Oh, the things I have seen and felt since I last wrote to you over two weeks ago. Here I am again cut off from the world, and have been since the first of the month. For a week now I have known nothing of what was going on in the world outside the limits of my own vision. For that matter, since the Germans crossed the frontier our news of the war has been meager. We got the calm, constant reiteration—”Left wing—held by the English—forced to retreat a little.” All the same, the general impression was, that in spite of that, “all was well.” I suppose it was wise.
On Sunday week,—that was August 30,—Amelie walked to Esbly, and came back with the news that they were rushing trains full of wounded soldiers and Belgian refugies through toward Paris, and that the ambulance there was quite insufficient for the work it had to do. So Monday and Tuesday we drove down in the donkey cart to carry bread and fruit, water and cigarettes, and to “lend a hand.”
It was a pretty terrible sight. There were long trains of wounded soldiers. There was train after train crowded with Belgians—well-dressed women and children (evidently all in their Sunday best)—packed on to open trucks, sitting on straw, in the burning sun, without shelter, covered with dust, hungry and thirsty. The sight set me to doing some hard thinking after I got home that first night. But it was not until Tuesday afternoon that I got my first hint of the truth. That afternoon, while I was standing on the platform, I heard a drum beat in the street, and sent Amelie out to see what was going on. She came back at once to say that it was the garde champetre calling on the inhabitants to carry all their guns, revolvers, etc., to the mairie before sundown. That meant the disarming of our departement, and it flashed through my mind that the Germans must be nearer than the official announcements had told us.
While I stood reflecting a moment,—it looked serious,—I saw approaching from the west side of the track a procession of wagons. Amelie ran down the track to the crossing to see what it meant, and came back at once to tell me that they were evacuating the towns to the north of us.
I handed the basket of fruit I was holding into a coach of the train just pulling into the station, and threw my last package of cigarettes after it; and, without a word, Amelie and I went out into the street, untied the donkey, climbed into the wagon, and started for home.
By the time we got to the road which leads east to Montry, whence there is a road over the hill to the south, it was full of the flying crowd. It was a sad sight. The procession led in both directions as far as we could see. There were huge wagons of grain; there were herds of cattle, flocks of sheep; there were wagons full of household effects, with often as many as twenty people sitting aloft; there were carriages; there were automobiles with the occupants crowded in among bundles done up in sheets; there were women pushing overloaded handcarts; there were women pushing baby-carriages; there were dogs and cats, and goats; there was every sort of a vehicle you ever saw, drawn by every sort of beast that can draw, from dogs to oxen, from boys to donkeys. Here and there was a man on horseback, riding along the line, trying to keep it moving in order and to encourage the weary. Every one was calm and silent. There was no talking, no complaining.
The whole road was, however, blocked, and, even had our donkey wished to pass,—which she did not,—we could not. We simply fell into the procession, as soon as we found a place. Amelie and I did not say a word to each other until we reached the road that turns off to the Chateau de Conde; but I did speak to a man on horseback, who proved to be the intendant of one of the chateaux at Daumartin, and with another who was the mayor. I simply asked from where these people had come, and was told that they were evacuating Daumartin and all the towns on the plain between there and Meaux, which meant that Monthyon, Neufmortier, Penchard, Chauconin, Barcy, Chambry,—in fact, all the villages visible from my garden were being evacuated by order of the military powers.
One of the most disquieting things about this was to see the effect of the procession as it passed along the road. All the way from Esbly to Montry people began to pack at once, and the speed with which they fell into the procession was disconcerting.
When we finally escaped from the crowd into the poplar-shaded avenue which leads to the Chateau de Conde, I turned to look at Amelie for the first time. I had had time to get a good hold of myself.
“Well, Amelie?” I said.
“Oh, madame,” she replied, “I shall stay.”
“And so shall I,” I answered; but I added, “I think I must make an effort to get to Paris to-morrow, and I think you had better come with me. I shall not go, of course, unless I am sure of being able to get back. We may as well face the truth: if this means that Paris is in danger, or if it means that we may in our turn be forced to move on, I must get some money so as to be ready.”
“Very well, madame,” she replied as cheerfully as if the rumble of the procession behind us were not still in our ears.
The next morning—that was September 2—I woke just before daylight. There was a continual rumble in the air. At first I thought it was the passing of more refugies on the road. I threw open my blinds, and then realized that the noise was in the other direction—from the route nationale. I listened. I said to myself, “If that is not artillery, then I never heard any.”
Sure enough, when Amelie came to get breakfast, she announced that the English soldiers were at the Demi-Lune. The infantry was camped there, and the artillery had descended to Couilly and was mounting the hill on the other side of the Morin—between us and Paris.
I said a sort of “Hm,” and told her to ask Pere to harness at once. As we had no idea of the hours of the trains, or even if there were any, it was best to get to Esbly as early as possible. It was nine o’clock when we arrived, to find that there should be a train at half past. The station was full. I hunted up the chef de gare, and asked him if I could be sure of being able to return if I went up to Paris.
He looked at me in perfect amazement.
“You want to come back?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
“You can,” he answered, “if you take a train about four o’clock. That may be the last.”
I very nearly said, “Jiminy-cricket!”
The train ran into the station on time, but you never saw such a sight. It was packed as the Brookline street-cars used to be on the days of a baseball game. Men were absolutely hanging on the roof; women were packed on the steps that led up to the imperials to the third-class coaches. It was a perilous-looking sight. I opened a dozen coaches—all packed, standing room as well as seats, which is ordinarily against the law. I was about to give it up when a man said to me, “Madame, there are some coaches at the rear that look as if they were empty.”
I made a dash down the long platform, yanked open a door, and was about to ask if I might get in, when I saw that the coach was full of wounded soldiers in khaki, lying about on the floor as well as the seats. I was so shocked that if the station master, who had run after me, had not caught me I should have fallen backward.
“Sh! madame,” he whispered, “I’ll find you a place”; and in another moment I found myself, with Amelie, in a compartment where there were already eight women, a young man, two children, and heaps of hand-luggage—bundles in sheets, twine bags just bulging, paper parcels, and valises. Almost as soon as we were in, the train pulled slowly out of the station.
I learned from the women that Meaux was being evacuated. No one was remaining but the soldiers in the barracks and the archbishop. They had been ordered out by the army the night before, and the railroad was taking them free. They were escaping with what they could carry in bundles, as they could take no baggage. Their calm was remarkable-not a complaint from any one. They were of all classes, but the barriers were down.
The young man had come from farther up the line-a newspaper chap, who had given me his seat, and was sitting on a bundle. I asked him if he knew where the Germans were, and he replied that on this wing they were at Compiegne, that the center was advancing on Coulommier, but he did not know where the Crown Prince’s division was.
I was glad I had made the effort to get to town, for this began to look as if they might succeed in arriving before the circle of steel that surrounds Paris, and God knows what good that seventy-five miles of fortifications will be against the long-range cannon that battered down Liege. I had only one wish—to get back to my hut on the hill; I did not seem to want anything else.
Just before the train ran into Lagny—our first stop—I was surprised to see British soldiers washing their horses in the river, so I was not surprised to find the station full of men in khaki. They were sleeping on the benches along the wall, and standing about, in groups. As to many of the French on the train this was their first sight of the men in khaki, and as there were Scotch there in their kilts, there was a good deal of excitement.
The train made a long stop in the effort to put more people into the already overcrowded coaches. I leaned forward, wishing to get some news, and the funny thing was that I could not think how to speak to those boys in English. You may think that an affectation. It wasn’t. Finally I desperately sang out:—
You should have seen them dash for the window. I suppose that their native tongue sounded good to them so far from home.
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“From up yonder—a place called La Fere,” one of them replied. “What regiment?” I asked.
“Any one else here speak English?” he questioned, running his eyes along the faces thrust out of the windows.
I told him no one did.
“Well,” he said, “we are all that is left of the North Irish Horse and a regiment of Scotch Borderers.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Retreating—and waiting for orders. How far are we from Paris?”
I told him about seventeen miles. He sighed, and remarked that he thought they were nearer, and as the train started I had the idea in the back of my head that these boys actually expected to retreat inside the fortifications. La! la!
Instead of the half-hour the train usually takes to get up from here to Paris, we were two hours.
I found Paris much more normal than when I was there two weeks ago, though still quite unlike itself; every one perfectly calm and no one with the slightest suspicion that the battle line was so near—hardly more than ten miles beyond the outer forts. I transacted my business quickly—saw only one person, which was wiser than I knew then, and caught the four o’clock train back—we were almost the only passengers.
I had told Pere not to come after us—it was so uncertain when we could get back, and I had always been able to get a carriage at the hotel in Esbly.
We reached Esbly at about six o’clock to find the stream of emigrants still passing, although the roads were not so crowded as they had been the previous day. I ran over to the hotel to order the carriage—to be told that Esbly was evacuated, the ambulance had gone, all the horses had been sold that afternoon to people who were flying. There I was faced with a walk of five miles—lame and tired. Just as I had made up my mind that what had to be done could be done,—die or no die,—Amelie came running across the street to say:—
“Did you ever see such luck? Here is the old cart horse of Cousine Georges and the wagon!”
Cousine Georges had fled, it seems, since we left, and her horse had been left at Esbly to fetch the schoolmistress and her husband. So we all climbed in. The schoolmistress and her husband did not go far, however. We discovered before we had got out of Esbly that Couilly had been evacuated during the day, and that a great many people had left Voisins; that the civil government had gone to Coutevroult; that the Croix Rouge had gone. So the schoolmistress and her husband, to whom all this was amazing news, climbed out of the wagon, and made a dash back to the station to attempt to get back to Paris. I do hope they succeeded.
Amelie and I dismissed the man who had driven the wagon down, and jogged on by ourselves. I sat on a board in the back of the covered cart, only too glad for any sort of locomotion which was not “shank’s mare.”
Just after we left Esbly I saw first an English officer, standing in his stirrups and signaling across a field, where I discovered a detachment of English artillery going toward the hill. A little farther along the road we met a couple of English officers—pipes in their mouths and sticks in their hands—strolling along as quietly and smilingly as if there were no such thing as war. Naturally I wished to speak to them. I was so shut in that I could see only directly in front of me, and if you ever rode behind a big cart horse I need not tell you that although he walks slowly and heavily he walks steadily, and will not stop for any pulling on the reins unless he jolly well chooses. As we approached the officers, I leaned forward and said, “Beg your pardon,” but by the time they realized that they had been addressed in English we had passed. I yanked at the flap at the back of the cart, got it open a bit, looked out to find them standing in the middle of the road, staring after us in amazement.
The only thing I had the sense to call out was:—
“Where ‘d you come from?”
One of them made an emphatic gesture with his stick, over his shoulder in the direction from which they had come.
“Where are you going?” I called.
He made the same gesture toward Esbly, and then we all laughed heartily, and by that time we were too far apart to continue the interesting conversation, and that was all the enlightenment I got out of that meeting. The sight of them and their cannon made me feel a bit serious. I thought to myself: “If the Germans are not expected here—well, it looks like it.” We finished the journey in silence, and I was so tired when I got back to the house that I fell into bed, and only drank a glass of milk that Amelie insisted on pouring down my throat.
