War Days in France
[1918 - 1919]
Marvin D. Cone
Written by candle-light at the front to help pass away the long evenings after the armistice - continued later in the delightful southland of France along the Mediterranean - and finally patched together during the lazy days on an army transport en route home, these pages record some of the things observed and felt during a ten-months sojourn in France…… Last revision might "smooth away" any hoped-for freshness or spontaneity, these tacked-together impressions remain practically as first written.
When one finds oneself amid surroundings which, in every direction, delight the eye, among which live interesting people to become acquainted with, and where one's tasks, to a large degree, are new and unusual, time does not seem to linger long in passing. Such was the quiet little town of St. Médard d'Eyrans in the valley of the Garonne. A slow dripping rain greeted the train when we arrived and it was raining when, nearly a month later we left, but in that period of time were some of the most perfect autumn days - October it was - that one could possibly wish for; days of warm sunshine and mellow color that succeeded each other all too quickly. We arrived in St. Médard tired and weary after two nights and nearly two days cramped in a French train - a train with a little sign, "40 HOMMES & CHEVAUX" stenciled thereon, with all the discomfort that this implies (All A.E.F. men will appreciate) - glad to detrain anyplace and at any time to stretch our legs and relieve the monotony. We left St. Médard reluctantly - but with unforgettable memories of invigorating autumn days, of new experiences, and of hospitable lovable people.
This little rambling red-roofed French village nestles quietly - apparently peacefully - among the fragrant woods and well-kept vineyards of southern France, not far south of Bordeaux along the beautiful valley of the Garonne. It is a very unassuming place. In fact, you might easily pass through it on the train without being aware of its existence, - it is so cosily tucked away among trees. As for its population, I doubt if St. Médard can boast of two hundred pair of wooden shoes. A distinctly rural little town, then, like hundreds of others in the vicinity of Bordeaux.
And like the town, its people are very unassuming and unpretentious - industrious and thrifty to a fault, whole-hearted, content with little and cheerful. Yes, cheerful in spite of "la merro." Nearly every home has, in one manner or another, felt it - sometimes a brother or son; more often a father or husband. They all know what it means to sacrifice - four long years of it. The children alone do not appreciate the tragedy. Born to be happy, they are fulfilling their birthright.
The village life moves easily. There is no rush nor commotion but plenty of time for everything. Perhaps life is not lived at its maximum here, and then again, perhaps it is - who shall define "maximum"?
One wonderful Sunday in October this little town wakes up to find a score of American soldiers in its midst. Things begin to hum immediately. They have not seen the Americans before, nor American money which makes its appearance as soon as the restaurant is discovered. Madame, the dumpy proprietress of the place, does a colossal business this first meal time. Omelette, beefsteak, and wine after two days of bully beef! Soon not an egg nor a piece of meat is left in the kitchen, but plenty is promised for the next day.
We are objects of curiosity. Our costumes, manners and speech interest the French and, in turn, theirs interest us. Everything is so different -------------- One's mind is flooded with impressions.
The Chateau d'Antin was half hidden by immense vine covered trees - horse chestnut, magnolia and pine. The lawn and splendid flower garden were overgrown - four years of neglect - "la guerre". Still, it was an impressive place with its mossy stone wall, its lodge at the big gateway, its old round tower and circular staircase, its sombre high ceilinged rooms, its hand carved walnut and mahogany furniture and its portraits. An ideal place for ghosts, it should, by all means, have been haunted. And I'm sure it was, although, during our occupancy, nothing unusual in the ghost line was reported. Every Chateau, to be worthy of the name, ought to have something of the sort prowling about.
She lived in the tiny stone house at the gate of the Chateau - this like-wise tiny but chubby French girl.
"Comment vous appelez-vous?", I had asked her thru the window, for the old village doctor had curiously decided that outdoor air was not suited to recovery from the "flu". "Je m'appelle Marie-Louise", she had replied with a smile.
"Et quel age avez-vous?"
"I have fourteen years, monsieur".
And so our friendship grew day by day - grew by the interchange of smiles through a window. I learned from her maiden aunt with whom she lived, that the mother of Marie-Louise was dead, and that her father, like every able-bodied man in France, was serving his country at the front lines.
"When can you come outside?" I asked her one day.
"Tomorrow - won't it be fine to get outside again? Since three weeks I am ill".
The next day was superb. The sky was clear, there was a slight breeze, but the air was warm; truly a glorious autumn day to be freed again!
I had hopes of seeing Marie-Louise on the doorstep but she was not there. Her aunt was sweeping the worn step with the familiar hand-made broom.
"And Marie-Louise" I enquired.
"Inside -" and tears came to her eyes. I peered through the doorway; there on the bed with a handkerchief at her face was Marie-Louise. I turned to the woman.
"What is the matter?"
"Her poor father -". She was unable to go on. Instead she handed me a notice - "Monsieur -…tombe glorieusement pour la patrie au champ d'honneur."
Truly, c'est la guerre!
What a merry little crowd they were - the children at St. Médard. There was the brilliant ragamuffin, Marie-Therese and stolid little Andre, who demonstrated his unlimited capacity for bread and gravy. At our gateway lived the quiet, unassuming Marie-Louise and Andrea, her good-natured cousin. And down the road, among the trees, was a real wood-sprite - Monique de Sèze - a little charmer from Paris whom everyone loved. I can see her yet coming up the roadway, running as fast as her trim little legs could carry her, her hair flying in the breeze…… And Paula lived across the railroad bridge at the hotel where we so often went for wine - poor little spindle-legged Paula, who needed more than any one thing the splendid out door air, but whose mother, for reasons unknown, kept her inside with her throat tied up. Were there boys? Indeed. A real live Pierrot lived at St Médard.- Pierrot Doget - a youngster who fitted admirably his whimsical name. Chestnuts seemed his main diet - many a one have I eaten from his pocket. I do not know of any Pierrette in St. Médard. But he will find her someplace, someday! (Pierrot always finds Pierrette).
Then there were Èugene, Bertrand, and Edouard de Sèze -- cousins of Monique -- rougish youths from Bordeaux, who liked nothing better than American cigarettes, which, they confided, were smoked at night in bed. (And to speak of girls again, their sixteen year old sister Anne was not to be sneezed at. I learned a deal of French from this black haired, laughing-eyed girl for she knew a few English words and wanted to learn more).
An unfailing interest in the biceps of American soldiers characterized the apprentice to the "forgéron" -- a likeable open-faced lad whose name I have forgotten.
And down at the railway station was Odette -- the coy young Miss who managed the news stand and sold yellow covered novels. Odette was in love with one of the soldiers, she told me, and wanted to go back to America with him! (Alas, we had to leave the town before the matter could be arranged).
There were others whose names I have unfortunately forgotten but whose faces still linger --. And still others whose acquaintance I would gladly have made had time permitted, -- delightful little wooden-shoed, bare-legged people. The soldiers were their idols. Sunday afternoons especially, they all seemed to gravitate to our Chateau where, along its graveled drive, they jumped rope, ate American candy, enjoyed rides on the shoulders and backs of husky Americans, and generally had the time of their lives…… When the train pulled out, they all turned up at the station to give us flowers and throw us kisses.
It was under the giant horse-chestnut tree back of the Chateau near the garden gate that they used to play on the golden carpet of big yellow leaves that fell each day. It was here that Marie Therese taught me the words to "Sur le pont de Nantes"; it was here that André's little nose first came into contact with the appetizing whiffs from our kitchen, whose influence got the better of him and soon made him our star boarder; and it was here that Monique whispered to me, on the quiet, that she didn't like the English because you know, "they burned Jeanne d'Arc". Happy days, these!
How they liked to promenade with the soldiers! Many a time have I gone out the chateau gateway with a happy youngster on my back and one on either side holding my hands and doing his best to keep step! But with wooden shoes, often many sizes too large, and with little legs, always many sizes too small, this was hard work. It seemed, though, to be worth the trying!
