked, but I'll take it for Paris, if I can get it.
For lack of other company I invited Khaki to breakfast with me today. He didn't promise formally to come—but he was there. By devoting myself to him he behaved very well indeed, and did not disturb the table decorations. Luckily, they were not good to eat. He sat in a chair beside me, and now and then I had to pardon him for putting his elbow on the table. I did that the more graciously as I was surprised that he did not sit on it. He had his own fork, and except that, now and then, he got impatient and reached out a white paw to take a bit of chicken from my fork just before it reached my mouth, he committed no grave breach of table manners. He did refuse to keep his bib on, and he ate more than I did, and enjoyed the meal better. In fact, I should not have enjoyed it at all but for him. He had a gorgeous time.
I did not invite Garibaldi. He did not know anything about it. He is too young to enjoy a "function." He played in the garden during the meal, happy and content to have a huge breakfast of bread and gravy; he is a bread eater—thoroughly French.
I even went so far as to dress for Khaki, and put a Christmas rose in my hair. Alas! It was all wasted on him.
This is all the news I have to send you, and I cannot even send a hopeful message for 1916. The end looks farther off for me than it did at the beginning of the year. It seems to me that the world is only now beginning to realize what it is up against.
January 23, 1916
Well, I have really been to Paris, and it was so difficult that I ask myself why I troubled.
I had to await the pleasure of the commander of the Cinquieme Armee, as the Embassy was powerless to help me, although they did their best with great good will. I enclose you my sauf-conduit that you may see what so important a document is like. Then I want to tell you the funny thing—/ never had to show it once. I was very curious to know just how important it was. I went by the way of Esbly. On buying my ticket I expected to be asked for it, as there was a printed notice beside the window to the ticket-office announcing that all purchasers of tickets must be furnished with a sauf-conduit. No one cared to see mine. No one asked for it on the train. No one demanded it at the exit in Paris. Nor, when I returned, did anyone ask for it either at the ticket-office in Paris or at the entrance to the train. Considering that I had waited weeks for it, had to ask for it three times, had to explain what I was going to do in Paris, where I was going to stay, how long, etc., I had to be amused.
I was really terribly disappointed. I had longed to show it. It seemed so chic to travel with the consent of a big general.
Of course, if I had attempted to go without it, I should have risked getting caught, as, at any time, the train was liable to be boarded and all papers examined.
I learned at the Embassy, where the military attache had consulted the Ministry of War, that an arrangement was to be made later regarding foreigners, and that we were to be provided with a special book which, while it would not allow us to circulate freely, would give us the right to demand a permission—and get it if the military authorities chose. No great change that.
The visit served little purpose except to show me a sad-looking Paris and make me rejoice to get back.
Now that the days are so short, and it is dark at four o'clock, Paris is almost unrecognizable. With shop-shutters closed, tramway windows curtained, very few street-lights—none at all on short streets—no visible lights in houses, the city looks dead. You 'd have to see it to realize what it is like.
The weather was dull, damp, the cold penetrating, and the atmosphere depressing, and so was the conversation. It is better here on the hilltop, even though, now and then, we hear the guns.
Coming back from Paris there were almost no lights on the platforms at the railway stations, and all the coaches had their curtains drawn. At the station at Esbly the same situation—a few lights, very low, on the main platform, and absolutely none on the platform where I took the narrow-gauge for Couilly. I went stumbling, in absolute blackness, across the main track, and literally felt my way along the little train to find a door to my coach. If it had not been for the one lamp on my little cart waiting in the road, I could not have seen where the exit at Couilly was. It was not gay, and it was far from gay climbing the long hill, with the feeble rays of that one lamp to light the blackness. Luckily Ninette knows the road in the dark.
In the early days of the war it used to be amusing in the train, as everyone talked, and the talk was good. Those days are passed. With the now famous order pasted on every window:
Taisez-vous! Mefiez-vous. Les oreilles ennemies vous ecoutent
no one says a word. I came back from Paris with half a dozen officers in the compartment. Each one, as he entered, brought his hand to salute, and sat down, without a word. They did not even look at one another. It is one of the most marked changes in attitude that I have seen since the war. It is right. We were all getting too talkative, but it takes away the one charm there was in going to Paris. I've had no adventures since I wrote to you Christmas Day, although we did have, a few days after that, five minutes of excitement.
One day I was walking in the garden. It was a fairly bright day, and the sun was shining through the winter haze. I had been counting my tulips, which were coming up bravely, admiring my yellow crocuses, already in flower, and hoping the sap would not begin to rise in the rose bushes, and watching the Marne, once more lying like a sea rather than a river over the fields, and wondering how that awful winter freshet was going to affect the battle-front, when, suddenly, there was a terrible explosion. It nearly shook me off my feet.
The letter-carrier from Quincy was just mounting the hill on his wheel, and he promptly tumbled off it. I happened to be standing where I could see over the hedge, but before I could get out the stupid question, "What was that?" there came a second explosion, then a third and a fourth.
They sounded in the direction of Paris.
"Zeppelins," was my first thought, but that was hardly the hour for them.
I stood rooted to the spot. I could hear voices at Voisins, as if all the world had rushed into the street. Then I saw Amelie running down the hill. She said nothing as she passed. The postman picked himself up, passed me a letter, shrugged his shoulders, and pushed his wheel up the hill.
I patiently waited until the voices ceased in Voisins. I could see no smoke anywhere. Amelie came back at once, but she brought no explanation. She only brought a funny story.
There is an old woman in Voisins, well on to ninety, called Mere R—-. The war is too tremendous for her localized mind to grasp. Out of the confusion she picks and clings to certain isolated facts. At the first explosion, she rushed, terrorized, into the street, gazing up to the heavens, and shaking her withered old fists above her head, she cried in her shrill, quavering voice: "Now look at that! They told us the Kaiser was dying. It's a lie. It's a lie, you see, for here he comes throwing his cursed bombs down on us."
You know all this month the papers have had Guillaume dying of that ever-recurring cancer of the throat. I suppose the old woman thinks Guillaume is carrying all this war on in person. In a certain sense she is not very far wrong.
For a whole week we got no explanation of that five minutes' excitement. Then it leaked out that the officer of the General Staff, who has been stationed at the Chateau de Conde, halfway between here and Esbly, was about to change his section. He had, in the park there, four German shells from the Marne battlefield, which had not been exploded. He did not want to take them with him, and it was equally dangerous to leave them in the park, so he decided to explode them, and had not thought it necessary to warn anybody but the railroad people.
It is a proof of how simple our life is that such an event made conversation for weeks.
February 16, 1916
Well, we are beginning to get a little light—we foreigners—on our situation. On February 2, I was ordered to present myself again at the mairie. I obeyed the summons the next morning, and was told that the military authorities were to provide all foreigners inside the zone des armees, and all foreigners outside, who, for any reason, needed to enter the zone, with what is called a "carnet d'etrangere," and that, once I got that, I would have the privilege of asking for a permission to circulate, but, until that document was ready, I must be content not to leave my commune, nor to ask for any sort of a sauf-conduit.
I understand that this regulation applies even to the doctors and infirmieres, and ambulance drivers of all the American units at work in France. I naturally imagine that some temporary provision must be made for them in the interim.
I had to make a formal petition for this famous carnet, and to furnish the military authorities with two photographs—front view,—size and form prescribed.
I looked at the mayor's secretary and asked him how the Old Scratch —I said frankly diable—I was to get photographed when he had forbidden me to leave my commune, and knew as well as I that there was no photographer here.
Quite seriously he wrote me a special permit to go to Couilly where there is a man who can photograph. He wrote on it that it was good for one day, and the purpose of the trip "to be photographed by the order of the mayor in order to get my carnet d'etrangere," and he solemnly presented it to me, without the faintest suspicion that it was humorous.
Between you and me, I did not even use it. I had still one of the photographs made for my passport and other papers. Amelie carried it to Couilly and had it copied. Very few people would recognize me by it. It is the counterfeit presentment of a smiling, fat old lady, but it is absolutely reglementaire in size and form, and so will pass muster. I have seen some pretty queer portraits on civil papers.
We are promised these carnets in the course of "a few weeks," so, until then, you can think of me as, to all intents and purposes, really interned.
It may interest you to know that on the 9th,—just a week ago—a Zeppelin nearly got to Meaux. It was about half past eleven in the evening when the drums beat "lights out," along the hillside. There weren't many to put out, for everyone is in bed at that hour, and we have no street-lights, but an order is an order. The only result of the drum was to call everyone out of bed, in the hope "to see a Zeppelin." We neither heard nor saw anything.
Amelie said with a grin next morning, "Eh, bien, only one thing is needed to complete our experiences—that a bomb should fall shy of its aim—the railroad down there—and wipe Huiry off the map, and write it in history."
I am sorry that you find holes in my letters. It is your own fault. You do not see this war from my point of view yet—alas! But you will. Make a note of that. The thing that you will not understand, living, as you do, in a world going about its daily routine, out of sight, out of hearing of all this horror, is that Germany's wilful destruction is on a preconceived plan—a racial principle. The more races she can reduce and enfeeble the more room there will be for her. Germany wants Belgium—but she wants as few Belgians as possible. So with Poland, and Servia, and northeast France. She wants them to die out as fast as possible. It is a part of the programme of a people calling themselves the elect of the world—the only race, in their opinion, which ought to survive.