You can get some idea of how exhausted I was on that night of Wednesday, September 2, when I tell you that I waked the next morning to find that I had a picket at my gate. I did not know until Amelie came to get my coffee ready the next morning—that was Thursday, September 3—can it be that it is only five days ago! She also brought me news that they were preparing to blow up the bridges on the Marne; that the post-office had gone; that the English were cutting the telegraph wires.
While I was taking my coffee, quietly, as if it were an everyday occurrence, she said: “Well, madame, I imagine that we are going to see the Germans. Pere is breaking an opening into the underground passage under the stable, and we are going to put all we can out of sight. Will you please gather up what you wish to save, and it can be hidden there?”
I don’t know that I ever told you that all the hill is honeycombed with those old subterranean passages, like the one we saw at Provins. They say that they go as far as Crecy-en-Brie, and used to connect the royal palace there with one on this hill.
Naturally I gave a decided refusal to any move of that sort, so far as I was concerned. My books and portraits are the only things I should be eternally hurt to survive. To her argument that the books could be put there,—there was room enough,—I refused to listen. I had no idea of putting my books underground to be mildewed. Besides, if it had been possible I would not have attempted it—and it distinctly was impossible. I felt a good deal like the Belgian refugies I had seen,—all so well dressed; if my house was going up, it was going up in its best clothes. I had just been uprooted once—a horrid operation—and I did not propose to do it again so soon. To that my mind was made up.
Luckily for me—for Amelie was as set as I was—the argument was cut short by a knock at the front door. I opened it to find standing there a pretty French girl whom I had been seeing every day, as, morning and evening, she passed my gate to and from the railway station. Sooner or later I should have told you about her if all this excitement had not put it out of my mind and my letters. I did not know her name. I had never got to asking Amelie who she was, though I was a bit surprised to find any one of her type here where I had supposed there were only farmers and peasants.
She apologized for presenting herself so informally: said she had come, “de la parte de maman,” to ask me what I proposed to do. I replied at once, “I am staying.”
She looked a little surprised: said her mother wished to do the same, but that her only brother was with the colors; that he had confided his young wife and two babies to her, and that the Germans were so brutal to children that she did not dare risk it.
“Of course, you know,” she added, “that every one has left Couilly; all the shops are closed, and nearly every one has gone from Voisins and Quincy. The mayor’s wife left last night. Before going she came to us and advised us to escape at once, and even found us a horse and cart—the trains are not running. So mother thought that, as you were a foreigner, and all alone, we ought not to go without at least offering you a place in the wagon—the chance to go with us.”
I was really touched, and told her so, but explained that I should stay. She was rather insistent—said her mother would be so distressed at leaving me alone with only a little group of women and children about me, who might, at the last moment, be panic-stricken.
I explained to her as well as I could that I was alone in the world, poor myself, and that I could not see myself leaving all that I valued,—my home; to have which I had made a supreme effort, and for which I had already a deep affection,—to join the band of refugies, shelterless, on the road, or to look for safety in a city, which, if the Germans passed here, was likely to be besieged and bombarded. I finally convinced her that my mind was made up. I had decided to keep my face turned toward Fate rather than run away from it. To me it seemed the only way to escape a panic—a thing of which I have always had a horror.
Seeing that nothing could make me change my mind, we shook hands, wished each other luck, and, as she turned away, she said, in her pretty French: “I am sorry it is disaster that brought us together, but I hope to know you better when days are happier”; and she went down the hill.
When I returned to the dining-room I found that, in spite of my orders, Amelie was busy putting my few pieces of silver, and such bits of china from the buffet as seemed to her valuable,—her ideas and mine on that point do not jibe,—into the waste-paper baskets to be hidden underground.
I was too tired to argue. While I stood watching her there was a tremendous explosion. I rushed into the garden. The picket, his gun on his shoulder, was at the gate.
“What was that?” I called out to him.
“Bridge,” he replied. “The English divisions are destroying the bridges on the Marne behind them as they cross. That means that another division is over.”
I asked him which bridge it was, but of course he did not know. While I was standing there, trying to locate it by the smoke, an English officer, who looked of middle age, tall, clean-cut, rode down the road on a chestnut horse, as slight, as clean-cut, and well groomed as himself. He rose in his stirrups to look off at the plain before he saw me. Then he looked at me, then up at the flags flying over the gate,—saw the Stars and Stripes,—smiled, and dismounted.
“American, I see,” he said.
I told him I was.
“Live here?” said he.
I told him that I did.
“Staying on?” he asked.
I answered that it looked like it.
He looked me over a moment before he said, “Please invite me into your garden and show me that view.”
I was delighted. I opened the gate, and he strolled in and sauntered with a long, slow stride—a long-legged stride—out on to the lawn and right down to the hedge, and looked off.
“Beautiful,” he said, as he took out his field-glass, and turned up the map case which hung at his side. “What town is that?” he asked, pointing to the foreground.
I told him that it was Mareuil-on-the-Marne.
“How far off is it?” he questioned.
I told him that it was about two miles, and Meaux was about the same distance beyond it.
“What town is that?” he asked, pointing to the hill.
I explained that the town on the horizon was Penchard—not really a town, only a village; and lower down, between Penchard and Meaux, were Neufmortier and Chauconin.
All this time he was studying his map.
“Thank you. I have it,” he said. “It is a lovely country, and this is a wonderful view of it, the best I have had.”
For a few minutes he stood studying it in silence—alternatively looking at his map and then through his glass. Then he dropped his map, put his glasses into the case, and turned to me—and smiled. He had a winning smile, sad and yet consoling, which lighted up a bronzed face, stern and weary. It was the sort of smile to which everything was permitted.
“Married?” he said.
You can imagine what he was like when I tell you that I answered right up, and only thought it was funny hours after—or at least I shook my head cheerfully.
“You don’t live here alone?” he asked.
“But I do,” I replied.
He looked at me bravely a moment, then off at the plain.
“Lived here long?” he questioned.
I told him that I had lived in this house only three months, but that I had lived in France for sixteen years.
Without a word he turned back toward the house, and for half a minute, for the first time in my life, I had a sensation that it looked strange for me to be an exile in a country that was not mine, and with no ties. For a penny I would have told him the history of my life. Luckily he did not give me time. He just strode down to the gate, and by the time he had his foot in the stirrup I had recovered.
“Is there anything I can do for you, captain?” I asked.
He mounted his horse, looked down at me. Then he gave me
another of his rare smiles.
“No,” he said, “at this moment there is nothing that you can do for me, thank you; but if you could give my boys a cup of tea, I imagine that you would just about save their lives.” And nodding to me, he said to the picket, “This lady is kind enough to offer you a cup of tea,” and he rode off, taking the road down the hill to Voisins.
I ran into the house, put on the kettle, ran up the road to call Amelie, and back to the arbor to set the table as well as I could. The whole atmosphere was changed. I was going to be useful.
I had no idea how many men I was going to feed. I had only seen three. To this day I don’t know how many I did feed. They came and came and came. It reminded me of hens running toward a place where another hen has found something good. It did not take me many minutes to discover that these men needed something more substantial than tea. Luckily I had brought back from Paris an emergency stock of things like biscuit, dry cakes, jam, etc., for even before our shops were closed there was mighty little in them. For an hour and a half I brewed pot after pot of tea, opened jar after jar of jam and jelly, and tin after tin of biscuit and cakes, and although it was hardly hearty fodder for men, they put it down with a relish. I have seen hungry men, but never anything as hungry as these boys.
I knew little about military discipline—less about the rules of active service; so I had no idea that I was letting these hungry men—and evidently hunger laughs at laws—break all the regulations of the army. Their guns were lying about in any old place; their kits were on the ground; their belts were unbuckled. Suddenly the captain rode up the road and looked over the hedge at the scene. The men were sitting on the benches, on the ground, anywhere, and were all smoking my best Egyptian cigarettes, and I was running round as happy as a queen, seeing them so contented and comfortable.
It was a rude awakening when the captain rode up the street.
There was a sudden jumping up, a hurried buckling up of belts, a grab for kits and guns, and an unceremonious cut for the gate. I heard a volley from the officer. I marked a serious effort on the part of the men to keep the smiles off their faces as they hurriedly got their kits on their backs and their guns on their shoulders, and, rigidly saluting, dispersed up the hill, leaving two very straight men marching before the gate as if they never in their lives had thought of anything but picket duty.
The captain never even looked at me, but rode up the hill after his men. A few minutes later he returned, dismounted at the gate, tied his horse, and came in. I was a bit confused. But he smiled one of those smiles of his, and I got right over it.
“Dear little lady,” he said, “I wonder if there is any tea left for me?”
Was there! I should think so; and I thought to myself, as I led the way into the dining-room, that he was probably just as hungry as his men.
While I was making a fresh brew he said to me:—
“You must forgive my giving my men Hades right before you, but they deserved it, and know it, and under the circumstances I imagine they did not mind taking it. I did not mean you to give them a party, you know. Why, if the major had ridden up that hill—and he might have—and seen that party inside your garden, I should have lost my commission and those boys got the guardhouse. These men are on active service.”
Then, while he drank his tea, he told me why he felt a certain indulgence for them—these boys who were hurried away from England without having a chance to take leave of their families, or even to warn them that they were going.
“This is the first time that they have had a chance to talk to a woman who speaks their tongue since they left England; I can’t begrudge it to them and they know it. But discipline is discipline, and if I had let such a breach of it pass they would have no respect for me. They understand. They had no business to put their guns out of their hands. What would they have done if the detachment of Uhlans we are watching for had dashed up that hill—as they might have?”
Before I could answer or remark on this startling speech there was a tremendous explosion, which brought me to my feet, with the inevitable,—
He took a long pull at his tea before he replied quietly,—”Another division across the Marne.”
Then he went on as if there had been no interruption:—
“This Yorkshire regiment has had hard luck. Only one other regiment in the Expedition has had worse. They have marched from the Belgian frontier, and they have been in four big actions in the retreat—Mons, Cambrai, Saint-Quentin, and La Fere. Saint-Quentin was pretty rough luck. We went into the trenches a full regiment. We came out to retreat again with four hundred men—and I left my younger brother there.”
I gasped; I could not find a word to say. He did not seem to feel it necessary that I should. He simply winked his eyelids, stiffened his stern mouth, and went right on; and I forgot all about the Uhlans:—
“At La Fere we lost our commissary on the field. It was burned, and these lads have not had a decent feed since—that was three days ago. We have passed through few towns since, and those were evacuated,—drummed out and fruit from the orchards on the roadsides is about all they have had—hardly good feed for a marching army in such hot weather. Besides, we were moving pretty fast—but in order—to get across the Marne, toward which we have been drawing the Germans, and in every one of these battles we have been fighting with one man to their ten.”
I asked him where the Germans were.
