I have Belgium on my soul. Brave little country that has given new proof of its courage and nobility, and surprised the world with a ruler who is a man, as well as king. It occurs to me more than ever to-day in what a wonderful epoch we have lived. I simply can’t talk about it. The suspense is so great. I heard this morning from an officer that the English troops are landing, though he tells me that in London they don’t yet know that the Expedition has started. If that is true, it is wonderful. Not a word in the papers yet, but your press is not censored as ours is. I fancy you know these things in New York before we do, although we are now getting a newspaper from Meaux regularly. But there is never anything illuminating in it. The attitude of the world to the Belgian question is a shock to me. I confess to have expected more active indignation at such an outrage.
Everything is very quiet here. Our little commune sent two hundred men only, but to take two hundred able-bodied men away makes a big hole, and upsets life in many ways. For some days we were without bread: bakers gone. But the women took hold and, though the bread is not yet very good, it serves and will as long as flour holds out. No one complains, though we already lack many things. No merchandise can come out yet on the railroads, all the automobiles and most of the horses are gone, and shops are shy of staple things.
Really I don’t know which are the more remarkable, the men or the women. You may have read the proclamation of the Minister of Agriculture to the women of France, calling on them to go into the fields and get in the crops and prepare the ground for the sowing of the winter wheat that the men on returning might not find their fields neglected nor their crops lost. You should have seen the old men and the women and the youngsters respond. It is harvest-time, you know, just as it was in the invasion of 1870.
In a few weeks it will be time to gather the fruit. Even now it is time to pick the black currants, all of which go to England to make the jams and jellies without which no English breakfast table is complete.
For days now the women and children have been climbing the hill at six in the morning, with big hats on their heads, deep baskets on their backs, low stools in their hands. There is a big field of black-currant bushes beside my garden to the south. All day, in the heat, they sit under the bushes picking away. At sundown they carry their heavy baskets to the weighing-machine on the roadside at the foot of the hill, and stand in line to be weighed in and paid by the English buyers for Crosse and Blackwell, Beach, and such houses, who have, I suppose, some special means of transportation.
That work is, however, the regular work for the women and children. Getting in the grain is not. Yet if you could see them take hold of it you would love them. The old men do double work. Amelie’s husband is over seventy. His own work in his fields and orchard would seem too much for him. Yet he and Amelie and the donkey are in the field by three o’clock every morning, and by nine o’clock he is marching down the hill, with his rake and hoe on his shoulder, to help his neighbors.
There is many a woman working in the fields to-day who was not trained to it. I have a neighbor, a rich peasant, whose two sons are at the front. Her only daughter married an officer in the Engineer Corps. When her husband joined his regiment she came home to her mother with her little boy. I see her every day, in a short skirt and a big hat, leading her boy by the hand, going to the fields to help her mother. If you don’t think that is fine, I do. It is only one of many cases right under my eyes.
There are old men here who thought that their days of hard work were over, who are in the fields working like boys. There is our blacksmith—old Pere Marie—lame with rheumatism, with his white-haired wife working in the fields from sunrise to sunset. He cheerfully limps up the hill in his big felt slippers, his wife carrying the lunch basket, and a tiny black-and-tan English dog called “Missy,” who is the family baby, and knows lots of tricks, trotting behind, “because,” as he says, “she is so much company.” The old blacksmith is a veteran of 1870, and was for a long time a prisoner at Konigsburg. He likes nothing better than to rest a bit on a big stone at my gate and talk of 1870. Like all Frenchmen of his type he is wonderfully intelligent, full of humor, and an omnivorous reader. Almost every day he has a bit of old newspaper in his pocket out of which he reads to la dame Americaine as he calls me, not being able to pronounce my name. It is usually something illuminating about the Germans, when it is not something prophetic. It is wonderful how these old chaps take it all to heart.
All the time my heart is out there in the northeast. It is not my country nor my war—yet I feel as if it were both. All my French friends are there, all my neighbors, and any number of English friends will soon be, among them the brother of the sculptor you met at my house last winter and liked so much. He is with the Royal Field Artillery. His case is rather odd. He came back to England in the spring, after six years in the civil service, to join the army. His leave expired just in time for him to reenter the army and see his first active service in this war. Fortunately men seem to take it all as a matter of course. That consoles some, I find.
I have just heard that there are two trains a day on which civilians can go up to Paris IF THERE ARE PLACES LEFT after the army is accommodated. There is no guaranty that I can get back the same day. Still, I am going to risk it. I am afraid to be any longer without money, though goodness knows what I can do with it. Besides, I find that all my friends are flying, and I feel as if I should like to say “good-bye”—I don’t know why, but I feel like indulging the impulse. Anyway, I am going to try it. I am going armed with every sort of paper—provisional passport from our consul, permis de sejour from my mayor here, and a local permit to enter and leave Paris, which does not allow me to stay inside the fortifications after six o’clock at night, unless I get myself identified at the prefecture of the arrondissement in which I propose to stay and have my passport vised.