Monique lived in Paris. I was informed of that fact the first afternoon that I met her. She had been balancing herself along the top of an old lichen-covered stone wall and my first sight of her as I came along the sunny road was up among the branches of an overhanging fig-tree, where her scarlet coat among the green leaves instantly attracted my attention. But she dropped out of sight as I passed much as a squirrel would dodge behind a tree trunk. A sly backward glance showed me, as I expected, her pretty head peering over the top of the wall. I called her, she replied, I hastened back and our friendship started.
Her dress and general bearing placed her in the better class. Charming indeed, was the pretty oval head, graced with black hair, features almost too perfect, and exquisite skin. Indeed, she was more like a fine painting than a lively girl.
I could easily understand her French. Her father was an officer in the French Army but a prisoner now for the past two years. Could I get any tobacco for her to send to him? Perhaps, at any rate I would try. She and her mother were spending the season at St. Medard because the long range Bosche gun had frightened them. She was twelve years old but didn't go to school because she had a private teacher. She liked chocolates and Americans (Two words almost synonymous to the average French child). Would she come up to the Chateau to visit me? Perhaps, she didn't know. I gave her four or five lemon drops and her black eyes twinkled. Yes, she would some to see me at the Chateau.
"A quelle Heure, Monsieur?"
A fine October morning - and our detachment is marching along one of the little fascinating country roads; the kind that one finds everywhere in France, filled with surprises and always tempting you to go just a little farther "around the corner". We were singing as we marched -- singing that classic interrogative ditty, "Where do we go from here?" To tell the truth, no one was particularly anxious about going anyplace "from here" for southern France in her autumnal garb seemed like Paradise after our sixteen day tussle with the sea gods and our "recuperation" in British "rest" camps. But we were singing the song anyway -- just to be singing -- and the answer to it was not far off. Rounding a turn in the road, we were halted by a voice which floated down through a clump of pines from an old stone house set back from the road. A few words were interchanged. Where do we go from here? Column left up to the house and have a glass of wine! ….…Everybody enjoyed it - two glasses around - liberally spiced with talk and laughter. Then we toasted France and America, the allied armies and our gracious hostesses. Then with a score of "au revoirs" and "mercis" we marched off. And upon the autumnal air floated another familiar and appropriate air, "Oh we don't know where we're going, but we're on our way".
We noticed the two little French girls when they walked hand in hand into the church -- followed by their mother. All three were handsome -- the young woman showing perhaps a slight trace of Spanish blood. She was elegant in the simplicity of her black dress.
The impressive service over, we waited outside to see the children. Marcelle was five and the younger tot - Yvette - was three, so we learned from the mother who seemed truly pleased that we should stop to admire her children. Marcelle had straight black hair and a smile that was irresistible; Yvette possessed a head of brown curls, rosy cheeks, a most kissable little mouth and big eyes that opened wide when I lifted her on my shoulders. A perfect doll she was and I remarked this to the mother.
"Yes", she replied, with a noticeable tenderness of voice, "that was what her papa called her -- his big doll". And she opened her prayer book and showed us, pasted on the inside cover, the photograph of a grave marked with a wooden cross. "Three months ago" was all she could say.
"I should like to talk to that little girl", I remarked to the lieutenant with whom I was leisurely enjoying a Sunday afternoon stroll along the French countryside. We had been filling our pockets with big chestnuts, or "marrons" as the French call them and the above-mentioned young Miss had walked by with a smaller girl.
"Well, go ahead and talk to her," replied the lieutenant cracking a chestnut between his teeth. And so I about-faced and strolled back - not pretending to be following her and hoping to make the conversation appear to be quite casual.
"Bonjour, Mademoiselle", (very off-hand)
"Bonjour, Monsieur" (not a bit off-hand)
"Il fait beau, n'est-ce pas?" (More enthusiasm)
"Oui, Monsieur, c'est un beau jour".
And so we fell to talking. She was altogether charming; simply but effectively dressed in maroon; with brown hair which enhanced her oval face, and lovely brown eyes which caught mine immediately. - two quite adorable dimples made their appearance whenever she smiled -- which was often.
"Non, je ne comprends pas Anglais".
And so our conversation was perforce in French and I am sure that my impossible speech was responsible in large measure for the oft-appearing dimples. She explained that chestnuts should be boiled to make them good - No, we did not have big ones like that in America, but (quite like an American) we had buildings in America fifty stories high. I have been in France about three weeks - Bien entendu, I had studied a little in America - the English pronunciation is "très difficile" for the French -- ditto for the Americans - I live in Bordeaux - I come down here on Sundays to get away from the city - my train leaves tonight at six-ten.
"Au revoir, Monsieur".
"Au revoir, Mademoiselle".
Somehow or other (without ever thinking about it) I happened to be at the station that evening. The little dimpled Bordelaise was there with an immense bouquet of garden flowers…
We finally found a seat in one of the compartments - and after the funny little French train had disappeared in the darkness, I wandered slowly back to the chateau with a big yellow dahlia pinned on my blouse! And there I gradually returned to the prosy realities of existence which seemed horribly dull.
Our evening mess is over…meat, potatoes, gravy, bread, jam and coffee…and the time seems fit for a glass of wine. It is only a little way across the bridge and down the hill past the railroad station to the "Hotel Restaurant" of St. Médard … our rendez-vous. A wondrous blue-gray moon-light night…too bad that…….
A clattering bell, rung by the opening door, informs Madame R…that customers have entered her establishment. (Ten to one she knows by the amount of noise who it is). And while we are stumbling over chairs in the darkness, she enters, candle in hand. A medley of talk and an agreeable odour of frying beefsteak and onions enters with her.
"Bonsoir, messieurs", Thus she greets us and the candle is placed on the oil-cloth covered table where it casts enormous animated shadows on the bare white-washed walls.
"Bonsoir, Madame..." haltingly.
"Qu'est-ce qu'il faut, Messeurs" she politely asks with a smile.
"What'll you have Swede?"
"I'll be ---- if I know. Let's get something different - let's get something fine. I'm sick of this confounded vin blanc. Let's see - there's three of us - Now champagne - - - -.
"Say, Cocky, what d'you think this is - a millionaire's New Years party? For the love of Mike have a heart. None of us are millionaires even though we have just been paid, an' this aint New Years either, and if you call it a party, it's some party.
We argue thus for about five minutes during which time Madame rushes back twice into her inner dining room to care for the insistent needs of her regular diners - to return each time with the familiar,
"Qu'est-ce qu'il faut Messieurs?"
And finally, after due and deliberate discussion, during which the subject of "drinks" is viewed from all angles, the inevitable vin blanc, at one franc eighty per bottle, is ordered for three.
The good French family were expecting the American soldier to call that afternoon. Had he not told Jeanne that he would drop around after dinner? So, they were ready with little cakes, coffee and silverware that looked as if it had just been purchased - and SUGAR - the acme of hospitality and generosity.
There was a chorus of "Entrez"s when the knock sounded on the door, followed by handshaking with the whole family and the delight of drinking real steaming hot coffee. Then there were English exercises to be corrected and pronounced, for Jeanne had brought an English grammar and was doing her best to learn. Funny little kindergarten exercises they were - so simple and easy, yet so very difficult when the sounds meant nothing. Comme elles sont drôles - les langues……
Later, when we left St. Médard, this same soldier carried three big loaves of white bread to this same family. It was late at night and everyone was in bed. But Madame got up, came to the door with a lighted candle, and received the precious white loaves with a profusion of thanks adequate for the reception of three million dollars!