She had a forty-four years' start of the rest of the world in preparing her programme. It is not in two years, or in three, that the rest of the world can overtake her. That advantage is going to carry her a long way. Some people still believe that advantage will exist to the end. I don't. Still, one of the overwhelming facts of this war is to me that: Germany held Belgium and northeast France at the end of 1914, and yet, all along the Allied fronts, with Germany fighting on invaded territory, they cried: "She is beaten!" So, indeed, her strategy was. At the end of 1915 she had two new allies, and held all of Servia, Montenegro, and Russian Poland, and still the Allies persisted: "She is licked, but she does not know it yet." It is one of the finest proofs of the world's faith in the triumph of the Right that so many believe this to be true.
You are going to come some day to the opinion I hold—that if we want universai peace we must first get rid of the race that does not want it or believe in it. Forbidden subject? I know. But when I resist temptation you find holes in my letters, and seem to imagine that I am taking no notice of things that happen. I notice fast enough, and I am so interested that I hope to see the condemnation, already passed in England, against Kaiser, Kronprinz and Company, for "wilful murder," executed, even if I cannot live to see Germany invaded.
This is what you get for saying, "You make no comment on the overrunning of Servia or the murder of Edith Cavell, or the failure of the Gallipoli adventure." After all, these are only details in the great undertaking. As we say of every disaster, "They will not affect the final result." It is getting to be a catch-word, but it is true.
Germany is absolutely right in considering Great Britain her greatest enemy. She knows today that, even if she could get to Paris or Petrograd, it would not help her. She would still have Britain to settle with. I wonder if the Kaiser has yet waked up to a realization of his one very great achievement—the reawakening of Greater Britain? He dreamed of dealing his mother's country a mortal blow.
The blow landed, but it healed instead of killing.
This war is infernal, diabolical—and farcical—if we look at the deeds that are done every day. Luckily we don't and mustn't, for we all know that there are things in the world a million times worse than death, and that there are future results to be aimed at which make death gloriously worth while. Those are the things we must look at.
I have always told you that I did not find the balance of things much changed, and I don't. I am afraid that you cannot cultivate, civilize, humanize—choose your word—man to such a point that, so long as he is not emasculated, his final argument in the cause of honor and justice will not be his fists—with or without a weapon in them—which is equivalent to saying, I am afraid, that so long as there are two men on earth there will always be the chance of a fight.
Thus far February has been a droll month. I have seen Februaries in France which have been spring-like, with the chestnut trees in bud, and the primroses in flower, and lilacs in leaf. This February has been a strange mixture of spring awkwardly slipping out of the lap of winter and climbing back again. There have been days when the sun was so warm that I could drive without a rug, and found furs a burden; there have been wonderful moonlit nights; but the most of the time, so far, it has been nasty. On warm days flowers began to sprout and the buds on the fruit-trees to swell. That made Pere sigh and talk about the lune rousse. We have had days of wind and rain which be- longed in a correct March. I am beginning to realize that the life of a farmer is a life of anxiety. If I can take Pere's word for it, it is always cold when it should not be; the hot wave never arrives at the right moment; when it should be dry it rains; and when the earth needs water the rain refuses to fall. In fact, on his testimony, I am convinced that the weather is never just right, except to the mere lover of nature, who has nothing to lose and nothing to gain by its caprices.
The strange thing is that we all stand it so well. If anyone had told me that I could have put up with the life I have been living for two winters and be none the worse for it, I should have thought him heartless. Yet, like the army, I am surely none the worse for it, and, in the army, many of the men are better for it. The youngsters who come home on leave are as rugged as possible. They have straightened up and broadened their chests. Even the middle-aged are stronger. There is a man here who is a master mason, a hard-working, ambitious, honest chap, very much loved in the commune. He worked on my house, so I know him well. Before the war he was very delicate. He had chronic indigestion, and constantly recurring sore throats. He was pale, and his back was beginning to get round. As he has five children, he is in an ammunition factory. He was home the other day. I asked him about his health, he looked so rosy, so erect, and strong. He laughed, and replied: "Never so well in my life. I haven't had a cold this winter, and I sleep in a board shanty and have no fire, and I eat in a place so cold my food is chilled before I can swallow it. My indigestion is a thing of the past. I could digest nails!"
You see I am always looking for consolations in the disaster. One must, you know.
March 2, 1916
We are living these days in the atmosphere of the great battle of Verdun. We talk Verdun all day, dream Verdun all night—in fact, the thought of that great attack in the east absorbs every other idea. Not in the days of the Marne, nor in the trying days of Ypres or the Aisne was the tension so terrible as it is now. No one believes that Verdun can be taken, but the anxiety is dreadful, and the idea of what the defence is costing is never absent from the minds even of those who are firmly convinced of what the end must be.
I am sending you a Forain cartoon from the Figaro, which exactly expresses the feeling of the army and the nation.
You have only to look on a map to know how important the position is at Verdun, the supposed-to-be-strongest of the four great fortresses— Verdun, Toul, Epinay, and Belfort—which protect the only frontier by which the Kaiser has a military right to try to enter France, and which he avoided on account of its strength.
Verdun itself is only one day's march from Metz. If you study it up on a map you will learn that, within a circuit of thirty miles, Verdun is protected by thirty-six redoubts. But what you will not learn is that this great fortification is not yet connected with its outer redoubts by the subterranean passages which were a part of the original scheme. It is that fact which is disturbing. Every engineer in the French army knows that the citadel at Metz has underground communications with all its circle of outer ramparts. Probably every German engineer knows that Verdun's communication passages were never made. Isn't it strange (when we remember that, even in the days of walled cities, there were always subterraneans leading out of the fortified towns beyond the walls—wonderful works of masonry, intact today, like those of Provins, and even here on this hill) that a nation which did not want war should have left unfinished the protection of such a costly fortress?
You probably knew, as usual, before we did, that the battle had begun. We knew nothing of it here until February 23, three days after the bombardment began, with the French outer lines nine miles outside the city, although only twenty-four hours after was the full force of the German artillery let loose, with fourteen German divisions waiting to march against the three French divisions holding the position. Can you wonder we are anxious?
We have been buoyed up for weeks by the hope of an Allied offensive—and instead came this!
The first day's news was bad, so was that of the 24th. I have never since the war began felt such a vibrant spirit of anxiety about me. To add to it, just before midnight on the 24th snow began to fall. In the morning there was more snow on the ground than I had ever seen in France. It was a foot deep in front of the house, and on the north side, where it had drifted, it was twice that depth. This was so unusual that no one seemed to know what to do. Amelie could not get to me. No one is furnished with foot-gear to walk in snow, except men who happen to have high galoshes. I looked out of the window, and saw Pere shovelling away to make a path to the gate, but with an iron shovel it was a long passage. It was nine o'clock before he got the gate open, and then Amelie came slipping down. Pere was busy all day keeping that path open, for the snow continued to fall.
This meant that communications were all stopped. Trains ran slowly on the main lines, but our little road was blocked. It continued to snow for two days, and for two days we had no news from the outside world.
On the morning of the 27th one of our old men went to the Demi- Lune and watched for a military car coming in from Meaux. After hours of waiting, one finally appeared. He ran into the road and hailed it, and as the chauffeur put on his brakes, he called:
"Elle tient," was the reply, and the auto rushed on.
That was all the news we had in those days.
When communications were opened the news we got was not consoling. First phase of the battle closed six days ago—with the Germans in Douaumont, and the fighting still going on—but the spirit of the French not a jot changed. Here, among the civilians, they say: "Verdun will never fall," and out at the front, they tell us that the poilus simply hiss through their clenched teeth, as they fight and fall, "They shall not pass." And all the time we sit inactive on the hilltop holding that thought. It's all we can do.
We were livened up a bit last week because the village clown was on his home leave. He is a lad of twenty-three with a young wife and a little three-year-old girl, who has learned to talk since "dada" saw her, and is her father right over—full of fun, good-humor, and laughter.
I have told you that we almost never hear war talk. We did hear some while our local clown was home, but how much was true and how much his imagination I don't know. Anyway, his drollery made us all laugh. His mother-in-law had died since he left, and when his wife wept on his shoulder, he patted her on the back, and winked over his shoulder at his admiring friends, as he said: "Chut, ma fille, if you are going to cry in these days because someone dies, you'll have no time to sleep. Only think of it, the old lady died in bed, and that is everything which is most aristocratic in these days."
I regret to say that this did not console wife one bit.
As he never can tell anything without acting it out, he was very comic when he told about the battle in which the Prussian Guard was wiped out. He is in the artillery, and he acted out the whole battle. When he got to the point where the artillery was ordered to advance, he gave an imitation of himself scrambling on to his gun, and swaying there, as the horses struggled to advance over the rough road ploughed with shell, until they reached the field where the Guard had fallen. Then he imitated the gesture of the officer riding beside the guns, and stopping to look off at the field, as, with a shrug, he said: "Ah, les beaux gars" then swung his sabre and shouted: "En avant!"
Then came the imitation of a gunner hanging on his gun as the gun- carriage went bumping over the dead, the sappers and petrole brigade coming on behind, ready to spray and fire the field, shouting: "Allez aux enfers, beaux gars de Prusse, et y attendre votre kaiser!"
