I have your cable asking me to come “home” as you call it. Alas, my home is where my books are—they are here. Thanks all the same.
It is a week since I wrote you—and what a week. We have had a sort of intermittent communication with the outside world since the 6th, when, after a week of deprivation, we began to get letters and an occasional newspaper, brought over from Meaux by a boy on a bicycle.
After we were certain, on the 4th of August, that war was being declared all around Germany and Austria, and that England was to back France and Russia, a sort of stupor settled on us all. Day after day Amelie would run to the mairie at Quincy to read the telegraphic bulletin—half a dozen lines of facts—that was all we knew from day to day. It is all we know now.
Day after day I sat in my garden watching the aeroplanes flying over my head, and wishing so hard that I knew what they knew. Often I would see five in the day, and one day ten. Day after day I watched the men of the commune on their way to join their classe. There was hardly an hour of the day that I did not nod over the hedge to groups of stern, silent men, accompanied by their women, and leading the children by the hand, taking the short cut to the station which leads over the hill, right by my gate, to Couilly. It has been so thrilling that I find myself forgetting that it is tragic. It is so different from anything I ever saw before. Here is a nation—which two weeks ago was torn by political dissension—suddenly united, and with a spirit that I have never seen before.
I am old enough to remember well the days of our Civil War, when regiments of volunteers, with flying flags and bands of music, marched through our streets in Boston, on the way to the front. Crowds of stay-at-homes, throngs of women and children lined the sidewalks, shouting deliriously, and waving handkerchiefs, inspired by the marching soldiers, with guns on their shoulders, and the strains of martial music, varied with the then popular “The girl I left behind me,” or, “When this cruel war is over.” But this is quite different. There are no marching soldiers, no flying flags, no bands of music. It is the rising up of a Nation as one man—all classes shoulder to shoulder, with but one idea—”Lift up your hearts, and long live France.” I rather pity those who have not seen it.
Since the day when war was declared, and when the Chamber of Deputies—all party feeling forgotten—stood on its feet and listened to Paul Deschanel’s terse, remarkable speech, even here in this little commune, whose silence is broken only by the rumbling of the trains passing, in view of my garden, on the way to the frontier, and the footsteps of the groups on the way to the train, I have seen sights that have moved me as nothing I have ever met in life before has done. Day after day I have watched the men and their families pass silently, and an hour later have seen the women come back leading the children. One day I went to Couilly to see if it was yet possible for me to get to Paris. I happened to be in the station when a train was going out. Nothing goes over the line yet but men joining their regiments. They were packed in like sardines. There were no uniforms—just a crowd of men—men in blouses, men in patched jackets, well-dressed men—no distinction of class; and on the platform the women and children they were leaving. There was no laughter, none of the gayety with which one has so often reproached this race—but neither were there any tears. As the crowded train began to move, bare heads were thrust out of windows, hats were waved, and a great shout of “Vive la France” was answered by piping children’s voices, and the choked voices of women—”Vive l’Armee”; and when the train was out of sight the women took the children by the hand, and quietly climbed the hill.
Ever since the 4th of August all our crossroads have been guarded, all our railway gates closed, and also guarded—guarded by men whose only sign of being soldiers is a cap and a gun, men in blouses with a mobilization badge on their left arms, often in patched trousers and sabots, with stern faces and determined eyes, and one thought—”The country is in danger.”
There is a crossroad just above my house, which commands the valley on either side, and leads to a little hamlet on the route nationale from Couilly to Meaux, arid is called “La Demi-Lune”—why “Half-Moon” I don’t know. It was there, on the 6th, that I saw, for the first time, an armed barricade. The gate at the railway crossing had been opened to let a cart pass, when an automobile dashed through Saint-Germain, which is on the other side of the track. The guard raised his bayonet in the air, to command the car to stop and show its papers, but it flew by him and dashed up the hill. The poor guard—it was his first experience of that sort—stood staring after the car; but the idea that he ought to fire at it did not occur to him until it was too late. By the time it occurred to him, and he could telephone to the Demi-Lune, it had passed that guard in the same way—and disappeared. It did not pass Meaux. It simply disappeared. It is still known as the “Phantom Car.” Within half an hour there was a barricade at the Demi-Lune mounted by armed men—too late, of course. However, it was not really fruitless,—that barricade,—as the very next day they caught three Germans there, disguised as Sisters of Charity—papers all in order—and who would have got by, after they were detected by a little boy’s calling attention to their ungloved hands, if it had not been for the number of armed old men on the barricade.