It takes the place of a daily newspaper - this haven for gossips - the town washing place. Here the women assemble to have the time of their lives talking and incidentally to do the family washing. Such a babble! Each seems to be trying to outdo her neighbor both in rapidity and loudness of speech, and all seem to be succeeding remarkably well. It is from this washing place that the news is spread regarding the impending departure of the American troops and the subsequent fall of the price of restaurant stock; it is here that the prospects of a bounteous grape crop are discussed - and on this question opinions differ, but all are agreed that the price of corks is excessive -. It is while rinsing the clothes that Madame Chauvet learns from Madame Laurant that Mademoiselle Dubois is becoming dissatisfied with the quiet country life (the same old age-long story) and intends going to Bordeaux to live with an old aunt. Astonishing! Why is she going and when, and what will she do in Bordeaux? What do her poor parents think? These are important questions and the discussion of them consumes an hour. The conversation then turns to the rumored marriage of the countess d'Antin who has lived as a sort of recluse in a nearby chateau for several years, but who now, according to Madame Chauvet, who got it from Madame Chappuy, is about to take a plunge into the matrimonial sea by marrying a rising young "avocat" in Paris! This choice morsel of gossip brings up the question of a probable place of residence of the couple and it is finally decided - definitely - that they will remain in Paris during the winter months and "summer" at the chateau in the woods. Voila.
While these ponderous questions are being solved, clothes are being washed. Or rather pounded to death. First they are soused in the slowly flowing water, then spread out on a stone slab and soaped, then scrubbed a little, and finally after being rolled up and pounded with a wooden paddle, they are turned over and pounded again. As if this were not enough the whole procedure is gone through with again!
All the while, the soapy water from Madame Chauvet's washing is running past Madame Laurant in a milky blue stream. But as she told me --
"Ça ne fait rien, Monsieur, c'est toujours comme ça".
The French barber shop is no exception to the rule - it functions as gossiping place for Frenchmen as it does in America for Americans. The French women have their washing place; American women their kensingtons and sewing bees, but the barber shop is one of the international clearing houses where scheming man exchanges his numerous ideas.
The barber shop at St. Médard was a unique and erratic institution. It opened its portal only occasionally for the relief of bearded humanity. There may have been a scheme of hours but I was never able to discover it. My friend, the barber - an ex-soldier minus a right eye - worked in Bordeaux part of the time and it appeared that when his task became a little irksome in that busy city, he came to St. Médard and unlocked his shop for business. The arrangement was not as casual as all this, but at any rate it had that appearance. A remark to that effect brought from the barber only a grin and a shrug of the shoulders for my satisfaction.
Monsieur L _____, the town carpenter, is being shaved when I arrive so I sit down and watch operations. The shaving itself is finished, but the barber does not wash the soap from your face - indeed not. You do that yourself, leaning over a large basin provided for the purpose. Then you stand up, stick out you chin, and Monsieur, the barber, goes all over your face with a sort of an arrangement which looks like an iron - a regular old-fashioned "sadiron" - except that it is alum. This ordeal over, close your eyes and your visage will be more or less wet down with perfume - penetrating stuff with a far-reaching odour.
"Voilá, Monsieur" says the barber.
"Merci, Monsieur" says the carpenter handing over a fifty centime piece. And the transaction is completed.
"Next" My turn now.
"A hair-cut, if you please. (I remembered this from my old French grammar.)
"Asseyez-vous, Monsieur" - motioning toward a common everyday chair. A towel goes around my neck - I plunge my arms into the sleeves of a large white coat that covers "everything" - he is going to commence. With a series of graduated clippers, Monsieur, the barber, proceeds without delay to diminish my crop of hair, and to his credit and my satisfaction he does a splendid job. In the glass I study him as he surveys me with his one eye - first from the right and then from the left. He is thin but graceful, with long agile fingers which wield the comb and scissors with the same precision that he would have used in aiming a rifle. His waxed black moustache interests me - it is truly a masterpiece - for whenever he talks (every barber must talk) it moves about in a remarkably animated fashion as if gifted itself with the power of mobility. The haircut over, my head is generously sprayed with the same odoriferous perfume, and then the barber spends about five minutes combing my hair to his satisfaction. It matters not a bit to me that a few unruly hairs persist in standing up instead of quietly lying in contact with my scalp, but to the artist - he was one in truth - the trifling matter assumed supreme importance, and finally in despair, he applies some sort of gluey stuff that does the business. This accomplished, he deftly brushes my eyebrows and moustache. Then, with a broad grin and a mysterious twinkle of his lone eye, he dismisses me. (Of course I handed him ten cents).
"Will you come to my house tomorrow? - Your officers I am inviting - Some new wine - just made - for you".
"Oui, Monsieur, we shall be glad to come. (naturally)
"At ten o'clock, perhaps?"
"We shall be there, Monsieur".
"Au revoir, Monsieur".
"Au revoir, Monsieur, et merci".
And he ambled off, his wooden shoes clacking on the hard road until a turn of the moss-covered stone wall hid him from view. He was an old soldier, this Monsieur ____, a veteran of 1870, with the soldier spirit still in his eye. He only wished he were younger, he told me. Nearly everyday we saw him sauntering by the chateau gate - to watch the American soldiers at work.
So the next morning - a wonderfully fine fall day - we presented ourselves at ten o'clock chez Monsieur ____. He greeted us most politely, and without further ceremony led the way through his big barn, passing an enormous purple stained press at the side of which was a large pile of grape-skins, which had seen better and far more juicy days.
We passed immediately into another part of the barn. Here the new wine was stored.
"Listen" said he, as he uncorked the top of one of the barrels. We applied our ears in turn. What a racket inside!
"It is still working, Messieurs. It is but five days old". And inserting a long glass tube into the barrel, he closed the top of it with his big thumb. We watched with interest. The tube was withdrawn and he let the cloudy liquid run into a tumbler. Ah! A finer drink was never invented than five day wine.
"Ah, but wait, Messieurs". And he went to another barrel. This is eight day wine. It is even better".
Each of us had a tumbler full of the older vintage, including Monsieur himself.
"It is a little risky to drink too much of it", he explained with quite a merry little twinkle in his deep-set eyes. And we agreed with him.
"If you will do me the honor to come around in four more days, you shall have more - when it is older".
And with profuse thanks we left him, after having enjoyed as fine a drink as was ever concocted for the regalement of the ancient gods on 'lympus.
Train time - and Monique is leaving this morning for Paris. - Along the garden's graveled paths, under the arbor, over the fence, down the embankment and across the tracks, I go. There she stands on the platform with her mother. Oh, what a handsome jolly little Miss she is. - Running with outstretched arms to meet me. Neat little shoes with bows, stockings that come about one third of the way to her knees, bare legs even though it is October, a short black dress that hangs from her shoulders, a bit of fur around her neck, a jaunty little sailor's cap, and underneath the cap her quantity of black hair and her lovely oval face - exquisitely fresh and naïve. (I wonder if you can see her - she is truly adorable).
The train arrived almost before I had time to wish them a pleasant and safe journey. I assisted Madame into a compartment and with a French kiss and then a regular American one, I lifted Monique into the compartment. And the train left.
The heart of the great French Capitol should beat a little faster to have this dainty little Parisienne back again.
The immense market place at Bordeaux near the Place d'Aquitaine is one of the sights of that interesting old city not to be overlooked. It is worth getting up early to see; in fact, one has to in order to study it "in all its glory" - by nine-thirty everything is "feenish"; the pavement is being cleared and swept clean, and empty push-carts and full purses are leaving. Visit it rain or shine - it is all under glass.
Here one can buy the finest vegetables in the world - all scrubbed clean and tied in neat bunches. The market women seem to vie with one another in the display of their produce; everything is arranged with a neatness and taste that one sometimes finds in American show windows. Such fine big creamy heads of cauliflower and immense firm heads of cabbage! And carrots, beets, celery, onions, turnips, parsnips, and squash - these are garnished so to speak by fresh green stuffs of all kinds for salad making.