“Can’t say,” he replied.
“And the French?”
“No idea. We’ve not seen them—yet. We understood that we were to be reinforced at Saint-Quentin by a French detachment at four o’clock. They got there at eleven—the battle was over—and lost. But these boys gave a wonderful account of themselves, and in spite of the disaster retreated in perfect order.”
Then he told me that at the last moment he ordered his company to lie close in the trench and let the Germans come right up to them, and not to budge until he ordered them to give them what they hate—the bayonet. The Germans were within a few yards when a German automobile carrying a machine gun bore down on them and discovered their position, but the English sharpshooters picked off the five men the car carried before they could fire a shot, and after that it was every man for himself—what the French call “sauve qui peut.”
The Uhlans came back to my mind, and it seemed to me a good time to ask him what he was doing here. Oddly enough, in spite of the several shocks I had had, and perhaps because of his manner, I was able to do it as if it was the sort of tea-table conversation to which I had always been accustomed.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
“Waiting for orders,” he answered.
“And for Uhlans?”
“Oh,” replied he, “if incidentally while we are sitting down here to rest, we could rout out a detachment of German cavalry, which our aeroplane tells us crossed the Marne ahead of us, we would like to. Whether this is one of those flying squads they are so fond of sending ahead, just to do a little terrorizing, or whether they escaped from the battle of La Fere, we don’t know. I fancy the latter, as they do not seem to have done any harm or to have been too anxious to be seen.”
I need not tell you that my mind was acting like lightning. I remembered, in the pause, as I poured him another cup of tea, and pushed the jam pot toward him, that Amelie had heard at Voisins last night that there were horses in the woods near the canal; that they had been heard neighing in the night; and that we had jumped to the conclusion that there were English cavalry there. I mentioned this to the captain, but for some reason it did not seem to make much impression on him; so I did not insist, as there was something that seemed more important which I had been getting up the courage to ask him. It had been on my lips all day. I put it.
“Captain,” I asked, “do you think there is any danger in my staying here?”
He took a long drink before he answered:—
“Little lady, there is danger everywhere between Paris and the Channel. Personally—since you have stayed until getting away will be difficult—I do not really believe that there is any reason why you should not stick it out. You may have a disagreeable time. But I honestly believe you are running no real risk of having more than that. At all events, I am going to do what I can to assure your personal safety. As we understand it—no one really knows anything except the orders given out—it is not intended that the Germans shall cross the Marne here. But who knows? Anyway, if I move on, each division of the Expeditionary Force that retreats to this hill will know that you are here. If it is necessary, later, for you to leave, you will be notified and precautions taken for your safety. You are not afraid?”
I could only tell him, “Not yet,” but I could not help adding, “Of course I am not so stupid as to suppose for a moment that you English have retreated here to amuse yourselves, or that you have dragged your artillery up the hill behind me just to exercise your horses or to give your gunners a pretty promenade.”
He threw back his head and laughed aloud for the first time, and I felt better.
“Precautions do not always mean a battle, you know”; and as he rose to his feet he called my attention to a hole in his coat, saying, “It was a miracle that I came through Saint-Quentin with a whole skin. The bullets simply rained about me. It was pouring—I had on a mackintosh—which made me conspicuous as an officer, if my height had not exposed me. Every German regiment carries a number of sharpshooters whose business is to pick off the officers. However, it was evidently not my hour.”
As we walked out to the gate I asked him if there was anything else I could do for him.
“Do you think,” he replied, “that you could get me a couple of fresh eggs at half-past seven and let me have a cold wash-up?”
“Well, rather,” I answered, and he rode away.
As soon as he was gone one of the picket called from the road to know if they could have “water and wash.”
I told them of course they could—to come right in.
He said that they could not do that, but that if they could have water at the gate—and I did not mind—they could wash up in relays in the road. So Pere came and drew buckets and buckets of water, and you never saw such a stripping and such a slopping, as they washed and shaved—and with such dispatch. They had just got through, luckily, when, at about half-past six, the captain rode hurriedly down the hill again. He carried a slip of white paper in his hand, which he seemed intent on deciphering.
As I met him at the gate he said:—
“Sorry I shall miss those eggs—I’ve orders to move east,” and he began to round up his men.
I foolishly asked him why. I felt as if I were losing a friend.
“Orders,” he answered. Then he put the slip of paper into his pocket, and leaning down he said:—
“Before I go I am going to ask you to let my corporal pull down your flags. You may think it cowardly. I think it prudent. They can be seen a long way. It is silly to wave a red flag at a bull. Any needless display of bravado on your part would be equally foolish.”
So the corporal climbed up and pulled down the big flags, and together we marched them off to the stable. When I returned to the gate, where the captain was waiting for the rest of the picket to arrive, I was surprised to find my French caller of the morning standing there, with a pretty blonde girl, whom she introduced as her sister-in-law. She explained that they had started in the morning, but that their wagon had been overloaded and broken down and they had had to return, and that her mother was “glad of it.” It was perfectly natural that she should ask me to ask the “English officer if it was safe to stay.” I repeated the question. He looked down at them, asked if they were friends of mine. I explained that they were neighbors and acquaintances only.
“Well,” he said, “I can only repeat what I said to you this morning—I think you are safe here. But for God’s sake, don’t give it to them as coming from me. I can assure your personal safety, but I cannot take the whole village on my conscience.” I told him that I would not quote him.
All this time he had been searching in a letter-case, and finally selected an envelope from which he removed the letter, passing me the empty cover.
“I want you,” he said, “to write me a letter—that address will always reach me. I shall be anxious to know how you came through, and every one of these boys will be interested. You have given them the only happy day they have had since they left home. As for me—if I live—I shall some time come back to see you. Good-bye and good luck.” And he wheeled his horse and rode up the hill, his boys marching behind him; and at the turn of the road they all looked back and I waved my hand, and I don’t mind telling you that I nodded to the French girls at the gate and got into the house as quickly as I could—and wiped my eyes. Then I cleared up the tea-mess. It was not until the house was in order again that I put on my glasses and read the envelope that the captain had given me:—
Capt. T. E. Simpson,
King’s Own Yorkshire L. I. VIth Infantry Brigade,
15th Division, British Expeditionary Force.
And I put it carefully away in my address book until the time should come for me to write and tell “how I came through”; the phrase did disturb me a little.
I did not eat any supper. Food seemed to be the last thing I wanted. I sat down in the study to read. It was about eight when I heard the gate open. Looking out I saw a man in khaki, his gun on his shoulder, marching up the path. I went to the door.
“Good-evening, ma’am,” he said. “All right?”
I assured him that I was.
“I am the corporal of the guard,” he added. “The commander’s compliments, and I was to report to you that your road was picketed for the night and that all is well.”
I thanked him, and he marched away, and took up his post at the gate, and I knew that this was the commander’s way of letting me know that Captain Simpson had kept his word. I had just time while the corporal stood at the door to see “Bedford” on his cap, so I knew that the new regiment was from Bedfordshire.
I sat up awhile longer, trying to fix my mind on my book, trying not to look round constantly at my pretty green interior, at all my books, looking so ornamental against the walls of my study, at all the portraits of the friends of my life of active service above the shelves, and the old sixteenth-century Buddha, which Oda Neilson sent me on my last birthday, looking so stoically down from his perch to remind me how little all these things counted. I could not help remembering at the end that my friends at Voulangis had gone—that they were at that very moment on their way to Marseilles, that almost every one else I knew on this side of the water was either at Havre waiting to sail, or in London, or shut up in Holland or Denmark; that except for the friends I had at the front I was alone with my beloved France and her Allies. Through it all there ran a thought that made me laugh at last—how all through August I had felt so outside of things, only suddenly to find it right at my door. In the back of my mind—pushed back as hard as I could—stood the question—what was to become of all this?
Yet, do you know, I went to bed, and what is more I slept well. I was physically tired. The last thing I saw as I closed up the house was the gleam of the moonlight on the muskets of the picket pacing the road, and the first thing I heard, as I waked suddenly at about four, was the crunching of the gravel as they still marched there.
I got up at once. It was the morning of Friday, the 4th of September. I dressed hurriedly, ran down to put the kettle on, and start the coffee, and by five o’clock I had a table spread in the road, outside the gate, with hot coffee and milk and bread and jam. I had my lesson, so I called the corporal and explained that his men were to come in relays, and when the coffee-pot was empty there was more in the house; and I left them to serve themselves, while I finished dressing. I knew that the officers were likely to come over, and one idea was fixed in my mind: I must not look demoralized. So I put on a clean white frock, white shoes and stockings, a big black bow in my hair, and I felt equal to anything—in spite of the fact that before I dressed I heard far off a booming-could it be cannon ?—and more than once a nearer explosion,—more bridges down, more English across.
It was not much after nine when two English officers strolled down the road—Captain Edwards and Major Ellison, of the Bedfordshire Light Infantry. They came into the garden, and the scene with Captain Simpson of the day before was practically repeated. They examined the plain, located the towns, looked long at it with their glasses; and that being over I put the usual question, “Can I do anything for you?” and got the usual answer, “Eggs.”
I asked how many officers there were in the mess, and he replied “Five”; so I promised to forage, and away they went.
As soon as they were out of sight the picket set up a howl for baths. These Bedfordshire boys were not hungry, but they had retreated from their last battle leaving their kits in the trenches, and were without soap or towels, or combs or razors. But that was easily remedied. They washed up in relays in the court at Amelie’s—it was a little more retired. As Amelie had put all her towels, etc., down underground, I ran back and forward between my house and hers for all sorts of things, and, as they slopped until the road ran tiny rivulets, I had to change shoes and stockings twice. I was not conscious till afterward how funny it all was. I must have been a good deal like an excited duck, and Amelie like a hen with a duckling. When she was not twitching my sash straight, she was running about after me with dry shoes and stockings, and a chair, for fear “madame was getting too tired”; and when she was not doing that she was clapping my big garden hat on my head, for fear “madame would get a sunstroke.” The joke was that I did not know it was hot. I did not even know it was funny until afterward, when the whole scene seemed to have been by a sort of dual process photographed unconsciously on my memory.
When the boys were all washed and shaved and combed,—and
they were so larky over it,—we were like old friends. I did not know one of them by name, but I did know who was married, and who had children; and how one man’s first child had been born since he left England, and no news from home because they had seen their mail wagon burn on the battlefield; and how one of them was only twenty, and had been six years in the army,—lied when he enlisted; how none of them had ever seen war before; how they had always wanted to, and “Now,” said the twenty-years older, “I’ve seen it—good Lord—and all I want is to get home,” and he drew out of his breast pocket a photograph of a young girl in all her best clothes, sitting up very straight.
When I said, “Best girl?” he said proudly, “Only one, and we were to have been married in January if this hadn’t happened. Perhaps we may yet, if we get home at Christmas, as they tell us we may.”
I wondered who he meant by “they.” The officers did not give any such impression.
While I was gathering up towels and things before returning to the house, this youngster advanced toward me, and said with a half-shy smile, “I take it you’re a lady.”