It was all so humorous that one was shocked into laughter by the meeting of the comic and the awful. I laughed first and shuddered afterward. But we do that a great deal these days.
I don't think I told you that I had found a wonderful woman to help me one day in the week in the garden. Her name is Louise, and she was born in the commune, and has worked in the fields since she was nine years old. She is a great character, and she is handsome—very tall and so straight—thirty-three, married, with three children,—never been sick in her life. She is a brave, gay thing, and I simply love to see her striding along the garden paths, with her head in the air, walking on her long legs and carrying her body as steadily as though she had a bucket of water on her head. It is beautiful.
Well, Louise has a brother named Joseph, as handsome as she is, and bigger. Joseph is in the heavy artillery, holding a mountain-top in Alsace, and, would you believe it, he has been there twenty months, and has never seen a German.
Of course, when you think of it, it is not so queer, really. The heavy artillery is miles behind the infantry, and of course the gunners can't see what they are firing at—that is the business of the officers and the eyes of the artillery—the aeroplanes. Still, it is queer to think of firing big guns twenty months and never seeing the targets. Odder still, Joseph tells me he has never seen a wounded or a dead soldier since the war began. Put these little facts away to ponder on. It is a war of strange facts.
April 28, 1916
I have lived through such nerve-trying days lately that I rarely feel in the humor to write a letter.
Nothing happens here.
The spring has been as changeable as even that which New England knows. We had four fairly heavy snowstorms in the first fortnight of the awful fighting of Verdun. Then we had wet, and then unexpected heat—the sort of weather in which everyone takes cold. I get up in the morning and dress like a polar bear for a drive, and before I get back the sun is so hot I feel like stripping.
There is nothing for anyone to do but wait for news from the front. It is the same old story—they are see-sawing at Verdun, with the Germans much nearer than at the beginning—and still we have the firm faith that they will never get there. Doesn't it seem to prove that had Germany fought an honest war she could never have invaded France?
Now, in addition, we've all this strain of waiting for news from Dublin. The affairs of the whole world are in a mess.
There are many aspects of the war which would interest you if you were sitting down on my hilltop with me—conditions which may seem more significant than they are. For example, the Government has sent back from the front a certain number of men to aid in the farm work until the planting is done. Our commune does not get many of these. Our old men and boys and women do the work fairly well, with the aid of a few territorials, who guard the railway two hours each night and work in the fields in the daytime. The women here are used to doing field work, and don't mind doing more than their usual stunt.
I often wonder if some of the women are not better off than in the days before the war. They do about the same work, only they are not bothered by their men.
In the days before the war the men worked in the fields in the summer, and in the carriere de platre, at Mareuil-les-Meaux, in the winter. It was a hard life, and most of them drank a little. It is never the kind of drunkenness you know in America, however. Most of them were radical Socialists in politics—which as a rule meant "ag'in' the government." Of course, being Socialists and French, they simply had to talk it all over. The cafe was the proper place to do that—the provincial cafe being the workingman's club. Of course, the man never dreamed of quitting until legal closing hour, and when he got home, if wife objected, why he just hit her a clip,—it was, of course, for her good,—"a woman, a dog, and a walnut tree,"—you know the adage.
Almost always in these provincial towns it is the woman who is thrifty, and often she sees but too little of her man's earnings. Still, she is, in her way, fond of him, tenacious in her possession of him, and Sundays and fete days they get on together very handsomely.
All the women here, married or not, have always worked, and worked hard. The habit has settled on them. Few of them actually expect their husbands to support them, and they do not feel degraded because their labor helps, and they are wonderfully saving. They spend almost nothing on their clothes, never wear a hat, and usually treasure, for years, one black dress to wear to funerals. The children go to school bareheaded, in black pinafores. It is rare that the humblest of these women has not money put aside.
You don't have to look very deep into the present situation to discover that, psychologically, it is queer. Marriage is, after all, in so many classes, a habit. Here are the women of the class to which I refer working very little harder than in the days before the war. Only, for nearly two years they have had no drinking man to come home at midnight either quarrelsome or sulky; no man's big appetite to cook for; no man to wash for or to mend for. They have lived in absolute peace, gone to bed early to a long, unbroken sleep, and get twenty- five cents a day government aid, plus ten cents for each child. As they all raise their own vegetables, keep chickens and rabbits, and often a goat, manage to have a little to take to market, and a little time every week to work for other people, and get war prices for their time,—well, I imagine you can work out the problem yourself.'
Mind you, there is not one of these women, who, in her way, will not assure you that she loves her husband. She would be drawn and quartered before she would harm him. If anything happens to him she will weep bitterly. But, under my breath, I can assure you that there is many a woman of that class a widow today who is better off for it, and so are her children. The husband who died "en hero," the father dead for his country, is a finer figure in the family life than the living man ever was or could have been.
Of course, it is in the middle classes, where the wives have to be kept, where marriage is less a partnership than in the working classes and among the humbler commercial classes, that there is so much suffering. But that is the class which invariably suffers most in any disaster.
I do not know how characteristic of the race the qualities I find among these people are, nor can I, for lack of experience, be sure in what degree they are absolutely different from those of any class in the States. For example—this craving to own one's home. Almost no one here pays rent. There is a lad at the foot of the hill, in Voisins, who was married just before the war. He has a tiny house of two rooms and kitchen which he bought just before his marriage for the sum of one hundred and fifty francs—less than thirty dollars. He paid a small sum down, and the rest at the rate of twenty cents a week. There is a small piece of land with it, on which he does about as intensive farming as I ever saw. But it is his own.
The woman who works in my garden owns her place. She has been paying for it almost ever since she was married,—sixteen years ago,— and has still forty dollars to pay. She cultivates her own garden, raises her own chickens and rabbits, and always has some to sell. Her husband works in the fields for other people, or in the quarries, and she considers herself prosperous, as she has been able to keep her children in school, and owes no one a penny, except, of course, the sum due on her little place. She has worked since she was nine, but her children have not, and, when she dies, there will be something for them, if it is no more than the little place. In all probability, before that time comes, she will have bought more land—to own ground is the dream of these people, and they do it in such a strange way.
I remember in my girlhood, when I knew the Sandy River Valley country so well, that when a farmer wanted to buy more land he always tried, at no matter what sacrifice, to get a piece adjoining what he already owned, and put a fence around it. It is different here. People own a piece of land here, and a piece there, and another piece miles away, and there are no fences.
For example, around Pere Abelard's house there is a fruit garden and a kitchen garden. The rest of his land is all over the place. He has a big piece of woodland at Pont aux Dames, where he was born, and another on the route de Mareuil. He has a field on the route de Couilly, and another on the side of the hill on the route de Meaux, and he has a small patch of fruit trees and a potato field on the chemin Madame, and another big piece of grassland running down the hill from Huiry to Conde.
Almost nothing is fenced in. Grain fields, potato patches, beet fields belonging to different people touch each other without any other barrier than the white stones, almost level with the soil, put in by the surveyors.
Of course they are always in litigation, but, as I told you, a lawsuit is a cachet of respectability in France.
As for separating a French man or woman from the land—it is almost impossible. The piece of woodland that Abelard owns at Pont aux Dames is called "Le Paradis." It is a part of his mother's estate, and his sister, who lives across the Morin, owns the adjoining lot. It is of no use to anyone. They neither of them ever dream of cutting the wood. Now and then, when we drive, we go and look at it, and Pere tells funny stories of the things he did there when he was a lad. It is full of game, and not long ago he had an offer for it. The sum was not big, but invested would have added five hundred francs a year to his income. But no one could make either him or his sister resolve to part with it. So there it lies idle, and the only thing it serves for is to add to the tax bill every year. But they would rather own land than have money in the bank. Land can't run away. They can go and look at it, press their feet on it, and realize that it is theirs.
I am afraid the next generation is going to be different, and the disturbing thing is that it is the women who are changing. So many of them, who never left the country before, are working in the ammunition factories and earning unheard-of money, and spending it, which is a radical and alarming feature of the situation.
You spoke in one of your recent letters of the awful cost of this war in money. But you must remember that the money is not lost. It is only redistributed. Whether or not the redistribution is a danger is something none of us can know yet; that is a thing only the future can show. One thing is certain, it has forcibly liberated women.
You ask how the cats are. They are remarkable. Khaki gets more savage every day, and less like what I imagined a house cat ought to be. He has thrashed every cat in the commune except Didine, and never got a scratch to show for it. But he has never scratched me. I slapped him the other day. He slapped back,—but with a velvet paw, never even showed a claw.
Didn't you always think a cat hated water? I am sure I did. He goes out in all weathers. Last winter he played in the snow like a child, and rolled in it, and no rainstorm can keep him in the house. The other day he insisted on going out in a pouring rain, and I got anxious about him. Finally I went to the door and called him, and, after a while, he walked out of the dog's kennel, gave me a reproachful look as if to say, "Can't you leave a chap in peace?" and returned to the kennel. The one thing he really hates is to have me leave the house. He goes where his sweet will leads him, but he seems to think that I should be always on the spot.
May 23, 1916
I begin to believe that we shall have no normal settled weather until all this cannon play is over. We've had most unseasonable hailstorms which have knocked all the buds off the fruit-trees, so, in addition to other annoyances, we shall have no fruit this year.