The babble of voices reminded me of an old-fashioned church bazaar; everybody was talking at once and resultant hum was not at all unpleasing. Naturally the frugal French housewife wants the best bargains at the lowest prices and therefore competition is keen among the merchants. While you are inquiring the price of carrots at one stand, the woman at the next is informing you in a voice none too mild that her carrots are far better and lower priced. But all in good humor.
And at the tiny little shops surrounding the market-place one can buy all manner of food, from sea, land, and air; crabs, clams, lobsters, fish, oysters, snails, mushrooms, dressed sparrows, cheeses, figs, chestnuts, and garlic! Truly a formidable array.
Two P.M. and the fair is on in full swing. Situated as it is in the heart of Bordeaux, in the spacious Place des Quinconces, the attractions draw a cosmopolitan crowd. The French like to be amused; the fair affords a non-expensive form of popular amusement; so everybody turns out to enjoy it. Today is no exception - tout le monde is here. The uniforms of hundreds of allied soldiers make their wearers conspicuous; men from the hospitals and men on permission mingle with the jolly girls and the children, and altogether they sweep past the gaily-decorated booths where you can buy gingerbread pigs with your name written on while you wait - in lovely pink colored icing - and where, for a few sous or at most half a franc, you may try your skill at various games of chance - and lose inevitably. At this booth you roll balls; at the next you throw balls, and at the next you throw rings with bottles of wine for targets. (Although they are close together their elusive necks never catch the well-aimed rings). But you have been amused - you have chased away that "ennuyeux" feeling.
The crowd is jolly. Everyone is talking - everyone seems happy. Even women in heavy mourning with tiny children in their arms or tugging at their skirts, mingle in the crowd - trying to forget for a while. Above the din of voices float the none-too-harmonious strains from two merry-go-rounds - a symphony of sweet sound indeed! These riding devices draw large interested crowds. One whirling arrangement has chairs hanging from chains, which, when the machine is in motion, throw the riders far out into the air -- a sort of aerial swing that is just as much fun to watch as to ride. Recalling in vivid manner recent experiences near the rail of an ocean "liner", the writer passed up the next attraction - an "ocean-wave" affair, and spent some time watching a more stable riding arrangement where ponies, pigs, and swans carried children on their backs in a merry little whirl - delighting fond parents as well as the youngsters.
Yonder stands a trickster drawing a crowd by clever card manipulations. As soon as his crowd is big enough he explains in loud nasal voice the wonders to be seen within the tented arena (just like they do in America) and before the innocent spectators are aware of it, they are swept into the ticket window line! C'est toujours comme - all over the world.
So it goes. Out in the open "place" you can sit and watch the good-natured crowd as it jostles along. Here are the inevitable nurses - sometimes attractive - with the inevitable children - always attractive. The former flirt with passing soldiers; the latter roll hoops and throw balls. Both are having the time of their lives. Some of the boys are dressed as soldiers with tiny uniforms perfect in every detail. The girls, with their black hair hanging down their backs, their slim bare legs and neat shoes are always adorable. And if you can speak French they are charming to talk to. But it is much more fun rolling a hoop than talking to an American who speaks badly.
"Is it not so?" I question a little rosy-cheeked Miss.
"Oui, Monsieur", she naively admits, as she runs off in the sunlight.
The route to the Bordeaux railway station from the foot of the rue Esprit des Bois takes you along the bending river front with its heavy congested traffic both on street and river - and past some interesting places, provided you are on the lookout for them. Perchance you may see in front of one of the numerous dingy little restaurants a man and woman seated at a marble-topped table, contentedly making their meal from the pile of snails in front of them. They note that you are watching as they deftly dig out the snails with a tiny two-pronged fork and they look at each other and smile. "Ah, ces American". You are tempted to try a few snails yourself, but your pass says that the bearer must be back at St. Médard at eight o'clock!
And then there are little brasseries by the score - tiny neat places, where across a highly polished zinc bar, one may purchase cheaply an aperitif - vermouth perhaps, or chartreuse - and with it goes free a most engaging smile from Mademoiselle, the bar-maid.
Here are two men sitting outside on the walk - making the familiar shoes of rope and cloth which one sees so often for sale in the "epiceries". Next door is a wagon shop where the long narrow vehicles for carting wine barrels are made, and next to that is a long narrow ill-lighted room where well made kegs are made for well made wine - Bordeaux wine. Farther on, past a couple more brasseries, wooden shoes are being carved. One after another you pass these interesting little establishments and at every corner you are tempted to wander up the tiny narrow streets that lead off into the labyrinth of the old city - but time forbids. It is still quite a way to the train, but, provided you are interested in the life about you the big busy Midi station is reached before you are aware of the long walk.
"Quel train pour St. Médard, s'il vous plait?" I eagerly ask an individual attired in uniform other than the military. He paused and stroked his enormous moustaches."
"Le train pour St. Médard, Monsieur?" with an inquiring rise of voice.
"Oui, Monsieur, le train pour St. Médard".
"Le-bas, Monsieur, voila le train pour St. Médard."
Me for it. With a "mercí, Monsieur", down the staircase I go, through the subway under the first five tracks, up the steps and along the busy platform. The "compartments" of the train are very nearly full and it is only after opening a score of doors that I finally find a vacant place - at the far end, of course. I step over parcels and on toes, forcing a passageway between sixteen knees, and finally ease myself down into the seat. When, assuming an air of great unconcern, I gaze blankly around apparently uninterested in the interesting occupants. I am "ennuyeux" to all appearances.
A long series of high-pitched whistles indicate that the engineer is beginning to get ready to start his train - but fully five minutes elapses before the train moves. Still, to the engineer's credit, we start without the usual jerk that generally characterizes such a procedure in America. It was worth waiting for.
Although St. Médard is but a forty minute ride and I can very well pass the time observing my wedged-in companions, still, like a real American, I want the nine other people in the stuffy compartment to realize that their language is not altogether a sealed book to me. I watch my chance. Directly across is a young woman nursing a chubby baby. Beside the baby she has two bundles on her lap and one of them accommodatingly falls at my feet. I pick it up.
"Mercí, Monsieur" - with a smile.
"Il n'y a pas de quoi, Madame" (a very useful phrase that I remembered from school).
I am in for it now. There is a general craning of necks my way with a "for-goodness-sake" expression on the faces. The fat lady with the big basket on her sloping lap nudges the young girl beside her and they both look at me and smile.
"Ah, vous parlez francaís, Monsieur". This from the young woman with the baby.
"Only a little bit, Madame" And I follow this up with a remark about the red cheeks of the child.
"Son père est au front, Monsieur. He has never seen the baby. Next week he will be back on permission.-" And her face lighted up. (A happy home next week. May the father be spared to get there).
And now things start. I am asked a question by the gentleman at the other end of the seat followed by another from the mild-eyed woman in mourning who sits opposite him. One's brain has to work fast to keep up.
I have been in France but three weeks - Bien entendu, I had studied a little before coming - It is very difficult to learn to speak in America - I am stationed at St. Médard - at Bordeaux only for the day - yes, it is quite a city - No, I did not like the ocean - we were sixteen days coming across - we saw icebergs (Everyone opens his eyes at this information and the gentleman at my left, in undisguised amazement, takes his cigarette from his mouth and starts to adjust himself the better to view me, but being wedged in too tightly to make the turn he satisfies his curiosity by twisting his neck to an alarming extent) - we fired our guns at the icebergs - not our rifles - the ship's guns - yes, we hit them several times. (A still further twist of the neck - Barnum and Bailey take notice) We landed at Liverpool in England - at Le Havre in France - I do not know when we are going to the front - Yes, I like France "beaucoup" (Everyone smiles; they, too, like France) - - - - ………….. I think the war will be (the train stops - we are at St. Médard) over soon - (And I get off).
"Bonjour, Madame, you have a little burro here that I should like to rent." This is unusual information and the old woman whom I am addressing grins questioningly.