I said I was glad he had noticed it—I did make such an effort.
“No, no,” he said, “I’m not joking. I may not say it very well, but I am quite serious. We all want to say to you that if it is war that makes you and the women you live amongst so different from English women, then all we can say is that the sooner England is invaded and knows what it means to have a fighting army on her soil, and see her fields devastated and her homes destroyed, the better it will be for the race. You take my word for it, they have no notion of what war is like; and there ain’t no English woman of your class could have, or would have, done for us what you have done this morning. Why, in England the common soldier is the dirt under the feet of women like you.”
I had to laugh, as I told him to wait and see how they treated them when war was there; that they probably had not done the thing simply because they never had had the chance.
“Well,” he answered, “they’ll have to change mightily. Why, our own women would have been uncomfortable and ashamed to see a lot of dirty men stripping and washing down like we have done. You haven’t looked as if you minded it a bit, or thought of anything but getting us cleaned up as quick and comfortable as possible.”
I started to say that I felt terribly flattered that I had played the role so well, but I knew he would not understand. Besides, I was wondering if it were true. I never knew the English except as individuals, never as a race. So I only laughed, picked up my towels, and went home to rest.
Not long before noon a bicycle scout came over with a message from Captain Edwards, and I sent by him a basket of eggs, a cold chicken, and a bottle of wine as a contribution to the breakfast at the officers’ mess; and by the time I had eaten my breakfast, the picket had been changed, and I saw no more of those boys.
During the afternoon the booming off at the east became more distinct. It surely was cannon. I went out to the gate where the corporal of the guard was standing, and asked him, “Do I hear cannon?” “Sure,” he replied. “Do you know where it is?” I asked. He said he hadn’t an idea—about twenty-five or thirty miles away. And on he marched, up and down the road, perfectly indifferent to it.
When Amelie came to help get tea at the gate, she said that a man from Voisins, who had started with the crowd that left here Wednesday, had returned. He had brought back the news that the sight on the road was simply horrible. The refugies had got so blocked in their hurry that they could move in neither direction; cattle and horses were so tired that they fell by the way; it would take a general to disentangle them. My! wasn’t I glad that I had not been tempted to get into that mess!
Just after the boys had finished their tea, Captain Edwards came down the road, swinging my empty basket on his arm, to say “Thanks” for his breakfast. He looked at the table at the gate.
“So the men have been having tea—lucky men—and bottled water! What extravagance!”
“Come in and have some, too,” I said.
“Love to,” he answered, and in he came.
While I was making the tea he walked about the house, looked at the pictures, examined the books. Just as the table was ready there was a tremendous explosion. He went to the door, looked off, and remarked, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, “Another division across. That should be the last.”
“Are all the bridges down?” I asked.
“All, I think, except the big railroad bridge behind you—Chalifert. That will not go until the last minute.”
I wanted to ask, “When will it be the ‘last minute’—and what does the ‘last minute’ mean?”—but where was the good? So we went into the dining-room. As he threw his hat on to a chair and sat down with a sigh, he said, “You see before you a very humiliated man. About half an hour ago eight of the Uhlans we are looking for rode right into the street below you, in Voisins. We saw them, but they got away. It is absolutely our own stupidity.”
“Well,” I explained to him, “I fancy I can tell you where they are hiding. I told Captain Simpson so last night.” And I explained to him that horses had been heard in the woods at the foot of the hill since Tuesday; that there was a cart road, rough and winding, running in toward Conde for over two miles; that it was absolutely screened by trees, had plenty of water, and not a house in it,—a shelter for a regiment of cavalry. And I had the impertinence to suggest that if the picket had been extended to the road below it would have been impossible for the Germans to have got into Voisins.
“Not enough of us,” he replied. “We are guarding a wide territory, and cannot put our pickets out of sight of one another.” Then he explained that, as far as he knew from his aeroplane men, the detachment had broken up since it was first discovered on this side of the Marne. It was reported that there were only about twenty-four in this vicinity; that they were believed to be without ammunition; and then he dropped the subject, and I did not bother him with questions that were bristling in my mind.
He told me how sad it was to see the ruin of the beautiful country through which they had passed, and what a mistake it had been from his point of view not to have foreseen the methods of Germans and drummed out all the towns through which the armies had passed. He told me one or two touching and interesting stories. One was of the day before a battle, I think it was Saint-Quentin. The officers had been invited to dine at a pretty chateau near which they had bivouacked. The French family could not do too much for them, and the daughters of the house waited on the table. Almost before the meal was finished the alerte sounded, and the battle was on them. When they retreated by the house where they had been so prettily entertained such a few hours before, there was not one stone standing on another, and what became of the family he had no idea.
The other that I remember was of the way the Germans passed the river at Saint-Quentin and forced the battle at La Fere on them. The bridge was mined, and the captain was standing beside the engineer waiting to give the order to touch off the mine. It was a nasty night—a Sunday (only last Sunday, think of that!)—and the rain was coming down in torrents. Just before the Germans reached the bridge he ordered it blown up. The engineer touched the button. The fuse did not act. He was in despair, but the captain said to him, “Brace up, my lad—give her another chance.” The second effort failed like the first. Then, before any one could stop him, the engineer made a dash for the end of the bridge, drawing his revolver as he ran, and fired six shots into the mine, knowing that, if he succeeded, he would go up with the bridge. No good, and he was literally dragged off the spot weeping with rage at his failure—and the Germans came across.
All the time we had been talking I had heard the cannonade in the distance—now at the north and now in the east. This seemed a proper moment, inspired by the fact that he was talking war, of his own initiative, to put a question or two, so I risked it.
“That cannonading seems much nearer than it did this morning,” I ventured.
“Possibly,” he replied.
“What does that mean?” I persisted.
“Sorry I can’t tell you. We men know absolutely nothing. Only three men in this war know anything of its plans,—Kitchener, Joffre, and French. The rest of us obey orders, and know only what we see. Not even a brigade commander is any wiser. Once in a while the colonel makes a remark, but he is never illuminating.”
“How much risk am I running by remaining here?”
He looked at me a moment before he asked, “You want to know the truth?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, this is the situation as near as I can work it out. We infer from the work we were given to do—destroying bridges, railroads, telegraphic communications—that an effort is to be made here to stop the march on Paris; in fact, that the Germans are not to be allowed to cross the Marne at Meaux, and march on the city by the main road from Rheims to the capital. The communications are all cut. That does not mean that it will be impossible for them to pass; they’ve got clever engineers. It means that we have impeded them and may stop them. I don’t know. Just now your risk is nothing. It will be nothing unless we are ordered to hold this hill, which is the line of march from Meaux to Paris. We have had no such order yet. But if the Germans succeed in taking Meaux and attempt to put their bridges across the Marne, our artillery, behind you there on the top of the hill, must open fire on them over your head. In that case the Germans will surely reply by bombarding this hill.” And he drank his tea without looking to see how I took it.
I remember that I was standing opposite him, and I involuntarily leaned against the wall behind me, but suddenly thought, “Be careful. You’ll break the glass in the picture of Whistler’s Mother, and you’ll be sorry.” It brought me up standing, and he didn’t notice. Isn’t the mind a queer thing?
He finished his tea, and rose to go. As he picked up his cap he showed me a hole right through his sleeve—in one side, out the other-and a similar one in his puttee, where the ball had been turned aside by the leather lacing of his boot. He laughed as he said, “Odd how near a chap comes to going out, and yet lives to drink tea with you. Well, good-bye and good luck if I don’t see you again.”
And off he marched, and I went into the library and sat down and sat very still.
It was not more than half an hour after Captain Edwards left that the corporal came in to ask me if I had a window in the roof. I told him that there was, and he asked if he might go up. I led the way, picking up my glasses as I went. He explained, as we climbed the two flights of stairs, that the aeroplane had reported a part of the Germans they were hunting “not a thousand feet from this house.” I opened the skylight. He scanned in every direction. I knew he would not see anything, and he did not. But he seemed to like the view, could command the roads that his posse was guarding, so he sat on the window ledge and talked. The common soldier is far fonder of talking than his officer and apparently he knows more. If he doesn’t, he thinks he does. So he explained to me the situation as the “men saw it.” I remembered what Captain Edwards had told me, but I listened all the same. He told me that the Germans were advancing in two columns about ten miles apart, flanked in the west by a French division pushing them east, and led by the English drawing them toward the Marne. “You know,” he said, “that we are the sacrificed corps, and we have known it from the first—went into the campaign knowing it. We have been fighting a force ten times superior in numbers, and retreating, doing rear-guard action, whether we were really outfought or not—to draw the Germans where Joffre wants them. I reckon we’ve got them there. It is great strategy-Kitchener’s, you know.”
Whether any of the corporal’s ideas had any relation to facts I shall never know until history tells me, but I can assure you that, as I followed the corporal downstairs, I looked about my house—and, well, I don’t deny it, it seemed to me a doomed thing, and I was sorry for it. However, as I let him out into the road again, I pounded into myself lots of things like “It hasn’t happened yet”; “Sufficient unto the day”; and, “What isn’t to be, won’t be”; and found I was quite calm. Luckily I did not have much time to myself, for I had hardly sat down quietly when there was another tap at the door and I opened to find an officer of the bicycle corps standing there.
“Captain Edwards’s compliments,” he said, “and will you be so kind as to explain to me exactly where you think the Uhlans are hidden?” I told him that if he would come down the road a little way with me I would show him.
“Wait a moment,” he said, holding the door. “You are not afraid?” I told him that I was not.
“My orders are not to expose you uselessly. Wait there a minute.”
He stepped back into the garden, gave a quick look overhead,—I don’t know what for, unless for a Taube. Then he said, “Now, you will please come out into the road and keep close to the bank at the left, in the shadow. I shall walk at the extreme right. As soon as I get where I can see the roads ahead, at the foot of the hill, I shall ask you to stop, and please stop at once. I don’t want you to be seen from the road below, in case any one is there. Do you understand ?”
I said I did. So we went into the road and walked silently down the hill. Just before we got to the turn, he motioned me to stop and stood with his map in hand while I explained that he was to cross the road that led into Voisins, take the cart track down the hill past the washhouse on his left, and turn into the wood road on that side. At each indication he said, “I have it.” When I had explained, he simply said, “Rough road?”
I said it was, very, and wet in the dryest weather.
“Wooded all the way?” he asked.
I told him that it was, and, what was more, so winding that you could not see ten feet ahead anywhere between here and Conde.
“Humph,” he said. “Perfectly clear, thank you very much. Please wait right there a moment.”
He looked up the hill behind him, and made a gesture in the air with his hand above his head. I turned to look up the hill also. I saw the corporal at the gate repeat the gesture; then a big bicycle corps, four abreast, guns on their backs, slid round the corner and came gliding down the hill. There was not a sound, not the rattle of a chain or a pedal.
“Thank you very much,” said the captain. “Be so kind as to keep close to the bank.”