There is nothing new here except that General Foch is in the ambulance at Meaux. No one knows it; not a word has appeared in the newspapers. It was the result of a stupid, but unavoidable, automobile accident. To avoid running over a woman and child on a road near here, the automobile, in which he was travelling rapidly in company with his son-in-law, ran against a tree and smashed. Luckily he was not seriously hurt, though his head got damaged.
On Thursday Poincare passed over our hill, with Briand, en route to meet Joffre at the General's bedside. I did not see them, but some of the people at Quincy did. It was a lucky escape for Foch. He would have hated to die during this war of a simple, unmilitary automobile accident, and the army could ill afford just now to lose one of the heroes of the Marne. Carefully as the fact has been concealed, we knew it here through our ambulance, which is a branch of that at Meaux, where he is being nursed.
Three months since the battle at Verdun began, and it is still going on, with the Germans hardly more than four miles from the city, and yet it begins to look as if they knew themselves that the battle—the most terrible the world has ever seen—was a failure. Still, I have changed my mind. I begin to believe that had Germany centred all her forces on that frontier in August, 1914, when her first-line troops were available, and their hopes high, she would probably have passed. No one can know that, but it is likely, and many military men think so. Isn't it a sort of poetic justice to think that it is even possible that had Germany fought an honorable war she might have got to Paris? "Whom the gods destroy, they first make mad."
I do nothing but work in the garden on rare days when it does not rain, and listen to the cannon. That can't be very interesting stuff to make a letter of. The silence here, which was so dear to me in the days when I was preparing the place, still hangs over it. But, oh, the difference! Now and then, in spite of one's self, the very thought of all that is going on so very near us refuses to take its place and keep in the perspective, it simply jumps out of the frame of patriotism and the welfare of the future. Then the only thing to do is to hunt for the visible consolations—and one always finds them.
For example—wouldn't it seem logical that such a warfare would brutalize the men who are actually in it? It doesn't. It seems to have just the contrary effect. I can't tell you how good the men are to one another, or how gentle they are to the children. It is strange that it should be so, but it is. I don't try to understand it, I merely set it down for you.
June 16, 1916
You can imagine how trying and unseasonable the weather is when I tell you that I not only had a fire yesterday, but that I went to bed with a hotwater bottle. Imagine it! I have only been able to eat out-of-doors once so far.
This is not a letter—just a line, lest you worry if you do not hear that I am well. I am too anxiously watching that see-saw at Verdun, with the German army only four miles from the city, at the end of the fourth month, to talk about myself, and in no position to write about things which you know. One gets dumb, though not hopeless. To add to our anxieties the crops are not going to be good. It was continually wet at planting time, and so cold, and there has been so little sun that potatoes are rotting in the fields already, and the harvest will be meagre. The grain, especially that planted last fall, is fairly good, but, as I told you, after the tempest we had, there is to be no fruit. When I say none, I absolutely mean none. I have not one cherry. Louise counted six prunes on my eight trees, and I have just four pears and not a single apple. Pere's big orchard is in the same condition. In addition, owing to the terrible dampness,—the ground is wet all the time,—the slugs eat up all the salad, spoil all the strawberries, and chew off every young green thing that puts its head above the ground, and that in spite of very hard work on my part. Every morning early, and every afternoon, at sundown, I put in an hour's hard work,— hard, disgusting work,—picking them up with the tongs and dropping them into boiling water. So you see every kind of war is going on at the same time. Where is the good of wishing a bad harvest on Germany, when we get it ourselves at the same time? However, I suppose that you in the States can help us out, and England has jolly well fixed it so that no one can easily help Germany out.
August 4, 1916
Well, here we are in the third year of the war, as Kitchener foresaw, and still with a long way to go to the frontier.
Thanks, by the way, for the article about Kitchener. After all, what can one say of such an end for such a man, after such a career, in which so many times he might have found a soldier's death—then to be drowned like a rat, doing his duty? It leaves one simply speechless. I was, you see. I hadn't a comment to throw at you.
It's hot at last, I'm thankful to say, and equally thankful that the news from the front is good. It is nothing to throw one's hat in the air about, but every inch in the right direction is at least prophetic.
Nothing to tell you about. Not the smallest thing happens here. I do nothing but read my paper, fuss in the garden, which looks very pretty, do up a bundle for my filleul once in a while, write a few letters, and drive about, at sundown, in my perambulator. If that is not an absurd life for a lady in the war zone in these days, I 'd like to know what it is.
I hope this weather will last. It is good for the war and good for the crops. But I am afraid I shall hope in vain.
September 30, 1916
This has been the strangest summer I ever knew. There have been so few really summer days. I could count the hot days on my fingers. None of the things have happened on which I counted.
What a disappointment poor Russia has been to the big world, which knew nothing about her except that she could put fifteen millions of men in the field. However, as we say, "all that is only a detail." We are learning things every day. Nothing has opened our eyes more than seeing set at naught our conviction that, once the Rumanian frontier was opened to the Russians, they would be on the Danube in no time.
Do you remember how glibly we talked of the "Russian steam-roller," in September, 1914? I remember that, at that time, I had a letter from a very clever chap who told me that "expert military men" looked to see the final battle on our front, somewhere near Waterloo, before the end of October, and that even "before that, the Russian steam-roller would be crushing its way to Berlin." How much expert military men have learned since then!
Still, wasn't it, in a certain sense, lucky that, in spite of the warning of Kitchener, we did not, in the beginning, realize the road we had to travel? As I look back on the two years, it all looks to me more and more remarkable, seen even at this short perspective, that the Allied armies, and most of all, the civilians behind the lines have, in the face of the hard happenings of each day, stood up, and taken it as they have, and hoped on.
I have got into a mood where it seems simply stupid to talk about it, since I am, as usual, only eternally a spectator. I only long to keep my eyes raised in a wide arc towards the end, to live each day as I can, and wait. So why should I try to write to you of things which I do not see, and of which only the last, faint, dying ripples reach us here?
You really must not pity me, as you insist upon doing, because military restrictions draw a line about me, which I may not cross at my own sweet will. I am used to it. It is not hard. For that matter, it is much more trying to my French neighbors than it is to me.
I seem never to have told you that even they may not leave the commune without a sauf-conduit. To be sure, they have only to go to the mairie, and ask for it, to get it.
For months now the bridge over the Marne, at Meaux, has been guarded, and even those going to market cannot cross without showing their papers. The formality is very trying to them, for the reason that the mairie opens at eight, and closes at twelve not to reopen again until three and close at six. You see those hours are when everyone is busiest in the fields. The man or woman who has to go to market on Saturday must leave work standing and make a long trip into Quincy—and often they have three or four miles to go on foot to do it—just at the hour when it is least easy to spare the time.
To make it harder still, a new order went out a few weeks ago. Every man, woman, and child (over fifteen) in the war zone has to have, after October 1, a carte d'identite, to which must be affixed a photograph.
This regulation has resulted in the queerest of embarrassments. A great number of these old peasants—and young ones too—never had a photograph taken. There is no photographer. The photographer at Esbly and the two at Meaux could not possibly get the people all photographed, and, in this uncertain weather, the prints made, in the delay allowed by the military authorities. A great cry of protestation went up. Photographers of all sorts were sent into the commune. The town crier beat his drum like mad, and announced the places where the photographers would be on certain days and hours, and ordered the people to assemble and be snapped.
One of the places chosen was the courtyard at Amelie's, and you would have loved seeing these bronzed old peasants facing a camera for the first time. Some of the results were funny, especially when the hurried and overworked operator got two faces on the same negative, as happened several times.
Real autumn weather is here, but, for that matter, it has been more like autumn than summer since last spring. The fields are lovely to see on days when the sun shines. I drove the other day just for the pleasure of sitting in my perambulator, on the hillside, and looking over the slope of the wide wheat fields, where the women, in their cotton jackets and their wide hats, were reaping. The harvesting never looked so picturesque. I could pick out, in the distance, the tall figure of my Louise, with a sheaf on her head and a sickle in her hand, striding across the fields, and I thought how a painter would have loved the scene, with the long rays of the late September sunset illuminating the yellow stretch.
Last Wednesday we had a little excitement here, because sixteen German prisoners, who were working on a farm at Vareddes, escaped—some of them disguised as women.
I wasn't a bit alarmed, as it hardly seemed possible that they would venture near houses in this district, but Pere was very nervous, and every time the dog barked he was out in the road to make sure that I was all right.
Oddly enough, it happened on the very day when two hundred arrived at Meaux to work in the sugar refinery. The next day there was a regular battue, as the gendarmes beat up the fields and woods in search of the fugitives.
If they caught them, they don't tell, but we have been ordered to harbor no strangers under a severe penalty. But that condition has really existed since the war broke out, as no one is even allowed to engage a workman whose papers have not been vise at the mairie.
I have had to have a wood fire today—it is alarming, with winter ahead, and so little fuel, to have to begin heating up at the end of September—three weeks or a month earlier than usual.
November 25, 1916
It is raining,—a cold and steady downpour. I don't feel in the least like writing a letter. This is only to tell you that I have got enough anthracite coal to go to the end of February, and that the house is warm and cosy, and I am duly thankful to face this third war-winter free from fear of freezing. It cost thirty-two dollars a ton. How does that sound to you?