"You want to rent Nanette, Monsieur?"
"Nanette? No. A-A-A- who is Nanette?"
"La-bas, Monsieur -" pointing toward the pasture.
"Ah, I understand now - The burro's name is Nanette! Yes, I want to rent her - No, not to pull a cart or to ride - Monsieur, the general, wants her - just to have her around - he likes animals.
The old woman eyes me speculatively. She is perplexed, to say the least. And no wonder. But then, perhaps she does not understand.
"Me comprenez vous, Madame?"
"Oui, Monsieur, but I do not understand why Monsieur, the general wants Nanette if not to pull a cart or to ride".
I could not explain. The reasons were too subtle. In fact I was not sure myself. An American general renting a burro was rather an odd idea, when I came to think of it myself. But would she rent Nanette? That was the question. Well, perhaps. She would ask her son. He owned Nanette…….
A half hour later there might have been seen going down the little road through the woods a soldier tugging at a frayed rope and at the end of the rope a little gray, obstinate, stiff-legged, long-eared beast - Nanette!
She ate grass in the chateau's garden for three days and many a handful of sugar from the general's hand. Then suddenly we received orders to move. Nanette must be taken home. But alas! at this moment of moments, the meek little animal could not be found; someone had left the gate open; she had flown the coop in search of adventure - perhaps with a thirst for romance! At any rate she was gone and there was nothing to do but to go after her.
I had just make the turn in the road around the corner of the mossy wall when I met Monique. I told her what had happened.
"Can I go along?" - eagerly.
"Yes, if you like - but the grass is wet".
"Ca ne fait rien".
"Alright, come along".
She was delighted with the prospect of burro-hunting and wanted to know all about the escape, if I thought Nanette had gone far, etc. etc. (Children exercise their rights in France even if parents are more strict) We cut through a pebbly vineyard - following Nanette's hoof-marks in the soft ground - then across the pasture and along the edge of a woods. She was not a speedy animal - (far from it) - she could not have wandered far. Crossing another road, we walked along the border of a small marsh. Suddenly Monique gripped my hand.
And there, in the middle of the marsh, up to her knees in mud, was Nanette. No use in asking her politely to come out - one must go in and pull her out. Monique insisted that she go along.
"Mais, c'est impossible, Monique".
"Mais non, Monsieur, on your shoulders. (She had not forgotten Sunday afternoon rides at the chateau).
So up on my shoulders she went and into the mud and water we trod. The long ears of Nanette straightened and she decided that in her own interest it were best to beat it. But going was hard work and so, quite well-mannered, she let us walk up to her. After tugging for about ten minutes - for Nanette was loathe to quit this semi-marine existence - we finally gained the solid road and then it was but a matter of time and patience to land the little gray animal home. I turned her loose in her own pasture, paid the old lady who was over-joyed with both money and burro, and then, with an "au revoir, Madame and au revoir Nanette, you little devil", Monique and I strolled back to the chateau.
And after we had sung for the mayor's family and guests, the children - and grown-ups too - enjoyed the sight of their lives; a real live American Indian dancing for them - with blanket, moccasins, Indian music and "everything"! True, there were tapestries, mirrors, mahogany furniture, mellowed paintings and hardwood floors to take the place of forest and glade, but what difference, when a real Indian was dancing!
After the children had opened their eyes wide at the fire dance, wider at the squaw dance, and both eyes and mouth at the war dance, we were served with delicious white wine and dainty cakes by black attired servants, who, all the time, had been peeking through slightly opened doors.
The chateau de Montesquieu - just outside the little town of La Brede - is tucked away behind a grove of trees, yet around the chateau itself is plenty of open lawn to allow the old building as well as the fish in the moat to bask in the sunlight. In feudal times the castle could have been entirely isolated by water; today, permanent structures have replaced the old drawbridges, but the moat itself still remains and the walls of the building rise directly out of the water.
It is useless to attempt a description of the place: one must see it for himself. Suffice to say that it is somewhat circular in shape, that its walls are thick enough so that a room was hollowed out for a dressing room, that the arrangement of rooms is quite bewildering, that it has a watch-tower with a circular staircase just wide enough for one to squeeze through, built within the wall itself, that far below the water-line of the moat is a dungeon, that the chateau is lavishly furnished with exquisite hand-carved furniture and priceless Gobelin tapestries, that a stout red-faced butler greets you at the door - a butler who looks exactly like the still automatons that people our stage - and, last and most important, that charming countess - the owner of the chateau - lives there three months of the year with her two little children and an English governess. (A real live countess she is, too. Just fancy trying to talk French with a countess!)
The red stone floor, quite uneven from the wear of soldiers who in times past were quartered here to protect the chateau, has of late been polished until it shines brightly, reflecting the light from the large window at the end of the library. A huge but well proportioned fireplace with a door on each side of it fills the other end. The ceiling is vaulted and in the lunette above the hearth is an exceptionally unusual and beautiful decoration. Though painted directly on the plaster, it is still in good condition; its drawing is naïve but sincere and a knowing hand has used the colors. At one side is this significant quotation, beautifully lettered in French: "Your God above all things loves love, and you next, even as He loves himself".
Bookcases line the two side walls - filled bookcases. Many of the treasures are in manuscript with illuminations. (What a pity one cannot spend a day here.) Of course all the works of Montesquieu are on the shelves.
Down the center of the room are a series of flat showcases in which are displayed under excellent conditions rare books, illuminated manuscripts and bindings of fine and careful workmanship.
It is indeed a delightful place - this big well-lighted room. What a studio it would make!
"What did you call the swan?" I asked the countess as we leaned over the stone wall that surrounded the moat. She was throwing crusts of bread to the big snow white bird.
"Her name is Fanny. There were two others but we had to kill them."
Fanny appeared to be extremely avaricious and, by rapid manoeuvering in the sun-lighted water, she managed always to get the bread before the immense carp did. Their big yellow snouts would appear near the water's surface but their swishing tails were all that could be seen at the approach of the intrepid swan.
"You see" remarked the countess, "she is not afraid of the fish. Pas du tout".
Just then a small boy and girl - the Countess' two children - came running up to their mother who immediately put them to work distracting the swan's attention while she slipped a few bits of bread to the carp, unseen by Fanny's big black eyes.
"Most of the fish stay around by the kitchen window where they are fed", she explained…... Altogether we passed a delightful and never to be forgotten afternoon at the Chateau. After bidding our gracious hostess and her two children "au revoir", we made the circuit of the moat admiring the picturesqueness of the old building and exchanging a few sly remarks with the servant girls whose heads appeared at one of the upper windows.
And the snow white swan - long-necked, curious Fanny - followed us all the way around.
The train is leaving - I can see the handkerchief of Marie-Louise still waving from the bridge. St. Médard, where we have lived so pleasantly, is now but a memory. I shall dream of all the good times we have had. I am thinking now, thinking, think. - - - …. dreaming …… of our little jaunts to nearby villages along roads filled with surprises; of evening strolls by moonlight that generally ended with gay little lunches of wine, bread and cheese - eaten by candlelight; of whole evenings spent in song at the Chateau; of our afternoon at the Mayor's house with "chief" as the main attraction; of pleasant conversations with gentle folk; of visits to old Chateaux; of auto rides along excellent white roads; of Mademoiselle Marie - our "sontinelle" of the Chateau gate. I recall with particular pleasure the gracious and generous hostess of the Chateau de Montasquien, and I smile when I recall the obstreperous Monsieur Coyaux and how he spent a night under American guard.