When I reached my gate I found some of the men of the guard dragging a big, long log down the road, and I watched them while they attached it to a tree at my gate, and swung it across to the opposite side of the road, making in that way a barrier about five feet high. I asked what that was for? “Captain’s orders,” was the laconic reply. But when it was done the corporal took the trouble to explain that it was a barricade to prevent the Germans from making a dash up the hill.
“However,” he added, “don’t you get nervous. If we chase them out it will only be a little rifle practice, and I doubt if they even have any ammunition.”
As I turned to go into the house, he called after me,—
“See here, I notice that you’ve got doors on all sides of your house. Better lock all those but this front one.”
As all the windows were barred and so could be left open, I didn’t mind; so I went in and locked up. The thing was getting to be funny to me,—always doing something, and nothing happening. I suppose courage is a cumulative thing, if only one has time to accumulate, and these boys in khaki treated even the cannonading as if it were all “in the day’s work.”
It was just dusk when the bicycle corps returned up the hill. They had to dismount and wheel their machines under the barricade, and they did it so prettily, dismounting and remounting with a precision that was neat.
“Nothing,” reported the captain. “We could not go in far,—road too rough and too dangerous. It is a cavalry job.”
All the same, I am sure the Uhlans are there.
I had gone to bed early on Friday night, and had passed an uneasy night. It was before four when I got up and opened my shutters. It was a lovely day. Perhaps I have told you that the weather all last week was simply perfect.
I went downstairs to get coffee for the picket, but when I got out to the gate there was no picket there. There was the barricade, but the road was empty. I ran up the road to Amelie’s. She told me that they had marched away about an hour before. A bicyclist had evidently brought an order. As no one spoke English, no one understood what had really happened. Pere had been to Couilly—they had all left there. So far as any one could discover there was not an English soldier, or any kind of a soldier, left anywhere in the commune.
This was Saturday morning, September 5, and one of the loveliest days I ever saw. The air was clear. The sun was shining.
The birds were singing. But otherwise it was very still. I walked out on the lawn. Little lines of white smoke were rising from a few chimneys at Joncheroy and Voisins. The towns on the plain, from Monthyon and Penchard on the horizon to Mareuil in the valley, stood out clear and distinct. But after three days of activity, three days with the soldiers about, it seemed, for the first time since I came here, lonely; and for the first time I realized that I was actually cut off from the outside world. All the bridges in front of me were gone, and the big bridge behind me. No communication possibly with the north, and none with the south except by road over the hill to Lagny. Esbly evacuated, Couilly evacuated, Quincy evacuated. All the shops closed. No government, no post-office, and absolutely no knowledge of what had happened since Wednesday. I had a horrible sense of isolation.
Luckily for me, part of the morning was killed by what might be called an incident or a disaster or a farce—just as you look at it. First of all, right after breakfast I had the proof that I was right about the Germans. Evidently well informed of the movements of the English, they rode boldly into the open. Luckily they seemed disinclined to do any mischief. Perhaps the place looked too humble to be bothered with. They simply asked—one of them spoke French, and perhaps they all did—where they were, and were told, “Huiry, commune of Quincy.” They looked it up on their maps, nodded, and asked if the bridges on the Marne had been destroyed, to which I replied that I did not know,—I had not been down to the river. Half a truth and half a lie, but goodness knows that it was hard enough to have to be polite. They thanked me civilly enough and rode down the hill, as they could not pass the barricade unless they had wished to give an exhibition of “high school.” Wherever they had been they had not suffered. Their horses were fine animals, and both horses and men were well groomed and in prime condition.
The other event was distressing, but about that I held my tongue.
Just after the Germans were here, I went down the road to call on my new French friends at the foot of the hill, to hear how they had passed the night, and incidentally to discover if there were any soldiers about. Just in the front of their house I found an English bicycle scout, leaning on his wheel and trying to make himself understood in a one-sided monosyllabic dialogue, with the two girls standing in their window.
I asked him who he was. He showed his papers. They were all right—an Irishman—Ulster—Royal Innisfall Fusiliers—thirteen years in the service.
I asked him if there were any English soldiers left here. He said there was still a bicycle corps of scouts at the foot of the hill, at Couilly. I thought that funny, as Pere had said the town was absolutely deserted. Still, I saw no reason to doubt his word, so when he asked me if I could give him his breakfast, I brought him back to the house, set the table in the arbor, and gave him his coffee and eggs. When he had finished, he showed no inclination to go—said he would rest a bit. As Amelie was in the house, I left him and went back to make the call my encounter with him had interrupted. When I returned an hour later, I found him fast asleep on the bench in the arbor, with the sun shining right on his head. His wheel, with his kit and gun on it was leaning up against the house. It was nearly noon by this time, and hot, and I was afraid he would get a sunstroke; so I waked him and told him that if it was a rest he needed,—and he was free to take it,—he could go into the room at the head of the stairs, where he would find a couch and lie down comfortably. He had sleepily obeyed, and must have just about got to sleep again, when it occurred to me that it was hardly prudent to leave an English bicycle with a khaki-covered kit and a gun on it right on the terrace in plain sight of the road up which the Germans had ridden so short a time before. So I went to the foot of the stairs, called him, and explained that I did not care to touch the wheel on account of the gun, so he had better come down and put it away, which he did. I don’t know whether it was my saying “Germans” to him that explained it, but his sleepiness seemed suddenly to have disappeared, so he asked for the chance to wash and shave; and half an hour later he came down all slicked up and spruce, with a very visible intention of paying court to the lady of the house. Irish, you see,—white hairs no obstacle. I could not help laughing. “Hoity-toity,” I said to myself, “I am getting all kinds of impressions of the military.”
While I was, with amusement, putting up fences, the gardener next door came down the hill in great excitement to tell me that the Germans were on the road above, and were riding down across Pere’s farm into a piece of land called “la terre blanche,” where Pere had recently been digging out great rocks, making it an ideal place to hide. He knew that there was an English scout in my house and thought I ought to know. I suppose he expected the boy in khaki to grab his gun and capture them all. I thanked him and sent him away. I must say my Irishman did not seem a bit interested in the Germans. His belt and pistol lay on the salon table, where he put them when he came downstairs. He made himself comfortable in an easy chair, and continued to give me another dose of his blarney. I suppose I was getting needlessly nervous. It was really none of my business what he was doing here. Still he was a bit too sans gene.
Finally he began to ask questions. “Was I afraid?” I was not. “Did I live alone?” I did. As soon as I had said it, I thought it was stupid of me, especially as he at once said,—”If you are, yer know, I’ll come back here to sleep to-night. I’m perfectly free to come and go as I like,—don’t have to report until I ‘m ready.”
I thought it wise to remind him right here that if his corps was at the foot of the hill, it was wise for him to let his commanding officer know that the Germans, for whom two regiments had been hunting for three days, had come out of hiding. I fancy if I had not taken that tack he’d have settled for the day.
“Put that thing on,” I said, pointing to his pistol; “get your wheel out of the barn, and I’ll take a look up the road and see that it’s clear. I don’t care to see you attacked under my eyes.”
I knew that there was not the slightest danger of that, but it sounded businesslike. I am afraid he found it so, because he said at once, “Could you give me a drink before I go?”
“Water?” I said.
“No, not that.”
I was going to say “no” when it occurred to me that Amelie had told me that she had put a bottle of cider in the buffet, and—well, he was Irish, and I wanted to get rid of him. So I said he could have a glass of cider, and I got the bottle, and a small, deep champagne glass. He uncorked the bottle, filled a brimming glass, recorked the bottle, drank it off, and thanked me more earnestly than cider would have seemed to warrant. While he got his wheel out I went through the form of making sure the road was free. There was no one in sight. So I sent him away with directions for reaching Couilly without going over the part of the hill where the Uhlans had hidden, and drew a sigh of relief when he was off. Hardly fifteen minutes later some one came running up from Voisins to tell me that just round the corner he had slipped off his wheel, almost unconscious,—evidently drunk. I was amazed. He had been absolutely all right when he left me. As no one understood a word he tried to say, there was nothing to do but go and rescue him. But by the time I got to where he had fallen off his wheel, he was gone,—some one had taken him away,—and it was not until later that I knew the truth of the matter, but that must keep until I get to the way of the discovery.
All this excitement kept me from listening too much to the cannon, which had been booming ever since nine o’clock. Amelie had been busy running between her house and mine, but she has, among other big qualities, the blessed habit of taking no notice. I wish it were contagious. She went about her work as if nothing were hanging over us. I walked about the house doing little things aimlessly. I don’t believe Amelie shirked a thing. It seemed to me absurd to care whether the dusting were done or not, whether or not the writing-table was in order, or the pictures straight on the wall.
As near as I can remember, it was a little after one o’clock when the cannonading suddenly became much heavier, and I stepped out into the orchard, from which there is a wide view of the plain. I gave one look; then I heard myself say, “Amelie,”—as if she could help,—and I retreated. Amelie rushed by me. I heard her say, “Mon Dieu.” I waited, but she did not come back. After a bit I pulled myself together, went out again, and followed down to the hedge where she was standing, looking off to the plain.
The battle had advanced right over the crest of the hill. The sun was shining brilliantly on silent Mareuil and Chauconin, but Monthyon and Penchard were enveloped in smoke. From the eastern and western extremities of the plain we could see the artillery fire, but owing to the smoke hanging over the crest of the hill on the horizon, it was impossible to get an idea of the positions of the armies. In the west it seemed to be somewhere near Claye, and in the east it was in the direction of Barcy. I tried to remember what the English soldiers had said,—that the Germans were, if possible, to be pushed east, in which case the artillery at the west must be either the French of English. The hard thing to bear was, that it was all conjecture.
So often, when I first took this place on the hill, I had looked off at the plain and thought, “What a battlefield!” forgetting how often the Seine et Marne had been that from the days when the kings lived at Chelles down to the days when it saw the worst of the invasion of 1870. But when I thought that, I had visions very different from what I was seeing. I had imagined long lines of marching soldiers, detachments of flying cavalry, like the war pictures at Versailles and Fontainebleau. Now I was actually seeing a battle, and it was nothing like that. There was only noise, belching smoke, and long drifts of white clouds concealing the hill.
By the middle of the afternoon Monthyon came slowly out of the smoke. That seemed to mean that the heaviest firing was over the hill and not on it,—or did it mean that the battle was receding? If it did, then the Allies were retreating. There was no way to discover the truth. And all this time the cannon thundered in the southeast, in the direction of Coulommiers, on the route into Paris by Ivry.
Naturally I could not but remember that we were only seeing the action on the extreme west of a battle-line which probably extended hundreds of miles. I had been told that Joffre had made a frontier of the Marne. But alas, the Meuse had been made a frontier-but the Germans had crossed it, and advanced to here in little less than a fortnight. If that—why not here? It was not encouraging.