I have planted my tulip bulbs, cleaned up the garden for winter and settled down to life inside my walls, with my courage in both hands, and the hope that next spring's offensive will not be a great disappointment.
In the meantime I am sorry that Franz Josef did not live to see this war of his out and take his punishment. I used to be so sorry for him in the old days, when it seemed as if Fate showered disasters on the heads of the Hapsburgs. I wasted my pity. The blows killed everyone in the family but father. The way he stood it and never learned to be kind or wise proved how little he needed pity.
All the signs say a cold winter. How I envy hibernating animals! I want to live to see this thing out, but it would be nice to crawl into a hole, like a bear, and sleep comfortably until the sun came out in the spring, and the seeds began to sprout, and the army was thawed out, and could move. In the silence on this hilltop, where nothing happens but dishwashing and bedmaking and darning stockings, it is a long way to springtime, even if it comes early.
I amused myself last week by defying the consign. I had not seen a gendarme on the road for weeks. I had driven to Couilly once or twice, though to do it I had to cross "the dead line." I had met the garde champetre there, and even talked to him, and he had said nothing. So, hearing one day that my friend from Voulangis had a permission to drive to the train at Esbly, and that she was returning about nine in the morning, I determined to meet her on the road, and at least see how she was looking and have a little chat. I felt a longing to hear someone say: "Hulloa, you,"—just a few words in English.
So if you could have seen the road, just outside of Couilly, Thursday morning, just after nine, you would have seen a Southern girl sitting in a high cart facing east, and an elderly lady in a donkey cart facing west, and the two of them watching the road ahead for the coming of a bicycle pedalled by a gendarme with a gun on his back, as they talked like magpies. It was all so funny that I was convulsed with laughter. There we were, two innocent, harmless American women, talking of our family affairs and our gardens, our fuel, our health, and behaving like a pair of conspirators. We didn't dare to get out to embrace each other, for fear—in case we saw a challenge coming— that I could not scramble back and get away quickly enough, and we only stayed a quarter of an hour. We might just as well have carried our lunch and spent the day so far as I could see—only if anyone had passed and had asked for our papers there would have been trouble. However, we had our laugh, and decided that it was not worth while to risk it again. But I could not help asking myself how, with all their red tape, they ever caught any real suspect.
Do you remember that I told you some time ago about Louise's brother, Joseph, in the heavy artillery, who had never seen a Boche? Well, he is at home again for his eight days. He came to see me yesterday. I said to him: "Well, Joseph, where did you come from this time?"
"From the same place—the mountains in Alsace. We've not budged for nearly two years."
"How long are you going to stay there?"
"To the end of the war, I imagine."
"But why?" I asked.
"What can we do, madame?" he replied. "There we are, on the top of a mountain. We can't get down. The Germans can't get up. They are across the valley on the top of a hill in the same fix."
"But what do you do up there?" I demanded.
"Well," he replied, "we watch the Germans, or at least the aeroplanes do—we can't see them. They work on their defenses. They pull up new guns and shift their emplacements. We let them work. Then our big guns destroy their work."
"But what do they do, Joseph?"
"Well, they fire a few shots, and go to work again. But I'll tell you something, madame, as sure as that we are both living, they would not do a thing if we would only leave them in peace,—but we don't."
"Well, Joseph," I asked, "have you seen a Boche yet?"
"Oh, yes, madame, I've seen them. I see them, with a glass, working in the fields, ploughing, and getting ready to plant them."
"And you don't do anything to prevent them?"
"Well, no. We can't very well. They always have a group of women and children with every gang of workmen. They know, only too well, that French guns will not fire at that kind of target. It is just the same with their commissary trains—always women at the head, in the middle, and in the rear."
Comment is unnecessary!
December 6, 1916
Well, at last, the atmosphere on the hilltop is all changed. We have a cantonnement de regiment again, and this time the most interesting that we have ever had,—the 23d Dragoons, men on active service, who are doing infantry work in the trenches at Tracy-le-Val, in the Foret de Laigue, the nearest point to Paris, in the battle-front.
It is, as usual, only the decorative and picturesque side of war, but it is tremendously interesting, more so than anything which has happened since the Battle of the Marne.
As you never had soldiers quartered on you—and perhaps you never will have—I wish you were here now.
It was just after lunch on Sunday—a grey, cold day, which had dawned on a world covered with frost—that there came a knock at the salon door. I opened it, and there stood a soldier, with his heels together, and his hand at salute, who said: "Bon jour, madame, avez- vous un lit pour un soldat?"
Of course I had a bed for a soldier, and said so at once.
You see it is all polite and formal, but if there is a corner in the house which can serve the army the army has a right to it. Everyone is offered the privilege of being prettily gracious about it, and of letting it appear as if a favor were being extended to the army, but, in case one does not yield willingly, along comes a superior officer and imposes a guest on the house.
However, that sort of thing never happens here. In our commune the soldiers are loved. The army is, for that matter, loved all over France. No matter what else may be conspue, the crowd never fails to cry "Vive l'Armee!" although there are places where the soldier is not loved as a visitor.
I asked the adjutant in, and showed him the room. He wrote it down in his book, saluted me again with a smiling, "Merci bien, madame," and went on to make the rounds of the hamlet, and examine the resources of Voisins, Joncheroy, and Quincy.
The noncommissioned officers, who arrange the cantonnements, are very clever about it. They seem to know, by instinct, just what sort of a man to put in each house, and they rarely blunder.
All that Sunday afternoon they were running around in the mud and the cold drizzle that was beginning to fall, arranging, not only quarters for the men, but finding shelter for three times as many horses, and that was not easy, although every old grange on the hilltop was cleaned out and put in order.
For half an hour the adjutant tried to convince himself that he could put four horses in the old grange on the north side of my house. I was perfectly willing, only I knew that if one horse kicked once, the floor of the loft would fall on him, and that if four horses kicked once, at least three walls would fall in on them. That would not be so very important to me, but I'd hate to have handsome army horses killed like that on my premises.
He finally decided that I was right, and then I went with him up to Amelie's to see what we could do. I never realized what a ruin of a hamlet this is until that afternoon. By putting seven horses in the old grange at Pere's,—a tumble-down old shack, where he keeps lumber and dead farm wagons,—he never throws away or destroys anything— we finally found places for all the horses. There were eleven at Pere's, and it took Amelie and Pere all the rest of the afternoon to run the stuff out of the old grange, which stands just at the turn of the road, and has a huge broken door facing down the hill.
I often mean to send you a picture of that group of ruins—there are five buildings in it. They were originally all joined together, but some of them have had to be pulled down because they got too dangerous to stand, and in the open spaces there is, in one place, a pavement of red tiles, and in another the roof to a cellar, with stone steps leading up to it. Not a bit of it is of any use to anyone, though the cellars under them are used to store vegetables, and Amelie keeps rabbits in one.
It was while we were arranging all this, and Amelie was assuring them that they were welcome, but that she would not guarantee that the whole group of ruins would not fall on their heads (and everything was as gay as if we were arranging a week-end picnic rather than a shelter for soldiers right out of the trenches), that the adjutant explained how it happened that, in the third year of the war, the fighting regiments were, for the first time, retiring as far as our hill for their repos.
He told us that almost all the cavalry had been dismounted to do infantry work in the trenches, but their horses were stalled in the rear. It had been found that the horses were an embarrassment so near to the battle-front, and so it had been decided to retire them further behind the line, and send out part of the men to keep them exercised and in condition, giving the men in turn three weeks in the trenches and three weeks out.
They had first withdrawn the horses to Nanteuil-le-Haudrouin a little northwest of us, about halfway between us and the trenches in the Foret de Laigue. But that cantonnement had not been satisfactory, so they had retired here.
By sundown everything was arranged—four hundred horses along the hilltop, and, they tell us, over fifteen thousand along the valley. We were told that the men were leaving Nanteuil the next morning, and would arrive during the afternoon.
It was just dusk on Monday when they began riding up the hill, each mounted man leading two riderless horses.
It was just after they passed that there came a knock at the salon door.
I opened it with some curiosity. When you are to lodge a soldier in a house as intimately arranged as this one is, I defy anyone not to be curious as to what the lodger is to be like.
There stood a tall, straight lad, booted and spurred, with a crop in one gloved hand, and the other raised to his fatigue cap in salute, and a smile on his bonny face,—as trig in his leather belted bleu de ciel tunic as if ready for parade, and not a sign of war about him but his uniform.
"Bon jour, madame" he said. "Permit me to introduce myself. Aspirant B———, 23d Dragoons."
"Regular army?" I said, for I knew by the look of him that this was a professional soldier.
"St. Cyr," he replied. That is the same as our West Point.
"You are welcome, Aspirant," I said. "Let me show you to your room."
"Thank you," he smiled. "Not yet. I only came to present myself, and thank you in advance for your courtesy. I am in command of the squad on your hill, replacing an officer who is not yet out of the hospital. I must see my men housed and the horses under shelter. May I ask you, if my orderly comes with my kit, to show him where to put it, and explain to him how he may best get in and out of the house, when necessary, without disturbing your habits?"
I had to laugh as I explained to him that locking up, when soldiers were in the hamlet, was hardly even a formality, and that the orderly could come and go at his will.