The crowd is tremendous and increasing every minute. Even now, before darkness, the spacious, Place de la Republique of Le Mans will not accommodate the thousands of merry makers and they are overflowing down all the streets. The numerous cafes cannot hold the eager crowds - parades of singing soldiers cross the square in every direction - The "Marseillaise" and "Quand Madelon" that chic air of the marching poilus are heard on every hand - The flags of the allies fly from every window and the streets are filled with them. What a variety of soldiers! Light haired, Poles, black Africans, kilted Scots, Belgians, Italians and thousands of jubilant French and Americans! Confetti is in the air; sky rockets make the night gay and song and wine make hearts gayer; the crowds are mad with joy - delirious joy! The Armistice has been signed!
It is impossible to speak of the countryside of France without at least mentioning the numerous crosses or shrines, which are scattered along the highways from Le Havre to Bordeaux, to Langres, to Toul -- wherever you go; in the southland where the roar of battle never reached and in the zone of army operations where many still stand bearing the marks of the conflict. You may pass one as your auto comes up over the hilltop or again in the valley as the road turns at the clump of pine trees; they line the great national highways and add interest to the less-traveled by-roads; they are everywhere over France.
Nearly always of stone, the passing years have beautifully discolored these shrines and moss and lichens generally overgrow the pedestals. Sometimes the stone crucifix is crudely carved; sometimes the modeling is excellent and in some instances the hanging figure is of bronze. As a rule, the dates and lettered words on the pedestals are barely legible but often one can decipher the admonition: "Think, you who pass, of this cross".
One is continually running across unusual sights in France; that is, they seem unusual to Americans. For instance, on our auto ride from Le Mans to Langres we saw on numerous occasions an old man and woman sitting at the side of the road busily engaged with a hammer and rocks! A human crushing machine! All day long they break up stones which will be used for road-repair work. At regular intervals, along the roads all over France, one sees piles of this broken rock. As soon as a rut appears in the road, the hole will be excavated to a certain depth, much as a dentist opens up a cavity, and then filled with rock. This is wet down and tamped and then finished off with powdered rock so that you can scarcely tell where the repair has been made. Thus the highways are maintained in their excellent condition. Perhaps it seems a very painful and slow process of road building but where will you find better roads than in France?
Every hundred metres of roadway is designated by a marker and stone "mile-posts" mark every kilometre. These facilitate travel by giving the distances to the nearest towns. And at all intersections are bronze tablets on which arrows indicate directions to other cities together with distances. Excuse for getting lost is reduced to the minimum.
Since all four-wheeled carts are taxed, the two-wheeled variety is the form constantly met with. The horses are hitched one in front of the other - often as many as four - with the "driver" walking at the side of the lead horse.
A heavily laden cart drawn by white oxen is another picturesque sight that often adds more interest to the already interesting French road. And to have fresh goat's milk, direct from producer to consumer, is a luxury denied us in America. Yet in France, Madame the "milkman" drives around her little herd of goats, and, while you wait, milks as much as you wish to buy.
And in the small villages, the butcher and his wagon make their appearance every so often. The far-reaching sound of his little nickel horn brings the women from all directions to his cart where a deal of gossiping goes on while purchases are being made. The dry goods store on wheels also visits the villages. No need to travel to Paris for your shopping! The sides of this marvelous vehicle drop down and reveal an array of articles from collar buttons to red and blue striped handkerchiefs and from pins to inner soles! La rue de Rivoli at your door!
Nature abhorring the straight line, must take pride and delight in the little rambling red-roofed French villages whose streets, now narrow and now wide continually turn and wind themselves into a sort of maze. The houses, all of stone and cement, front directly on the streets. Even they are often far from being straight but lean on each other in a most intimate and friendly fashion. Being built one against the other, with no intervening space, the American necessity of "cutting the side lawn" is entirely done away with, but much delight is withheld from the rooms at the same time. Of course there are delightful exceptions every little while where few trees leaning over a mossy tile topped wall tempt one to investigate the cozy little garden inside. Likewise, there are no front yards and the street serves as sidewalk, one step from which ushers you into the living room.
Now and then on these old cracked houses quaint little iron balconies will open from a second story doorway and very often one sees out-door stone staircases, so worn by the tread of generations that to mount would be difficult. And in tiny unexpected niches sunk into the stone walls stands the Madonna and Child. Whether intentional or not, the doors and shuttered windows of French houses are generally placed with a nice sense of spacing and variety. And age has mellowed the stone and cement with the passing years and in the mellowing process, a deal of pigment has been generously mixed so that many walls are truly wonderful bits of color harmony. Their interpretation in paint might result in a series of portraits - portraits of walls - for they have much individuality and character.
Built on an extremely high and commanding plateau, the walled city of Langres overlooks the broad valley of the Marne - offering an extensive and delightful panorama. A leisurely walk around the walls of the town occupies about forty minutes and it requires no great stretch of the imagination to fancy oneself in an aeroplane - so high is the city built and so vast the extent of the view. Little towns lie here and there; long snakey white roads disappear toward the horizon in every direction and off to the east a large reservoir of water adds interest to the picture. On clear days one can see Mont Blanc in Switzerland which is "going some".
Langres is an extremely old city. It is known to have existed as far back as Celtic times when it was called Andomantunum - later, it was called Lingones. The people of the town were the first Gallic people to take the Romans' part when Gaul was invaded. The city has grown and spread itself outside the walls on the slopes and at the foot of the plateau, but the old town inside the walls is a perfect maze of tortuous streets lines by houses, every one of which is built on the site or ruin of something else that was destroyed ages ago by somebody.- It is evident that Langres is reeking with age.
The museum brings it forceably to your mind - for here are collected the countless Roman relics that have been found in and around Langres. Especially noticeable are the mosaic pavements, remarkably complete, which but hint at the magnificence that at one time must have crowned the hill. A large part of the statues and inscriptions were found in the excavations for the citadel outside the town, but the keeper of the museum informed me that every time a foundation is dug fresh discoveries are brought to light. Who wouldn't like to help dig a cellar when each spade full of earth might uncover a marble Venus!
At first a map of the town is a necessity in order to get anyplace without getting hopelessly bewildered enroute. But soon one can dispense with this and venture forth unguided. The resultant thrill of self-satisfaction if you find your way to the objective and back again, is well worth the risk. In fact, Langres is just like a big Katzenjammer castle! It is not uncommon to walk up one little narrow street, turn around and take your bearings, and then be willing to bet a brick watch against a ten-cent bill that you did not come up that street at all.
"Well, how did you get here then? What street did you come up?"
"I dunno, Bill, but I'm here 'aint I? - I don't know how I got here, but it wasn't by that street. I never saw that one before - it must 'a come up over night. Well for the love o' Mike, if there isn't old Diderot! I thought I was in the other end of town".
Diderot or "Diddy" - as he was familiarly called - seemed to be the north star for Americans - the point of departure for all excursions into the labyrinth. His statue stands in a little open space called Place Diderot. This was at the end of the "main drag", and everybody was acquainted with the old bronze philosopher - who, by the way, was born at Langres.
Five kilometers south of the town, near the source of the Marne, is a cave where Sabinus (whoever he was) is supposed to have lived for three years with his "femme" Epinine. I visited the grotto. The tourists club of France have placed a tablet near the cave entrance, so the story must be true. But if the unfortunate couple lived in that spacious (?) cave, Sabinus must have often remarked, "Epi, my dear, this is the life"!
However, it is a very fine little story and easily swallowed until you have seen the place.
The annual sale of little pigs was in process. It needed neither trumpet nor brass band to announce it. Fully half the city of Langres must have heard this symphony of squeals furnished gratis by hundreds of pink and white pigs. But no one seemed to mind it. -The French took it as a matter of course. Only the Americans stopped to wonder; this was different at least - yes, it was truly overwhelming - this colossal volume of pig squeals. And all because the said little pink pigs did not exactly approve the idea of being exhibited. It was cold, you know, this brisk November morning, and the baby pigs, quite "nude", were content to keep warm in their cosy straw filled crates. But when Monsieur wanted to demonstrate the merits of a particular animal to a prospective customer, the little beast objected vehemently at being held up by a hind leg and dragged about with his lovely pink nose scraping the cold hard pavement. And so he would kick with all his might and his lusty young voice would rise toward heaven with all the ardour, pathos, and volume that he could put into it. This was but one squeal; multiply it by hundred or more and an idea of its appealing power may be gained.