A dozen times during the afternoon I went into the study and tried to read. Little groups of old men, women, and children were in the road, mounted on the barricade which the English had left. I could hear the murmur of their voices. In vain I tried to stay indoors. The thing was stronger than I, and in spite of myself, I would go out on the lawn and, field-glass in hand, watch the smoke. To my imagination every shot meant awful slaughter, and between me and the terrible thing stretched a beautiful country, as calm in the sunshine as if horrors were not. In the field below me the wheat was being cut. I remembered vividly afterward that a white horse was drawing the reaper, and women and children were stacking and gleaning. Now and then the horse would stop, and a woman, with her red handkerchief on her head, would stand, shading her eyes a moment, and look off. Then the white horse would turn and go plodding on. The grain had to be got in if the Germans were coming, and these fields were to be trampled as they were in 1870. Talk about the duality of the mind—it is sextuple. I would not dare tell you all that went through mine that long afternoon.
It was just about six o’clock when the first bomb that we could really see came over the hill. The sun was setting. For two hours we saw them rise, descend, explode. Then a little smoke would rise from one hamlet, then from another; then a tiny flame—hardly more than a spark—would be visible; and by dark the whole plain was on fire, lighting up Mareuil in the foreground, silent and untouched. There were long lines of grain-stacks and mills stretching along the plain. One by one they took fire, until, by ten o’clock, they stood like a procession of huge torches across my beloved panorama.
It was midnight when I looked off for the last time. The wind had changed. The fires were still burning. The smoke was drifting toward us—and oh! the odor of it! I hope you will never know what it is like.
I was just going to close up when Amelie came to the door to see if I was all right. My mind was in a sort of riot. It was the suspense—the not knowing the result, or what the next day might bring. You know, I am sure, that physical fear is not one of my characteristics. Fear of Life, dread of Fate, I often have, but not the other. Yet somehow, when I saw Amelie standing there, I felt that I needed the sense of something living near me. So I said, “Amelie, do you want to do me a great service?”
She said she ‘d like to try.
“Well, then,” I replied, “don’t you want to sleep here to-night?”
With her pretty smile, she pulled her nightdress from under her arm: that was what she had come for. So I made her go to bed in the big bed in the guest-chamber, and leave the door wide open; and do you know, she was fast asleep in five minutes, and she snored, and I smiled to hear her, and thought it the most comforting sound I had ever heard.
As for me, I did not sleep a moment. I could not forget the poor fellows lying dead out there in the starlight—and it was such a beautiful night.
It was about my usual time, four o’clock, the next morning,—Sunday, September 6,—that I opened my blinds. Another lovely day. I was dressed and downstairs when, a little before five, the battle recommenced.
I rushed out on the lawn and looked off. It had moved east—behind the hill between me and Meaux. All I could see was the smoke which hung over it. Still it seemed nearer than it had the day before. I had just about room enough in my mind for one idea—”The Germans wish to cross the Marne at Meaux, on the direct route into Paris. They are getting there. In that case to-day will settle our fate. If they reach the Marne, that battery at Coutevroult will come into action,”—that was what Captain Edwards had said,—”and I shall be in a direct line between the two armies.”
Amelie got breakfast as if there were no cannon, so I took my coffee, and said nothing. As soon as it was cleared away, I went up into the attic, and quietly packed a tiny square hat-trunk. I was thankful that this year’s clothes take up so little room. I put in changes of underwear, stockings, slippers, an extra pair of low-heeled shoes, plenty of handkerchiefs,—just the essentials in the way of toilette stuff,—a few bandages and such emergency things, and had room for two dresses. When it was packed and locked, it was so light that I could easily carry it by its handle on top. I put my long black military cape, which I could carry over my shoulder, on it, with hat and veil and gloves. Then I went down stairs and shortened the skirt of my best walking-suit, an/d hung it and its jacket handy. I was ready to fly,—if I had to,—and in case of that emergency nothing to do for myself.
I had got all this done systematically when my little French friend—I call her Mile. Henriette now—came to the door to say that she simply “could not stand another day of it.” She had put, she said, all the ready money they had inside her corset, and a little box which contained all her dead father’s decorations also, and she was ready to go. She took out the box and showed the pretty jeweled things,—his cross of the Legion d’Honneur, his Papal decoration, and several foreign orders,—her father, it seems, was an officer in the army, a great friend of the Orleans family, and grandson of an officer of Louis XVI’s Imperial Guard. She begged me to join them in an effort to escape to the south. I told her frankly that it seemed to me impossible, and I felt it safer to wait until the English officers at Coutevroult notified us that it was necessary. It would be as easy then as now—and I was sure that it was safer to wait for their advice than to adventure it for ourselves. Besides, I had no intention of leaving my home and all the souvenirs of my life without making every effort I could to save them up to the last moment. In addition to that, I could not see myself joining that throng of homeless refugies on the road, if I could help it.
“But,” she insisted, “you cannot save your house by staying. We are in the same position. Our house is full of all the souvenirs of my father’s family. It is hard to leave all that—but I am
afraid—terribly afraid for the children.”
I could not help asking her how she proposed to get away. So far as I knew there was not a carriage to be had.
She replied that we could start on foot in the direction of Melun, and perhaps find an automobile: we could share the expense. Together we could find a way, and what was more, that I could share my optimism and courage with them and that would help.
That made me laugh, but I didn’t think it necessary to explain to her that, once away from the shelter of my own walls, I should be just as liable to a panic as any one else, or that I knew we should not find a conveyance, or, worse still, that her money and her jewels would hardly be safe inside her corset if she were to meet with some of the Uhlans who were still about us.
Amelie had not allowed me to carry a sou on me, nor even my handbag since we knew they were here. Such things as that have been hidden-all ready to be snatched up—ever since I came home from Paris last Wednesday—only four days ago, after all!
Poor Mile. Henriette went away sadly when she was convinced that my mind was made up.
“Good-bye,” she called over the hedge. “I seem to be always taking leave of you.”
I did not tell Amelie anything about this conversation. What was the good? I fancy it would have made no difference to her. I knew pretty well to what her mind was made up. Nothing in the world would have made Pere budge. He had tried it in 1870, and had been led to the German post with a revolver at his head. He did not have any idea of repeating the experience. It was less than half an hour later that Mile. Henriette came up the hill again. She was between tears and laughter.
“Mother will not go,” she said. “She says if you can stay we must. She thinks staying is the least of two evils. We can hide the babies in the cave if necessary, and they may be as safe there as on the road.”
I could not help saying that I should be sorry if my decision influenced theirs. I could be responsible for myself. I could not bear to have to feel any responsibility for others in case I was wrong. But she assured me that her mother had been of my opinion from the first. “Only,” she added, “if I could have coaxed you to go, she would have gone too.”
This decision did not add much to my peace of mind all that long Sunday. It seems impossible that it was only day before yesterday. I think the suspense was harder to bear than that of the day before, though all we could see of the battle were the dense clouds of smoke rising straight into the air behind the green hill under such a blue sky all aglow with sunshine, with the incessant booming of the cannon, which made the contrasts simply monstrous.
I remember that it was about four in the afternoon when I was sitting in the arbor under the crimson rambler, which was a glory of bloom, that Pere came and stood near by on the lawn, looking off. With his hands in the pockets of his blue apron, he stood silent for a long time. Then he said, “Listen to that. They are determined to pass. This is different from 1870. In 1870 the Germans marched through here with their guns on their shoulders. There was no one to oppose them. This time it is different. It was harvest-time that year, and they took everything, and destroyed what they did not take. They bedded their horses in the wheat.”
You see Pere’s father was in the Franco-Prussian War, and his grandfather was with Napoleon at Moscow, where he had his feet frozen. Pere is over seventy, and his father died at ninety-six. Poor old Pere just hates the war. He is as timid as a bird—can’t kill a rabbit for his dinner. But with the queer spirit of the French farmer he has kept right on working as if nothing were going on. All day Saturday and all day Sunday he was busy digging stone to mend the road.
The cannonading ceased a little after six—thirteen hours without intermission. I don’t mind confessing to you that I hope the war is not going to give me many more days like that one. I’d rather the battle would come right along and be done with it. The suspense of waiting all day for that battery at Coutevroult to open fire was simply nasty.
I went to bed as ignorant of how the battle had turned as I was the night before. Oddly enough, to my surprise, I slept, and slept well.
I did not wake on the morning of Monday, September 7,—
yesterday,—until I was waked by the cannon at five. I jumped out of bed and rushed to the window. This time there could be no doubt of it: the battle was receding. The cannonading was as violent, as incessant, as it had been the day before, but it was surely farther off—to the northeast of Meaux. It was another beautiful day. I never saw such weather.
Amelie was on the lawn when I came down. “They are surely retreating,” she called as soon as I appeared.
“They surely are,” I replied. “It looks as if they were somewhere near Lizy-sur-I’Ourcq,” and that was a guess of which I was proud a little later. I carry a map around these days as if I were an army officer.
As Amelie had not been for the milk the night before, she started off quite gayly for it. She has to go to the other side of Voisins. It takes her about half an hour to go and return; so—just for the sake of doing something—I thought I would run down the hill and see how Mile. Henriette and the little family had got through the night.
Amelie had taken the road across the fields. It is rough walking, but she doesn’t mind. I had stopped to tie a fresh ribbon about my cap,—a tri-color,—and was about five minutes behind her. I was about halfway down the hill when I saw Amelie coming back, running, stumbling, waving her milk-can and shouting, “Madame—un anglais, un anglais.” And sure enough, coming on behind her, his face wreathed in smiles, was an English bicycle scout, wheeling his machine. As soon as he saw me, he waved his cap, and Amelie breathlessly explained that she had said, “Dame americaine” and he had dismounted and followed her at once.
We went together to meet him. As soon as he was near enough, he called out, “Good-morning. Everything is all right. Germans been as near you as they will ever get. Close shave.”
“Where are they?” I asked as we met.
“Retreating to the northeast—on the Ourcq.”
I could have kissed him. Amelie did. She simply threw both arms round his neck and smacked him on both cheeks, and he said, “Thank you, ma’am,” quite prettily; and, like the nice clean English boy he was, he blushed.
“You can be perfectly calm,” he said. “Look behind you.”
I looked, and there along the top of my hill I saw a long line of bicyclists in khaki.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, a little alarmed. For a moment I thought that if the English had returned, something was going to happen right here.
“English scouts,” he replied. “Colonel Snow’s division, clearing the way for the advance. You’ve a whole corps of fresh French troops coming out from Paris on one side of you, and the English troops are on their way to Meaux.”
“But the bridges are down,” I said.
“The pontoons are across. Everything is ready for the advance. I think we’ve got ’em.” And he laughed as if it were all a game of cricket.
By this time we were in the road. I sent Amelie on for the milk. He wheeled his machine up the hill beside me. He asked me if there was anything they could do for me before they moved on. I told him there was nothing unless he could drive out the Uhlans who were hidden near us.
He looked a little surprised, asked a few questions—how long they had been there? where they were? how many? and if I had seen them? and I explained.
“Well,” he said, “I’ll speak to the colonel about it. Don’t you worry. If he has time he may get over to see you, but we are moving pretty fast.”
By this time we were at the gate. He stood leaning on his wheel a moment, looking over the hedge.