"Good," he replied. "Then I'll give myself the pleasure of seeing you after dinner. I hope I shall in no way disturb you. I am always in before nine," and he saluted again, backed away from the door, and marched up the hill. He literally neither walked nor ran, he marched.
I wish I could give you an idea of what he looks like. At first sight I gave him nineteen years at the outside, in spite of his height and his soldierly bearing and his dignity.
Before he came in at half past eight his orderly had brought his kit, unpacked and made himself familiar with the lay of the house, and made friends with Amelie. So the Aspirant settled into an armchair in front of the fire—having asked my permission—to chat a bit, and account for himself, and it was evident to me that he had already been asking questions regarding me—spurred, as usual, by the surprise of finding an American here. As the officers' mess is at the foot of the hill, at Voisins, that had been easy.
So, knowing intuitively, just by his manner and his words, that he had asked questions about me—he even knew that I had been here from the beginning of the war—I, with the privilege of my white hairs, asked him even how old he was. He told me he was twenty—a year older than I thought—that he was an only son, that his father was an officer in the reserves and they lived about forty-five miles the other side of Rheims, that his home was in the hands of the Germans, and the house, which had been literally stripped of everything of value, was the headquarters of a staff officer. And it was all told so quietly, so simply, with no sign of emotion of any sort.
At exactly nine o'clock he rose to his feet, clicked his heels together, made me a drawing-room bow, of the best form, as he said: "Eh, bien, madame, je vous quitte. Bon soir et bonne nuit." Then he backed to the foot of the stairs, bowed again, turned and went up lightly on the toes of his heavy boots, and I never heard another sound of him.
Of course in twenty-four hours he became the child of the house. I feel like a grandmother to him. As for Amelie, she falls over herself trying to spoil him, and before the second day he became "Monsieur Andre" to her. Catch her giving a boy like that his military title, though he takes his duties most seriously.
The weather is dreadful—cold, damp, drizzly, but he is in and out, and the busiest person you can imagine. There isn't a horse that has to have his feet washed that he isn't on the spot to see it done properly. There isn't a man who has a pain that he isn't after him to see if he needs the doctor,—and I don't need to tell you that his men love him, and so do the horses.
I am taking a full course in military habits, military duties, and military etiquette. I smile inside myself sometimes and wonder how they can keep it up during these war times. But they do.
This morning he came down at half past seven ready to lead his squad on an exercise ride. I must tell you that the soldier who comes downstairs in the morning, in his big coat and kepi, ready to mount his horse, is a different person from the smiling boy who makes me a ballroom bow at the foot of the stairs in the evening. He comes down the stairs as stiff as a ramrod, lifts his gloved hand to his kepi, as he says, "Bon jour, madame, vous allez bien ce matin?"
This morning I remarked to him as he was ready to mount: "Well, young man, I advise you to turn up your collar; the air is biting."
He gave me a queer look as he replied: "Merci,—pas reglementaire,"— but he had to laugh, as he shook his head at me, and marched out to his horse.
You do not need to be told how all this changes our life here, and yet it does not bring into it the sort of emotion I anticipated. Thus far I have not heard the war mentioned. The tramping of horses, the moving crowd of men, simply give a new look to our quiet hamlet.
This cantonnement is officially called a "repos" but seems little like that to me. It seems simply a change of work. Every man has three horses to groom, to feed, to exercise, three sets of harness to keep in order, stables to clean. But they are all so gay and happy, and as this is the first time in eighteen months that any of them have, slept in beds they are enjoying it.
Of course, I have little privacy. You know how my house is laid out— the front door opens into the salon, and the staircase is there also. When the Aspirant is not on duty outside he has to be here where he can be found, so he sits at the salon desk to do his writing and fix up his papers and reports, and when he is not going up and down stairs his orderly is. There seems always to be a cleaning of boots, brushing of coats, and polishing of spurs and rubbing up of leather going on somewhere.
It did not take the men long to discover that there was always hot water in my kitchen, and that they were welcome to it if they would keep the kettles filled, and that I did not mind their coming and going— and I don't, for a nicer crowd of men I never saw. They are not only ready, they are anxious, to do all sorts of odd jobs, from hauling coal and putting it in, to cleaning the chimneys and sweeping the terrace. When they groom the horses they always groom Gamin, our dapple- grey pony, and Ninette, which were never so well taken care of in their lives—so brushed and clipped that they are both handsomer than I knew. Though the regiment has only been here three days every day has had its special excitement.
The morning after they got here we had a royal ten minutes of laughter and movement.
In the old grange at the top of the hill, where they stabled seven horses, there had been a long bar across the back wall, fixed with cement into the side walls, and used to fasten the wagons. They found it just right to tie the horses. It was a fine morning, for a wonder. The sun was shining, and all the barn doors were open to it. The Aspirant and I were standing on the lawn just before noon—he had returned from his morning ride—looking across the Marne at the battlefield. The regiment had been in the battle,—but he was, at that time, still at St. Cyr. Suddenly we heard a great rumpus behind us, and turned just in season to see all the horses trotting out of the grange. They wheeled out of the wide door in a line headed down the hill, the last two carrying the bar to which they had been attached, like the pole of a carriage, between them. They were all "feeling their oats," and they thundered down the hill by us, like a cavalry charge, and behind them came half a dozen men simply splitting with laughter.
Amelie had been perfectly right. The old grange was not solid, but they had not pulled the walls down on themselves, they had simply pulled the pole to which they were attached out of its bed.
The Aspirant tried not to smile—an officer in command must not, I suppose, even if he is only twenty. He whistled gently, put up his hand to stop the men from running, and walked quietly into the road, still whistling. Five of the horses, tossing their heads, were thundering on towards the canal. The span, dragging the long pole, swerved on the turn, and swung the pole, which was so long that it caught on the bank. I expected to see them tangle themselves all up, what with the pole and the halters. Not a bit of it. They stopped, panting, and still trying to toss their heads, and the Aspirant quietly picked up a halter, and passed the horses over to the men, saying, in a most nonchalant manner: "Fasten that pole more securely. Some of you go quietly down the hill. You'll meet them coming back," and he returned to the garden, and resumed the conversation just where it had been interrupted.
It had been a lively picture to me, but to the soldiers, I suppose, it had only been an every day's occurrence.
My only fear had been that there might be children or a wagon on the winding road. Luckily the way was clear.
An hour later, the men returned, leading the horses. They had galloped down to the river, and returned by way of Voisins, where they had stopped right in front of the house where the Captain was quartered, and the Captain had been in the garden and seen them.
This time the Aspirant had to laugh. He slapped one of the horses caressingly on the nose as he said: "You devils! Couldn't you go on a lark without telling the Captain about it, and getting us all into trouble?"
To make this all the funnier, that very night three horses stabled in a rickety barn at Voisins, kicked their door down, and pranced and neighed under the Captain's bedroom window.
The Captain is a nice chap, but he is not in his first youth, and he is tired, and, well—he is a bit nervous. He said little, but that was to the point. It was only: "You boys will see that these things don't happen, or you will sleep in the straw behind your horses."
This is the first time that I have seen anything of the military organization, and I am filled with admiration for it. I don't know how it works behind the trenches, but here, in the cantonnement, I could set my clocks by the soup wagon—a neat little cart, drawn by two sturdy little horses, which takes the hill at a fine gallop, and passes my gate at exactly twenty-five minutes past eleven, and twenty-five minutes past five every day. The men wait, with their gamelles, at the top of the hill. The soup looks good and smells delicious. Amelie says that it tastes good. She has five soldiers in her house, and she and Pere often eat with them, so she knows.
From all this you can guess what my life is like, and probably will be like until the impatiently awaited spring offensive. But what you will find it hard to imagine is the spirit and gaiety of these men. It is hard to believe that they have been supporting the monotony of trench life for so long, and living under bombardment,—and cavalry at that, trained and hoping for another kind of warfare. There is no sign of it on them.
December 17, 1916
Well, we did not keep our first division of dragoons as long as we expected. They had passed part of their three weeks out of the trenches at Nanteuil, and on the journey, so it seemed to us as though they were hardly settled down when the order came for them to return. They were here only a little over a week.
I had hardly got accustomed to seeing the Aspirant about the house, either writing, with the cat on his knees, or reading, with Dick sitting beside him, begging to have his head patted, when one evening he came in, and said quietly: "Well, madame, we are leaving you in a day or two. The order for the releve has come, but the day and hour are not yet fixed."
But during the week he was here I got accustomed to seeing him sit before the fire every evening after dinner for a little chat before turning in. He was more ready to talk politics than war, and full of curiosity about "your Mr. Wilson," as he called him. Now and then he talked military matters, but it was technique, and the strategy of war, not the events. He is an enthusiastic soldier, and to him, of course, the cavalry is still "la plus belle arme de France." He loved to explain the use of cavalry in modern warfare, of what it was yet to do in the offensive, armed as it is today with the same weapons as the infantry, carrying carbines, having its hand-grenade divisions, its mitrailleuses, ready to go into action as cavalry, arriving like a flash au galop, over ground where the infantry must move slowly, and with difficulty, and ready at any time to dismount and fight on foot, to finish a pursuit begun as cavalry. It all sounded very logical as he described it.
He had been under bombardment, been on dangerous scouting expeditions, but never yet in a charge, which is, of course, his ambitious dream. There was an expression of real regret in his voice when he said one evening: "Helas! I have not yet had the smallest real opportunity to distinguish myself."