What makes things especially serious here, so near the frontier, and where the military movements must be made, is the presence of so many Germans, and the bitter feeling there is against them. On the night of August 2, just when the troops were beginning to move east, an attempt was made to blow up the railroad bridge at lie de Villenoy, between here and Meaux. The three Germans were caught with the dynamite on them—so the story goes—and are now in the barracks at Meaux. But the most absolute secrecy is preserved about all such things. Not only is all France under martial law: the censorship of the press is absolute. Every one has to carry his papers, and be provided with a passport for which he is liable to be asked in simply crossing a road.
Meaux is full of Germans. The biggest department shop there is a German enterprise. Even Couilly has a German or two, and we had one in our little hamlet. But they’ve got to get out. Our case is rather pathetic. He was a nice chap, employed in a big fur house in Paris. He came to France when he was fifteen, has never been back, consequently has never done his military service there. Oddly enough, for some reason, he never took out his naturalization papers, so never did his service here. He has no relatives in Germany—that is to say, none with whom he has kept up any correspondence, he says. He earns a good salary, and has always been one of the most generous men in the commune, but circumstances are against him. Even though he is an intimate friend of our mayor, the commune preferred to be rid of him. He begged not to be sent back to Germany, so he went sadly enough to a concentration camp, pretty well convinced that his career here was over. Still, the French do forget easily.
Couilly had two Germans. One of them—the barber—got out quick. The other did not. But he was quietly informed by some of his neighbors—with pistols in their hands—that his room was better than his company.
The barber occupied a shop in the one principal street in the village, which is, by the way, a comparatively rich place. He had a front shop, which was a cafe, with a well-fitted-up bar. The back, with a well-dressed window on the street, full of toilette articles, was the barber and hairdressing-room, very neatly arranged, with modern set bowls and mirrors, cabinets full of towels, well-filled shelves of all the things that make such a place profitable. You should see it now. Its broken windows and doors stand open to the weather. The entire interior has been “efficiently” wrecked. It is as systematic a work of destruction as I have ever seen. Not a thing was stolen, but not an article was spared. All the bottles full of things to drink and all the glasses to drink out of are smashed, so are counters, tables, chairs, and shelving. In the barber shop there is a litter of broken porcelain, broken combs, and smashed-up chairs and boxes among a wreck of hair dyes, perfumes, brillantine, and torn towels, and an odor of aperitifs and cologne over it all.
Every one pretends not to know when it happened. They say, “It was found like that one morning.” Every one goes to look at it—no one enters, no one touches anything. They simply say with a smile of scorn, “Good—and so well done.”
There are so many things that I wish you could see. They would give you such a new point of view regarding this race—traditionally so gay, so indifferent to many things that you consider moral, so fond of their individual comfort and personal pleasure, and often so rebellious to discipline. You would be surprised—surprised at their unity, surprised at their seriousness, and often touched by their philosophical acceptance of it all.
Amelie has a stepson and daughter. The boy—named Marius—like his father plays the violin. Like many humble musicians his music is his life and he adds handsomely to his salary as a clerk by playing at dances and little concerts, and by giving lessons in the evening. Like his father he is very timid. But he accepted the war without a word, though nothing is more foreign to his nature. It brought it home to me—this rising up of a Nation in self-defense. It is not the marching into battle of an army that has chosen soldiering. It is the marching out of all the people—of every temperament—the rich, the poor, the timid and the bold, the sensitive and the hardened, the ignorant and the scholar—all men, because they happen to be males, called on not only to cry, “Vive la France,” but to see to it that she does live if dying for her can keep her alive. It is a compelling idea, isn’t it?
Amelie’s stepdaughter is married to a big burly chap by the name of Georges Godot. He is a thick-necked, red-faced man—in the dynamite corps on the railroad, the construction department. He is used to hardships. War is as good as anything else to him. When he came to say “good-bye” he said, “Well, if I have the luck to come back—so much the better. If I don’t, that will be all right. You can put a placque down below in the cemetery with ‘Godot, Georges: Died for the country ‘; and when my boys grow up they can say to their comrades, ‘Papa, you know, he died on the battlefield.’ It will be a sort of distinction I am not likely to earn for them any other way”; and off he went. Rather fine for a man of that class.
Even the women make no cry. As for the children—even when you would think that they were old enough to understand the meaning of these partings they make no sign, though they seem to understand all the rest of it well enough. There isn’t a boy of eight in our commune who cannot tell you how it all came about, and who is not just now full of stories of 1870, which he has heard from grandma and grandpa, for, as is natural, every one talks of 1870 now. I have lived among these people, loved them and believed in them, even when their politics annoyed me, but I confess that they have given me a surprise.