“Live here with your daughter?” he asked.
I told him that I lived here alone with myself.
“Wasn’t that your daughter I met?”
I didn’t quite fall through the gate backwards. I am accustomed to saying that I am old. I am not yet accustomed to have people notice it when I do not call their attention to it. Amelie is only ten years younger than I am, but she has got the figure and bearing of a girl. The lad recovered himself at once, and said, “Why, of course not,—she doesn’t speak any English.” I was glad that he didn’t even apologize, for I expect that I look fully a hundred and something. So with a reiterated “Don’t worry—you are all safe here now,” he mounted his wheel and rode up the hills.
I watched him making good time across to the route to Meaux. Then I came into the house and lay down. I suddenly felt horribly weak. My house had taken on a queer look to me. I suppose I had been, in a sort of subconscious way, sure that it was doomed. As I lay on the couch in the salon and looked round the room, it suddenly appeared to me like a thing I had loved and lost and recovered—resurrected, in fact; a living thing to which a miracle had happened. I even found myself asking, in my innermost soul, what I had done to deserve this fortune. How had it happened, and why, that I had come to perch on this hillside, just to see a battle, and have it come almost to my door, to turn back and leave me and my belongings standing here untouched, as safe as if there were no war,—and so few miles away destruction extending to the frontier.
The sensation was uncanny. Out there in the northeast still boomed the cannon. The smoke of the battle still rose straight in the still air. I had seen the war. I had watched its destructive bombs. For three days its cannon had pounded on every nerve in my body; but none of the horror it had sowed from the eastern frontier of Belgium to within four miles of me, had reached me except in the form of a threat. Yet out there on the plain, almost within my sight, lay the men who had paid with their lives—each dear to some one—to hold back the battle from Paris—and incidentally from me. The relief had its bitterness, I can tell you. I had been prepared to play the whole game. I had not even had the chance to discover whether or not I could. You, who know me fairly well, will see the irony of it. I am eternally hanging round dans les coulisses, I am never in the play. I instinctively thought of Captain Simpson, who had left his brother in the trenches at Saint-Quentin, and still had in him the kindly sympathy that had helped me so much.
When Amelie returned, she said that every one was out at the Demi-Lune to watch the troups going to Meaux, and that the boys in the neighborhood were already swimming the Marne to climb the hill to the battlefield of Saturday. I had no curiosity to see one scene or the other. I knew what the French boys were like, with their stern faces, as well as I knew the English manner of going forward to the day’s work, and the hilarious, macabre spirit of the French untried lads crossing the river to look on horrors as if it were a lark.
I passed a strangely quiet morning. But the excitement was not all over. It was just after lunch that Amelie came running down the road to say that we were to have a cantonnement de regiment on our hill for the night and perhaps longer—French reinforcements marching out from the south of Paris; that they were already coming over the crest of the hill to the south and could be seen from the road above; that the advance scouts were already here. Before she had done explaining, an officer and a bicyclist were at the gate. I suppose they came here because it was the only house on the road that was open. I had to encounter the expressions of astonishment to which I am now quite accustomed—a foreigner in a little hole on the road to the frontier, in a partially evacuated country. I answered all the usual questions politely; but when he began to ask how many men I could lodge, and how much room there was for horses in the outbuildings, Amelie sharply interfered, assuring him that she knew the resources of the hamlet better than I did, that she was used to “this sort of thing” and “madame was not”; and simply whisked him off.
I can assure you that, as I watched the work of billeting a regiment in evacuated houses, I was mighty glad that I was here, standing, a willing hostess, at my door, but giving to my little house a personality no unoccupied house can ever have to a passing army. They made quick work, and no ceremony, in opening locked doors and taking possession. It did not take the officer who had charge of the billeting half an hour, notebook in hand, to find quarters for his horses as well as his men. Before the head of the regiment appeared over the hill names were chalked up on all the doors, and the number of horses on every door to barn and courtyard, and the fields selected and the number of men to be camped all over the hill. Finally the officer returned to me. I knew by his manner that Amelie, who accompanied him, had been giving him a “talking to.”
“If you please, madame,” he said, “I will see now what you can do for us”; and I invited him in.
I don’t suppose I need to tell you that you would get very little idea of the inside of my house from the outside. I am quite used now to the little change of front in most people when they cross the threshold. The officer nearly went on tiptoes when he got inside. He mounted the polished stairs gingerly, gave one look at the bedroom part-way up, touched his cap, and said: “That will do for the chef-major. We will not trouble you with any one else. He has his own orderly, and will eat outside, and will be no bother. Thank you very much, madame”; and he sort of slid down the stairs, tiptoed out, and wrote in chalk on the gatepost, “Weitzel.”
By this time the advance guard was in the road and I could not resist going out to talk to them. They had marched out from the south of Paris since the day before,—thirty-six miles,—without an idea that the battle was going on the Marne until they crossed the hill at Montry and came in sight of its smoke. I tell you their faces were wreathed with smiles when they discovered that we knew the Germans were retreating.
Such talks as I listened to that afternoon—only yesterday—at my gate, from such a fluent, amusing, clever French chap,—a bicyclist in the ambulance corps,—of the crossing the Meuse and the taking, losing, re-taking, and re-losing of Charleroi. Oddly enough these were the first real battle tales I had heard.
It suddenly occurred to me, as we chatted and laughed, that all the time the English were here they had never once talked battles. Not one of the Tommies had mentioned the fighting. We had talked of “home,” of the girls they had left behind them, of the French children whom the English loved, of the country, its customs, its people, their courage and kindness, but not one had told me a battle story of any kind, and I had not once thought of opening the subject. But this French lad of the ambulance corps, with his Latin eloquence and his national gift of humor and graphic description, with a smile in his eyes, and a laugh on his lips, told me stories that made me see how war affects men, and how often the horrible passes across the line into the grotesque. I shall never forget him as he stood at the gate, leaning on his wheel, describing how the Germans crossed the Meuse—a feat which cost them so dearly that only their superior number made a victory out of a disaster.
“I suppose,” he said, “that in the history of the war it will stand as a success—at any rate, they came across, which was what they wanted. We could only have stopped them, if at all, by an awful sacrifice of life. Joffre is not doing that. If the Germans want to fling away their men by the tens of thousands—let them. In the end we gain by it. We can rebuild a country; we cannot so easily re-create a race. We mowed them down like a field of wheat, by the tens of thousands, and tens of thousands sprang into the gaps. They advanced shoulder to shoulder. Our guns could not miss them, but they were too many for us. If you had seen that crossing I imagine it would have looked to you like a disaster for Germany. It was so awful that it became comic. I remember one point where a bridge was mined. We let the first divisions of artillery and cavalry come right across on to our guns—they were literally destroyed. As the next division came on to the bridge—up it went—men, horses, guns dammed the flood, and the cavalry literally crossed on their own dead. We are bold enough, but we are not so foolhardy as to throw away men like that. They will be more useful to Joffre later.”
It was the word “comic” that did for me. There was no sign in the fresh young face before me that the horror had left a mark. If the thought came to him that every one of those tens of thousands whose bodies dammed and reddened the flood was dear to some one weeping in Germany, his eyes gave no sign of it. Perhaps it was as well for the time being. Who knows?
I felt the same revolt against the effect of war when he told me of the taking and losing of Charleroi and set it down as the most “grotesque” sight he had ever seen. “Grotesque” simply made me shudder, when he went on to say that even there, in the narrow streets, the Germans pushed on in “close order,” and that the French mitrailleuses, which swept the street that he saw, made such havoc in their ranks that the air was so full of flying heads and arms and legs, of boots, and helmets, swords, and guns that it did not seem as if it could be real—”it looked like some burlesque”; and that even one of the gunners turned ill and said to his commander, who stood beside him: “For the love of God, colonel, shall I go on?” and the colonel, with folded arms, replied: “Fire away.”
Perhaps it is lucky, since war is, that men can be like that. When they cannot, what then? But it was too terrible for me, and I changed the subject by asking him if it were true that the Germans deliberately fired on the Red Cross. He instantly became grave and prudent.
“Oh, well,” he said, “I would not like to go on oath. We have had our field ambulance destroyed. But you know the Germans are often bad marksmen. They’ve got an awful lot of ammunition. They fire it all over the place. They are bound to hit something. If we screen our hospital behind a building and a shell comes over and blows us up, how can we swear the shell was aimed at us?”
Just here the regiment came over the hill, and I retreated inside the gate where I had pails of water ready for them to drink. They were a sorry-looking lot. It was a hot day. They were covered with dirt, and you know the ill-fitting uniform of the French common soldier would disfigure into trampdom the best-looking man in the world.
The barricade was still across the road. With their packs on their backs, their tin dippers in their hands for the drink they so needed, perspiring in their heavy coats, they crawled, line after line, under the barrier until an officer rode down and called sharply:—
The line came to a standstill.
“What’s that thing?” asked the officer sternly.
I replied that obviously it was a barricade.
“Who put it there?” he asked peremptorily, as if I were to blame.
I told him that the English did.
I felt as if I were being rather severely cross-examined, but I answered as civilly as I could, “The night before the battle.”
He looked at me for the first time—and softened his tone a bit—my white hair and beastly accent, I suppose—as he asked:
“What is it for?”
I told him it was to prevent a detachment of Uhlans from coming up the hill. He hesitated a moment; then asked if it served any purpose now. I might have told him that the Uhlans were still here, but I didn’t, I simply said that I did not know that it did. “Cut it down!” he ordered, and in a moment it was cut on one end and swung round against the bank and the regiment marched on.
It was just after that that I discovered the explanation of what had happened to my Irish scout on Saturday. An exhausted soldier was in need of a stimulant, and one of his comrades, who was supporting him, asked me if I had anything. I had nothing but the bottle out of which the Irish scout had drunk. I rushed for it, poured some into the tin cup held out to me, and just as the poor fellow was about to drink, his comrade pulled the cup away, smelt it, and exclaimed, “Don’t drink that—here, put some water in it. That’s not cider. It’s eau de vie des prunes.”
I can tell you I was startled. I had never tasted eau de vie des prunes,—a native brew, stronger than brandy, and far more dangerous,—and my Irishman had pulled off a full champagne glass at a gulp, and never winked. No wonder he fell off his wheel. The wonder is that he did not die on the spot. I was humiliated. Still, he was Irish and perhaps he didn’t care. I hope he didn’t. But only think, he will never know that I did not do it on purpose. He was probably gloriously drunk. Anyway, it prevented his coming back to make that visit he threatened me with.
The detachment of the regiment which staggered past my gate camped in the fields below me and in the courtyards at Voisins, and the rest of them made themselves comfortable in the fields at the other side of the hill and the outbuildings on Amelie’s place, and the officers and the ambulance corps began to seek their quarters.