Sales were taking place. American soldiers with an eye on approaching Thanksgiving, bought a truck "full of 'em", taking the entire stock of two sellers, much to the delight of these good people who smiled as they took the bills from the grinning doughboys.
Some unfortunate pigs, however, did not enjoy the luxury of being carted off in an auto. One buyer, after a very fastidious selection, chucked his squealing prize into a grain sack, slung it over his shoulder and rode off on a bicycle! Judged by the antics of the sack, this particular pig was not pleased in the least with this particular method of transportation…… Things were too animated to sketch. It was the place for a man with a moving picture camera, not a pencil.
On the way to the front…
We must be in another country? No, this is still France ---- this is war-torn France, robbed of everything save her indomitable spirit, more sublime now than ever before - - - - war-torn but victorious France.
The auto goes on - the road is new and uneven - hurriedly built during an advance by American engineers across no-man's land. It is just light enough to make out water-filled craters on either side, and every now and then the auto head-light illumines a cross at the roadside. We are riding through solemn places - the liberty of the world was purchased here!
A foggy misty day - the soupy yellow mud in the streets of [Meudincourt?] is two inches thick, and six inches at the side of the road. Still, if one would walk at all, the street must be the promenade for the debris of wrecked buildings is piled on both sides. A passing truck or an auto has somewhat the appearance of a sprinkling cart, spattering mud and water right and left. But it is better to be outdoors under these conditions, even though it is raining, for a non-agreeable odor of moldiness pervades the billets - rooms that in some miraculous manner have escaped the big shells - deserted to all appearance but still peopled generously with inhabitants other than man!
At noon time we get our mess tins and cups and slop along down toward the kitchen where, already, long line of hungry soldiers is standing in the mud, patiently waiting for mess. Slowly the line moves along and at length we get our tins full to the brim of beef, potatoes, gravy, bread and jam.
"Where'll we eat today?"
"There's a window ledge over there that's empty - beat it".
And with coffee and gravy spilling over our hands we squish-squash across the street to the window ledge. Just for spite, the mist decides to become a regular rain which blows through the empty window in a lively fashion. A big gulp of hot coffee makes one feel pretty "Fair", so we wade into the dinner, though not in the same fashion that we waded across the street. Somehow or other, the late November wind lacks "gentleness and warmth" and it is necessary therefore, to eat with one hand while the other is recuperating in a coat pocket!
"Do ya remember a year ago today?"
"Oh Boy - do I? Thanksgiving day at Cody was nothin' like this!"
Poor little village of Pannes! What devastation and wreckage "God's Chosen Army" left in its track. "Kultur" is written on the face of things; it proclaims itself in every tottering wall and wrecked roof and blackened broken hearth; it shouts through the gaping shell holes in the little church; every fallen stone is evidence of it; and it reaches your nostrils in the stench from soggy, mouldy, decaying things. Yes, "Kultur" passed this way - coming and going.
I am walking down the muddy street (the Rue Freedom, so a big American sign says). It goes without saying that rain is falling. That is a chronic condition of the weather here. On either side of the cleared road are masses of piled up debris and out of this wreckage and rubbish rise broken walls which now and then support a tottering roof. Stripped of everything of value, the skeletons of houses stand in mute but awful testimony to the passing of the Hun. Everything is dripping, soggy and foul smelling. A couple of owls perched on a roof beam and silhouetted against the fading sky complete, the picture of desolation and destruction. No, it is not complete yet. As I cross the repaired bridge by the washhouse I meet four people who add the final and most poignant touch to the tragedy; an old man, a young woman with determined face and two small girls. They are weary - they carry all their possessions - they are coming back - home!
The thick gummy clay makes progress across no-man's land slow and laborious. It was up this barren slope that the Americans charged not long ago. The ground is pitted like the moon's surface. Some of the craters are small - some are large enough to accommodate an automobile. Generally they are filled with water and around the edges are rusty jagged pieces of exploded shell which tell the tale of a past Inferno. The war's aftermath is scattered everywhere; there are bits of clothing - a blouse, a sock, a shell-torn blanket -; yonder an entrenching shovel and haversack; farther up the hill a rifle and bayonet.
At the side of this caved-in water-filled dugout is an American blouse - blood besmeared - and nearby are a rusting mess-tin and condiment can. Some soldier helped to pay here.
A few steps farther is the first line of German barbed-wire entanglements - a fifteen foot depth of well constructed mesh that zig-zags across the hills as far as the eye can reach. Long nasty barbs they are - devised for war alone. A passage has been made through the wire - perhaps cut in the night by a patrol who risked their lives to facilitate the charge at dawn. Dangerous business, this. It is all over now, and one stands in perfect safety where a few weeks ago machine gun bullets were flying in a stream. But the desolation and barrenness of the country speaks insistently of the four years tragedy.
A thin gray mist is falling. One can hardly make out the ragged walls and wrecked church of Pannes. Surely this is a dreary place. As I pick my way with mud-laden feet toward our billets a crow flies over with his familiar cry. I shall be glad to get back into my little smoke-filled room where I shall sit and think.
FROM A LETTER HOME
"It is dark outside and raining "to beat the Dutch". I've just finished mess, my little Bosche stove is smoking on account of damp wood. The mice are having a race between the heavy wallpaper and the rafters and my numerous flea-bites are itching - - - - - -. So the time seems fit for writing a letter. At any rate I'll start one and if I don't finish it tonight I will tomorrow night under the same conditions. It always rains, I always eat, the stove nearly always smokes, the mice are ever present and if the old flea bites don't itch, I always manage to get a few new ones that do."
Pannes, Dec. 12 - A letter from Jeanne tells me that she received the German helmet that I sent her and that she is going to hang it up in her room with little French and American flags draped over it! She is "bien contente" now.
Pannes, December 19th, 1918.
A heavy and insistent rainfall all the night has made of the creek at our front door a young river of yellow water, which is now racing along within a foot of the flooring of our bridge. And the road between us and the creek, which has been deep with mud for no telling how long, is now washed clear of the sticky stuff - it has all run into the river! Let's hope for down pours after this in place of the continuous drizzle.
Today, dark low-hanging clouds are being chased along by a gusty wind and every hour or two we are favored by a watery gift from above. How wonderful one of Camp Cody's brilliant days would seem now!
Rain has been falling all day and is still on the job, aided now by a brisk and penetrating wind. Besides, it is dark - very dark - and we are wet, tired and hungry as we come squishing down the uneven rocky road, slippery with deep yellow mud and pitted with water-filled holes which are astonishingly easy to step into in the darkness. On occasions like this, one is plagued by Elysian thoughts of home with a big steaming dinner on the table, a comfortable fire on the hearth and a soft couch to lie on and read - - - - enough of this. One cannot keep warm by theorizing about it; a fire does the job much better. But the coal is damp, the wood is damp, the paper is damp and the chimney won't draw. Consequently, in conformity to all natural laws, the fire does not seem inclined to burn. But it makes a grand smoke, anyway, and in this smokey comfort, by the light of a sputtering candle which every now and then threatens to die, we eat our mess: bully beef stew, bread, jam, and coffee. And it tastes wonderful!