I reminded him that he was still very young.
He looked at me quite indignantly as he replied: "Madame forgets that there are Aspirants no older than I whose names are already inscribed on the roll of honor."
You see an elderly lady, unused to a soldier's point of view, may be very sympathetic, and yet blunder as a comforter.
The releve passed off quietly. It was all in the routine of the soldiers' lives. They did not even know that it was picturesque. It was late last Friday night that an orderly brought the news that the order had come to move on the morning of the eleventh—three days later,—and it was not until the night of the fifteenth that we were again settled down to quiet.
The squad we had here moved in two divisions. Early Monday morning—the eleventh—the horses were being saddled, and at ten o'clock they began to move. One half of them were in full equipment. The other half acted as an escort as far as Meaux, from which place they led back the riderless horses.
The officers explained it all to me. The division starting that day for the trenches dismounted at Meaux, and took a train for the station nearest to the Foret de Laigue. There they had their hot soup and waited for night, to march into the trenches under cover of the darkness. They told me that it was not a long march, but it was a hard one, as it was up hill, over wet and clayey ground, where it was difficult not to slip back as fast as they advanced.
On arriving at the trenches they would find the men they were to relieve ready to march out, to slip and slide down the hill to the railway, where they would have their morning coffee, and await the train for Meaux, where they were due at noon next day—barring delays.
So, on the afternoon of the twelfth, the men who had acted as escort the day before led the horses to Meaux, and just before four o'clock the whole body arrived on the hill.
This time I saw men right out of the trenches. They were a sorry sight, in spite of their high spirits. The clayey yellow mud of three weeks' exposure in the trenches was plastered on them so thick that I wondered how they managed to mount their horses. I never saw a dirtier crowd. Their faces even looked stiff.
They simply tumbled off their horses, left the escort to stable them, and made a dash for the bath-house, which is at the foot of the hill, at Joncheroy. If they can't get bathed, disinfected, and changed before dark, they have to sleep their first night in the straw with the horses, as they are unfit, in more ways than I like to tell you, to go into anyone's house until that is done, and they are not allowed.
These new arrivals had twenty-four hours' rest, and then, on Thursday, they acted as escort to the second division, and with that division went the Aspirant, and the men they relieved arrived Friday afternoon, and now we are settled down for three weeks.
Before the Aspirant left he introduced into the house the senior lieutenant, whom he had been replacing in the command on my hill, a man a little over thirty—a business man in private life and altogether charming, very cultivated, a book-lover and an art connoisseur. He is a nephew of Lepine, so many years prefet de police at Paris, and a cousin of Senator Reynault, who was killed in his aeroplane at Toule, famous not only as a brave patriot, but as a volunteer for three reasons exempt from active service—a senator, a doctor, and past the age.
I begin to believe, on the testimony of my personal experiences, that all the officers in the cavalry are perfect gentlemen. The lieutenant settled into his place at once. He puts the coal on the fire at night. He plays with the animals. He locks up, and is as quiet as a mouse and as busy as a bee.
This is all my news, except that I am hoping to go to Paris for Christmas, and to go by the way of Voulangis. It is all very uncertain. My permission has not come yet.
It is over a year since we were shut in. My friends in Paris call me their permissionaire, when I go to town. In the few shops where I am known everyone laughs when I make my rare appearances and greets me with: "Ah, so they've let you out again!" as if it were a huge joke, and I assure you that it does seem like that to me.
The soldiers in the trenches get eight days' permission every four months. I don't seem to get much more,—if as much.
January 10, 1917
I went to Paris, as I told you I hoped to do. Nothing new there. In spite of the fact that, in many ways, they are beginning to feel the war, and there is altogether too much talk about things no one can really know anything about, I was still amazed at the gaiety. In a way it is just now largely due to the great number of men en permission. The streets, the restaurants, the tea-rooms are full of them, and so, they tell me, are the theatres.
Do you know what struck me most forcibly? You'll never guess. It was that men in long trousers look perfectly absurd. I am so used to seeing the culotte and gaiters that the best-looking pantaloons I saw on the boulevards looked ugly and ridiculous.
I left the officer billeted in my house to take care of it. The last I saw of him he was sitting at the desk in the salon, his pipe in his mouth, looking comfortable and cosy, and as if settled for life. I only stayed a few days, and came home, on New Year's Eve, to find that he had left the night before, having been suddenly transferred to the staff of the commander of the first army, as officier de la liaison, and I had in his place a young sous-officier of twenty-two, who proves to be a cousin of the famous French spy, Captain Luxe, who made that sensational escape, in 1910, from a supposed-to-be-impregnable German military prison. I am sure you remember the incident, as the American papers devoted columns to his unprecedented feat. The hero of that sensational episode is still in the army. I wonder what the Germans will do with him if they catch him again? They are hardly likely to get him alive a second time.
I wonder if the German books on military tactics use that escape as a model in their military schools? Do you know that in every French military school the reconnaisance which Count Zeppelin made in Alsace, in the days of 1870, when he was a cavalry officer, is given as a model reconnaissance both for strategy and pluck? I did not, until I was told. Oddly enough, not all that Zeppelin has done since to offend French ideas of decency in war can dull the admiration felt by every cavalry officer for his clever feat in 1870.
Last Thursday,—that was the 4th,—we had our second releve.
The night before they left some of the officers came to say au revoir, and to tell me that the Aspirant, who had been with me in December, would be quartered on me again—if I wanted him. Of course I did.
Then the senior lieutenant told me that the regiment had suffered somewhat from a serious bombardment the days after Christmas, that the Aspirant had not only shown wonderful courage, but had had a narrow escape, and had been cite a l'ordre du jour, and was to have his first decoration.
We all felt as proud of him as if he belonged to us. I was told that he had been sent into the first-line trenches—only two hundred yards from the German front—during the bombardment, "to encourage and comfort his men" (I quote), and that a bomb had exploded over the trench and knocked a hole in his steel helmet.
I don't know which impressed me most—the idea of a lad of twenty having so established the faith in his courage amongst his superior officers as to be safe as a comfort and encouragement for the men, or the fact that, if the army had had those steel casques at the beginning of the war, many lives would have been saved.
The Aspirant came in with the second detachment the night before last—the eighth. The regiment was in and all quartered before he appeared.
We had begun to fear something had happened to him, when he turned up, freshly shaved and clean, but with a tattered overcoat on his arm, and a battered helmet in his hand.
Amelie greeted him with: "Well, young man, we thought you were lost!"
He laughed, as he explained that he had been to make a toilet, see the regimental tailor, and order a new topcoat.
"I would not, for anything in the world, have had madame see me in the state I was in an hour ago. She has to see my rags, but I spared her the dirt," and he held up the coat to show its rudely sewed-up rents, and turned over his helmet to show the hole in the top.
"And here is what hit me," and he took out of his pocket a rough piece of a shell, and held it up, as if it were very precious. Indeed, he had it wrapped in a clean envelope, all ready to take up to Paris and show his mother, as he is to have his leave of a week while he is here.
I felt like saying "Don't," but I didn't. I suppose it is hard for an ambitious soldier of twenty to realize that the mother of an only son, and that son such a boy as this, must have some feeling besides pride in her heart as she looks at him.
So now we are settled again, and used to the trotting of horses, the banging of grenades and splitting of mitrailleuses. From the window as I write—I am up in the attic, which Amelie calls the "atelier," because it is in the top of the house and has a tiny north light in the roof—that being the only place where I am sure of being undisturbed— I can see horses being trained in the wide field on the side of the hill between here and Quincy. They are manoeuvring with all sorts of noises about them—even racing in a circle while grenades and guns are fired.
In spite of all that, there came near being a lovely accident right in front of the gate half an hour ago.
The threshing-machine is at work in front of the old grange on the other side of the road, just above my house. The men had come back from breakfast, and were starting the machine up just as two mounted soldiers, each leading two horses, rode out of the grange at Amelie's, and started down the hill at a trot. The very moment the horses were turning out to pass the machine,—and the space was barely sufficient between the machine and the bank—a heedless man blew three awful blasts on his steam whistle to call his aids. The cavalry horses were used to guns, and the shrill mouth whistles of the officers, but that did not make them immune to a steam siren, and in a moment there was the most dangerous mix-up I ever saw. I expected to see both riders killed, and I don't know now why they were not, but neither man was thrown, even in spite of having three frightened horses to master.
It was a stupid thing for the man on the machine to do. He would have only had to wait one minute and the horses would have been by with a clear road before them if they shied. But he "didn't think." The odd thing was that the soldiers did not say an ugly word. I suppose they are used to worse.
You have been reproaching me for over a year that I did not write enough about the war. I do hope that all this movement about me interests you. It is not war by any means, but the nearest relation to it that I have seen in that time. It is its movements, its noise, its clothes. It is gay and brave, and these men are no "chocolate soldiers."
January 30, 1917
My, but it is cold here! Wednesday the 24th it was 13 below zero, and this morning at ten o'clock it was 6 below. Of course this is in Centigrade and not Fahrenheit, but it is a cold from which I suffer more—it is so damp—than I ever did from the dry, sunny, below zero as you know it in the States. Not since 1899 have I seen such cold as this in France. I have seen many a winter here when the ground has hardly frozen at all. This year it began to freeze a fortnight ago. It began to snow on the 17th, a fine dry snow, and as the ground was frozen it promises to stay on. It has so far, in spite of the fact that once or twice since it fell the sun has shone. It looks very pretty, quite unnatural, very reminiscent of New England.