I was sitting in the library when my guest, Chef-Major Weitzel, rode up to the gate. I had a good chance to look him over, as he marched up the path. He was a dapper, upright, little chap. He was covered with dust from his head to his heels. I could have written his name on him anywhere. Then I went to the door to meet him. I suppose he had been told that he was to be lodged in the house of an American. He stopped abruptly, halfway up the path, as I appeared, clicked his heels together, and made me his best bow, as he said:—
“I am told, madame, that you are so gracious as to offer me a bed.”
I might have replied literally, “Offer? I had no choice,” but I did not. I said politely that if Monsieur le Chef-Major would take the trouble to enter, I should do myself the distinguished honor of conducting him to his chamber, having no servant for the moment to perform for him that service, and he bowed at me again, and marched in—no other word for it—and came up the stairs behind me.
As I opened the door of my guest-room, and stood aside to let him pass, I found that he had paused halfway up and was giving my raftered green salon and the library beyond a curious glance. Being caught, he looked up at once and said: “So you are not afraid?” I supposed he was inspired by the fact that there were no signs of any preparations to evacuate.
I replied that I could not exactly say that, but that I had not been sufficiently afraid to run away and leave my house to be looted unless I had to.
“Well,” he said, with a pleasant laugh, “that is about as good an account of himself as many a brave soldier can give the night before his first battle “; and he passed me with a bow and I closed the door.
Half an hour later he came downstairs, all shaved and slicked up—in a white sweater, white tennis shoes, with a silk handkerchief about his neck, and a fatigue cap set rakishly on the side of his head, as if there were no such thing as hot weather or war, while his orderly went up and brought his equipment down to the terrace, and began such a beating, brushing, and cleaning of boots as you never saw.
At the library door he stopped, looked in, and said, “This is nice”; and before I could get together decent French enough to say that I was honored—or my house was—at his approval, he asked if he might be so indiscreet as to take the liberty of inviting some of his fellow officers to come into the garden and see the view. Naturally I replied that Monsieur le Chef-Major was at home and his comrades would be welcome to treat the garden as if it were theirs, and he made me another of his bows and marched away, to return in five minutes, accompanied by half a dozen officers and a priest. As they passed the window, where I still sat, they all bowed at me solemnly, and Chef-Major Weitzel stopped to ask if madame would be so good as to join them, and explain the country, which was new to them all.
Naturally madame did not wish to. I had not been out there since Saturday night—was it less than forty-eight hours before? But equally naturally I was ashamed to refuse. It would, I know, seem super-sentimental to them. So I reluctantly followed them out. They stood in a group about me—these men who had been in battles, come out safely, and were again advancing to the firing line as smilingly as one would go into a ballroom—while I pointed out the towns and answered their questions, and no one was calmer or more keenly interested than the Breton priest, in his long soutane with the red cross on his arm. All the time the cannon was booming in the northeast, but they paid no more attention to it than if it were a threshing-machine.
There was a young lieutenant in the group who finally noticed a sort of reluctance on my part-which I evidently had not been able to conceal—to looking off at the plain, which I own I had been surprised to find as lovely as ever. He taxed me with it, and I confessed, upon which he said:—
“That will pass. The day will come—Nature is so made, luckily—when you will look off there with pride, not pain, and be glad that you saw what may prove the turning of the tide in the noblest war ever fought for civilization.”
The chef-major turned to me—caught me looking in the other direction—to the west where deserted Esbly climbed the hill.
“May I be very indiscreet?” he asked.
I told him that he knew best.
“Well,” he said, “I want to know how it happens that you—a foreigner, and a woman—happen to be living in what looks like exile—all alone on the top of a hill—in war-time?”
I looked at him a moment—and—well, conditions like these make people friendly with one another at once. I was, you know, never very reticent, and in days like these even the ordinary reticences of ordinary times are swept away. So I answered frankly, as if these men were old friends, and not the acquaintances of an hour, that, as I was, as they could see, no longer young, very tired, and yet not weary with life, but more interested than my strength allowed. I had sought a pleasant retreat for my old age,—not too far from the City of my Love,—and that I had chosen this hilltop for the sake of the panorama spread out before me; that I had loved it every day more than the day before; and that exactly three months after I had sat down on this hilltop this awful war had marched to within sight of my gate, and banged its cannon and flung its deadly bombs right under my eyes.
Do you know, every mother’s son of them threw back his head—and laughed aloud. I was startled. I knew that I had shown unnecessary feeling—but I knew it too late. I made a dash for the house, but the lieutenant blocked the way. I could not make a scene. I never felt so like it in my life.
“Come back, come back,” he said. “We all apologize. It was a shame to laugh. But you are so vicious and so personal about it. After all, you know, the gods were kind to you—it did turn back—those waves of battle. You had better luck than Canute.”
“Besides,” said the chef-major, “you can always say that you had front row stage box.”
There was nothing to do to save my face but to laugh with them. And they were still laughing when they tramped across the road to dinner. I returned to the house rather mortified at having been led into such an unnecessary display of feeling, but I suppose I had been in need of some sort of an outlet.
After dinner they came back to the lawn to lie about smoking their cigarettes. I was sitting in the arbor. The battle had become a duel of heavy artillery, which they all found “magnificent,” these men who had been in such things.
Suddenly the chef-major leaped to his feet.
We all looked up. There it was, quite low, right over our heads. “A Taube!” he exclaimed, and before he had got the words out of his mouth, Crick-crack-crack snapped the musketry from the field behind us—the soldiers had seen it. The machine began to rise. I stood like a rock,—my feet glued to the ground,—while the regiment fired over my head. But it was sheer will power that kept me steady among these men who were treating it as if it were a Fourteenth of July show. I heard a ping.
“Touched,” said the officer as the Taube continued to rise. Another ping.
Still it rose, and we watched it sail off toward the hills at the southeast.
“Hit, but not hurt,” sighed the officer, dropping down on the grass again, with a sigh. “It is hard to bring them down at that height with rifles, but it can be done.”
“Perhaps the English battery will get it,” said I; “it is going right toward it.”
“If there is an English battery up there,” replied he, “that is probably what he is looking for. It is hardly likely to unmask for a Taube. I am sorry we missed it. You have seen something of the war. It is a pity you should not have seen it come down. It is a beautiful sight.”
I thought to myself that I preferred it should not come down in my garden. But I had no relish for being laughed at again, so I did not say it.
Soon after they all went to bed,—very early,—and silence fell on the hilltop. I took a look round before I went to bed. I had not seen Amelie since the regiment arrived. But she, who had done
everything to spare me inconvenience, had fourteen officers quartered in her place, and goodness knows how many horses, so she had little time to do for me.
The hillside was a picture I shall never forget. Everywhere men were sleeping in the open—their guns beside them. Fires, over which they had cooked, were smouldering; pickets everywhere. The moon shed a pale light and made long shadows. It was really very beautiful if one could have forgotten that to-morrow many of these men would be sleeping for good—”Life’s fitful dream” over.
This morning everything and everybody was astir early. It was another gloriously beautiful day. The birds were singing as if to split their throats. There was a smell of coffee all over the place. Men were hurrying up and down the hill, to and fro from the wash-house, bathing, washing out their shirts and stockings and hanging them on the bushes, rubbing down horses and douching them, cleaning saddles and accouterments. There is a lot of work to be done by an army besides fighting. It was all like a play, and every one was so cheerful.
The chef-major did not come down until his orderly called him, and when he did he looked as rosy and cheerful as a child, and announced that he had slept like one. Soon after he crossed the road for his coffee I heard the officers laughing and chatting as if it were a week-end house party.
When Amelie came to get my breakfast she looked a wreck—I saw one of her famous bilious attacks coming.
It was a little after eleven, while the chef-major was upstairs writing, that his orderly came with a paper and carried it up to him. He came down at once, made me one of his pretty bows at the door of the library, and holding out a scrap of paper said:—
“Well, madame, we are going to leave you. We advance at two.”
I asked him where he was going.
He glanced at the paper in his hand, and replied:—
“Our orders are to advance to Saint-Fiacre,—a little east of Meaux,— but before I go I am happy to relieve your mind on two points. The French cavalry has driven the Uhlans out—some of them were captured as far east as Bouleurs. And the English artillery has come down from the hill behind you and is crossing the Marne. We follow them. So you see you can sit here in your pretty library and read all these nice books in security, until the day comes—perhaps sooner than you dare hope—when you can look back to all these days, and perhaps be a little proud to have had a small part in it.” And off he went upstairs.
I sat perfectly still for a long time. Was it possible that it was only a week ago that I had heard the drum beat for the disarming of the Seine et Marne? Was there really going to come a day when all the beauty around me would not be a mockery? All at once it occurred to me that I had promised Captain Simpson to write and tell him how I had “come through.” Perhaps this was the time. I went to the foot of the stairs and called up to the chef-major. He came to the door and I explained, asking him if, we being without a post-office, he could get a letter through, and what kind of a letter I could write, as I knew the censorship was severe.
“My dear lady,” he replied, “go and write your letter,—write anything you like,—and when I come down I will take charge of it and guarantee that it shall go through, uncensored, no matter what it contains.”
So I wrote to tell Captain Simpson that all was well at Huiry,—that we had escaped, and were still grateful for all the trouble he had taken. When the officer came down I gave it to him, unsealed.
“Seal it, seal it,” he said, and when I had done so, he wrote, “Read and approved” on the envelope, and gave it to his orderly, and was ready to say “Good-bye.”
“Don’t look so serious about it,” he laughed, as we shook hands. “Some of us will get killed, but what of that? I wanted this war. I prayed for it. I should have been sad enough if I had died before it came. I have left a wife and children whom I adore, but I am ready to lay down my life cheerfully for the victory of which I am so sure. Cheer up. I think my hour has not yet come. I had three horses killed under me in Belgium. At Charleroi a bomb exploded in a staircase as I was coming down. I jumped—not a scratch to show. Things like that make a man feel immune—but Who knows?”
I did my best to smile, as I said, “I don’t wish you courage—you have that, but—good luck.”
“Thank you,” he replied, “you’ve had that”; and away he marched, and that was the last I saw of him.
I had a strange sensation about these men who had in so few days passed so rapidly in and out of my life, and in a moment seemed like old friends.
There was a bustle of preparation all about us. Such a harnessing of horses, such a rolling-up of half-dried shirts, but it was all orderly and systematic. Over it all hung a smell of soup-kettles—the preparations for the midday meal, and a buzz of many voices as the men sat about eating out of their tin dishes. I did wish I could see only the picturesque side of it.
It was two o’clock sharp when the regiment began to move. No bands played. No drum beat. They just marched, marched, marched along the road to Meaux, and silence fell again on the hillside.
Off to the northeast the cannon still boomed,—it is still booming now as I write, and it is after nine o’clock. There has been no sign of Amelie all day as I have sat here writing all this to you. I have tried to make it as clear a statement of facts as I could. I am afraid that I have been more disturbed in putting it down than I was in living it. Except on Saturday and Sunday I was always busy, a little useful, and that helped. I don’t know when I shall be able to get this off to you. But at least it is ready, and I shall take the first opportunity I get to cable to you, as I am afraid before this you have worried, unless your geography is faulty, and the American papers are as reticent as ours.