It makes life hard for us as well as the soldiers, but they laugh and say, "We have seen worse." They prefer it to rain and mud. But it makes roading hard; everything is so slippery, and if you ever happened to see a French horse or a French person "walking on ice" I don't need to say more.
Well, the unexpected has happened—the cavalry has moved on. They expected—as much as a soldier ever expects anything—to have divided their time until March between our hill and the trenches in the Foret de Laigue. But on the twenty-second orders began to rush in from headquarters, announcing a change of plan; a move was ordered and counter-ordered every few hours for three days, until Thursday afternoon, the twenty-fifth, the final order came—the whole division to be ready to mount at seven-thirty the next morning, orders for the direction to come during the night.
You never saw such a rushing about to collect clothes and get them dried. You see it has been very hard to get washing done. The Morin, where the wash-houses are, is frozen, and even when things are washed, they won't dry in this air, and there is no coal to heat the drying-houses.
However, it was done after a fashion. Everyone who had wood kept a fire up all night.
On Wednesday afternoon I had a little tea-party for some of the sous- officiers—mere boys—a simple goodbye spread of bread and butter and dry cookies,—nothing else to be had. I could not even make cake, as we have had no fine sugar for months. However, the tea was extra good—sent me from California for Christmas—and I set the table with all my prettiest things, and the boys seemed to enjoy themselves.
They told me before leaving that never since they were at the front had they been anywhere so well received or so comfortable as they have been here, and that it would be a long time before they "forgot Huiry." Well, we on our side can say that we never dreamed that a conscript army could have a whole regiment of such fine men. So you see we are all very much pleased with each other, and if the 23d Dragoons are not going to forget us, we are as little likely to forget them.
Thursday evening, before going to bed, the Aspirant and I sat at the kitchen table and made a lot of sandwiches, as they are carrying three days' provisions. They expected a five hours' march on the first day, and a night under the tents, then another day's march, during which they would receive their orders for their destination. When the sandwiches were done, and wrapped up ready for his orderly to put in the saddlebags, with his other provisions, he said: "Well, I am going to say goodbye to you tonight, and thank you for all your kindness."
"Not at all," I answered. "I shall be up in the morning to see you start."
He protested. It was so cold, so early, etc. But my mind was made up.
I assure you that it was cold,—18 below,—but I got up when I heard the orderly arrive in the morning. I had been awake for hours, for at three o'clock the horses were being prepared. Every man had three to feed and saddle, and pack. Orderlies were running about doing the last packing for the officers, and carrying kits to the baggage-wagons. Amelie came at six. When I got downstairs I found the house warm and coffee ready. The Aspirant was taking his standing. It was more convenient than sitting in a chair. Indeed, I doubt if he could have sat.
I had to laugh at the picture he made. I never regretted so much that I have not indulged in a camera. He was top-booted and spurred. He had on his new topcoat and his mended helmet—catch a young soldier who has been hit on the head by his first obus having a new and unscarred one. He was hung over with his outfit like a Santa Claus. I swore he could never get into the saddle, but he scorned my doubts.
To the leather belt about his waist, supported by two straps over his shoulders, were attached his revolver, in its case with twenty rounds of cartridges; his field glasses; his map-case; his bidon—for his wine; square document case; his mask against asphyxiating gas; and, if you please, his kodak! Over one shoulder hung a flat, half-circular bag, with his toilet articles, over the other its mate, with a change, and a few necessary articles.
He looked to me as if he would ride two hundred pounds heavy, and he hasn't an ounce of extra flesh on him.
I laughed even harder when I saw him mounted. In one side of the holster was his gamelle; in the other, ammunition. The saddlebags contained on one side twenty pounds of oats for the horse; on the other three days' provisions for himself. I knew partly what was in that bag, and it was every bit as heavy as the horse's fodder, for there were sandwiches, sugar, coffee, chocolate, tinned meat, peas, corn, fruit, etc. Behind the saddle was rolled his blanket, inside his section of tent cover,—it takes six of them to make a real tent. They are arranged to button together.
I was sitting in the bedroom window when he rode on to the terrace. I had to laugh as I looked down at him.
"And why does madame laugh?" he asked, trying to keep a sober face himself.
"Well," I replied, "I am only wondering if that is your battle array?"
"Certainly," he answered. "Why does it surprise you?"
I looked as serious as I could, as I explained that I had supposed, naturally, that the cavalry went into action as lightly equipped as possible.
He looked really indignant, as he snapped: "That would be quite unnatural. What do you suppose that Peppino and I are going to do after a battle? Wait for the commissary department to find us? No, madame, after a battle it will not be of my mother nor home, nor even of you, that we will be thinking. We shall think of something to eat and drink." Then he added, with a laugh, "Alas! We shan't have all these nice things you have given us. They will have been eaten by tomorrow."
I apologized, and said I'd know better another time, and he patted his horse, as he backed away, and said to him: "Salute the lady, Peppino, and tell her prettily that you had the honor of carrying Teddy Roosevelt the day he went to the review." And the horse pawed and bowed and neighed, and his rider wheeled him carefully as he saluted and said: "Au revoir, I shall write, and, after the war, I shall give myself the pleasure of seeing you," and he rode carefully out of the gate—a very delicate operation, as only half of it was open. Laden as the horse was, he just made it, and away he galloped down the hill to Voisins, where the cavalry was assembling.
I stayed in the window a few minutes to wave a goodbye to the men as they led each their three horses down the hill. Then I put on my heaviest coat, a polo cap, all my furs and mittens, thrust my felt shoes into my sabots, and with one hand in my muff, I took the big French flag in the other and went through the snow down to the hedge to watch the regiment pass, on the road to Esbly.
Even before I got out of the house the news came that the 118th Regiment of infantry, the boys who retook Vaux in the great battle at Verdun, had been marching in from Meaux, and were camped, waiting to take up the billets the 23d Dragoons were vacating.
I stood in the snow for nearly half an hour, holding up the heavy flag, which flapped bravely in the icy wind, and watching the long grey line moving slowly along the road below. I could see half a mile of the line —grey, steel-helmeted men, packed horses, grey wagons—winding down the hill in the winter landscape, so different from the France I had always known. Hardly a sound came back—no music, no colors— the long, grey column moved in a silent, almost colorless world. I shifted the heavy flag from one hand to the other as my fingers got stiff, but, alas! I could not shift my feet. Long before the line had passed I was forced to fasten the flag to a post in the hedge and leave it to float by itself, and limp into the house. As a volunteer color- bearer I was a failure. I had to let Amelie take off my shoes and rub my feet, and I had hard work not to cry while she was doing it. I was humiliated, especially as I remembered that the boys had a five hours' march as their first etape, and a bivouac at the end of it.
I had intended to go out later on the route Madame to watch the cavalry coming down from the hills on the other side of the Morin, but I could not face the cold. There is nothing heroic about me. So I contented myself with helping Amelie set the house in order.
Needless to tell you that no one knows what this unexpected big movement of troops means.
It is inevitable that we should all imagine that it concerns the coming spring offensive. At any rate, the cavalry is being put back into its saddles, and the crack regiments are coming out of Verdun—the famous corps which has won immortal fame there, and written the name of Verdun in letters of flame in the list of the world's great battles, and enshrined French soldiers in the love of all who can be stirred by courage in a noble cause, or know what it means to have the heart swell at the thought of the "sacred love of home and country."
Although I have sworn—and more than once—that I will not talk politics with you again, or discuss any subject which can be considered as its most distant blood relation, yet every time you reiterate "Aren't the French wonderfully changed? Aren't you more and more surprised at them?" it goes against the grain.
Does it never occur to you that France held her head up wonderfully after the terrible humiliation of 1870? Does it never occur to you what it meant to a great nation, so long a centre of civilization, and a great race, so long a leader in thought, to have found herself without a friend, and to have had to face such a defeat,—a defeat followed by a shocking treaty which kept that disaster forever before her? Do you never think of the hidden shame, the cankering mortification of the consciousness of that nation across the frontier, which had battened on its victory, and was so strong in brute force, that, however brave a face one might put on, there was behind that smiling front always a hidden fear of Germany—an eternal foe, ever gaining in numbers and eternally shaking her mailed fist.
No nation so humiliated ever rose out of her humiliation as France did, but the hidden memory, the daily consciousness of it, set its outward mark on the race. It bred that sort of bravado which was eternally accusing itself, in the consciousness that it had taken a thrashing it could never hope to avenge. Count up the past dares that France has had to take from Germany, so strong in mere numbers and physical strength that to attempt to fight her alone, as she did in 1870, meant simply to court annihilation, and fruitlessly. That does not mean that France was really afraid, but only that she was too wise to dare attempt to prove that she was not afraid. So many things in the French that the world has not understood were the result of the cankering wound of 1870. This war has healed that wound. Germany is not invincible, and the chivalrous, loving aid that rallied to help France is none the less comforting simply because since 1914 all nations have learned that the trend of Germany's ambition was a menace to them as well as to France.