Over the crest of the hill back of our row of flea-infested billets - which the French said were built by the Germans for the Americans - was a dump. Now there are dumps and dumps: ammunition, ration, forage, ordnance, Q.M. etc. This particular dump was an etc. dump: the conglomerate refuse gathered from the muddy battlefields. Its chief ingredients were: blouses, rifles, bayonets, breeches, helmets, old rags, letters, mess-tins, entrenching tools, condiment cans, boots, canteens, bibles, note-books, caps, haversacks, ammunition of all sizes, broken machine-guns, cartridge belts, hatchets, grenades, blankets, newspapers, shelter halves, leggins, rain-coats, socks, hard tack (no longer hard) shoes and harness! There were three varieties of all this stuff: German, French, American. It had all been rained on for weeks until its soggy condition had reached perfection and it had accumulated a good coating of mold. Truly it was a rare place to go souvenir hunting.
It still remains an impressive and glorious thing, even in its wreckage: this church or little cathedral at Pannes. Its shell-torn walls and part of its tower still stand and from its commanding position, the ruin still dominates, the countryside - it still is eloquent.
Huge fallen stones and broken statues block the doorway and make entrance difficult. Part of the nave has been cleared of debris revealing the old stone pavement - well worn by worshippers. All the altar paraphernalia is gone (Our troops found it boxed for shipment into Germany) and the heads of all the statues are broken off - all except one which is startling in its tragic impressiveness: the infant Christ still looks out over the damp cold church. He smiles, but sees only wanton ruin and hears only the chatter of sparrows flying through the gaping shell-holes!
And "GOTT MIT UNS" was their cry.
What a mute tribute to the Hun - the ruins of the village of Maizerais. I can see it in the summer of 1914, a picturesque little French town, typical of hundreds scattered all over that rolling country, the home of frugal contented folk at whose warm hearths you would have been welcomed and whose hearts you would have found kindly. But what a sight - what a pitifully tragic sight - it is on the last day of 1918. Utterly destroyed by shell-fire in the early months of the war it has stood or rather lain in ruin for nearly four long years. Nature has done her best to heal the scar but grass and weeds cannot fill up giant shell craters nor grow on immense heaps of fallen stone. A few jagged walls still stand - like stage settings - against the stormy sky, and on every side is wreckage - stone, tile, twisted barbed-wire and MUD. Ah! KULTUR KULTUR!
We were moving - leaving Pannes. One wagon was already loaded and two big Liberty trucks were waiting for the second wagon to pull into line. Jake - the imperturbable Jake - held the destiny of this two teamed "ship of state" in his hands.
"Geddap - - - - - - geddap - - - - -! Somehow or other, in a fashion wholly unaccountable something happened! Something went decidedly wrong. Whatever it was, it had an extraordinary invigorating effect on the right horse of the lead team; for without further ado and with no apparent effort, he proceeded to step up a four foot wall, turn around, and back into the Captain's office - fortunately dismantled!
"Gosh, what a wonderful stall this will make", thought he with a horse laugh as he blinked around at the magazine pictures of pretty American girls pasted on the walls.
But G.H.Q. had sent orders to move - and they had to be obeyed despite the whims and day dreams of horses. So, with "words", Jake got his horse from this stall "de luxe" and with a few more "choice sentiments" hitched him again to the wagon, frustrating for the present, at least, this animal's aristocratic ambition. Then we moved.
Jouey Les Cotes, January 6, 1919.
Our division is on the move; a battalion of troops is "occupying" the town; we are billeted here for the night. In theatrical parlance, this is a one-night stand. The soldiers are loafing about the streets waiting for mess - in fact, the streets are crowded with men, khaki-clad, tired but glad in a superlative degree to be rid of back-breaking packs.
A drum is beating! And all eyes turn toward the noise. There he is - right over there in front of the epicerie - a Frenchman of about sixty years with a leathern face adorned with moustaches almost long enough to have been tied around his neck! Had they been thus disposed of, there would be no necessity for his speckled green muffler which is wound round and round his neck like a mummy wrapping. His bushy eyebrows are just visible under the visor of his cap. You might call him a "specimen", to say the least, and, busily engaged as he is, beating the daylights out of his big drum, he is well worth looking at and wondering about.
The noise brings all the "natives" to the doors and windows and a crowd of doughboys gathers about him; whereupon he ceases inflicting punishment on the drum-head and draws from his pocket a paper which he reads at the top of his voice - in perfectly good unintelligible French. This is the soldier's chance. Scarcely has the last word left his tongue before three rousing, "HOORAYS" go up from the crowd of grinning soldiers along with "You tell 'em brother, I'm too mad".
Everybody laughs but the town-crier himself who moves up the street with an "I don't know what you would call it" expression on his face and the cheering is repeated every hundred paces or so as he stops to beat his drum or give his little speech.
But whether he is reading the weather forecast, giving the quotations from the stock exchange, or commenting on the Chinese immigration to Venezuela, no one knows! And none of the soldiers seem to care. Mess is ready!
January 7, 1919 Ourches.
We made a house-to-house canvas - buying one egg here, another there, until eight had been collected. Then with these precious fragile possessions, the four of us returned to Madame - who had promised to cook them for us. We sat around the low beam-ceilinged room that at meal time served as kitchen and dining room - at night as bed-room, and all other times as living room and watched Madame at work near the big fire-place. When the eggs and French fried potatoes were ready, we sat about the table and "pitched in". Big bowls of fresh unskimmed milk and bowl[s] of chopped lettuce salad completed the meal along with the bread and jam which we had brought with us.
"C'est tres bon, Madame".
She stood at the end of the table - this short and dumpty good-natured French woman - and watched the Americans eat. (Marveling, inwardly, I know, at our speed and capacity).
Another bowl of milk around and a second bunch of French fries were necessary. While these were forthcoming, I talked a little with the old whiskered man who had been sitting silently by a window. He was seventy-two, he told me, and the arduous career of war-refugee did not exactly suit him. He was glad that the fighting was over but he did not know whether he would go back to St. Mihiel or not. He was too old to begin all over again.
In the midst of our conversation he got up from his chair, shuffled over to the hearth, removed his shoes, and shoveled a few hot coals into each! After shaking them around and out, he put his feet back into the warm shoes. (One learns something new every day.)
The second round of potatoes and milk disappeared like the first. Then we settled for the meal and left, after thanking Madame for her kindness. She will not soon forget us, I am sure.
A slow hard pull along a wooded hill-road which in places nearly got the best of our big, heavily-loaded Liberty truck, and then a coast down a long grade brought us again into the flat flooded valley of the river Meuse through which we had been traveling all morning - sometimes along a road covered by one foot of water! It is time we were hitting a town (they bob up so unexpectedly) for it has been fully ten minutes since we rolled through the last one. Sure enough, here is Tailloncourt and just south of it the imposing towers of the chateau of Montbras which is to be our headquarters. Enfin, a real chateau again.
How can I attempt to describe in a paragraph or two this old castle to which a Paris publication devotes 175 pages? Still you must get some kind of an idea of it, you must know that it was once a quadrangle with four towers, that the right wing is entirely gone but a part of the left remains, that the four towers still stand but two of them have "submitted to changes", that the moat which once guarded the western facade is now partially filled up and dry, and that the draw-bridge has been replaced by a permanent structure. But still you have no idea of the building itself nor how very impressive it is to an American accustomed to "paint and trimmings".
The western facade of the chateau makes use of the three ancient orders:-- Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. The pilasters of the ground floor are Ionic, of the second floor Corinthian and it is only a surmise that the third story was Doric, since but very little remains. The whole facade is pierced by windows which are separated by niches. Four statues, representing the Goddesses of Olympia, occupy the niches of the ground floor. (Two of these graceful ladies have "lost their heads completely" ? probably worrying over some fickle god). The statues of the second story, of which two remain, symbolize the Christian virtues. Marble plaques, which were above each statue and on which the name was carved have all disappeared. The sculptor is unknown, altho a certain Paris publication says that he was probably one of the Drouin brothers ? a family of Lorraine artists ? and that the work was done about the year 1612. The columns, the carved friezes and the stone ornamentation of the niches are executed with a deal of skill and taste and "offer a rare specimen of the decorative style of the renaissance in Lorraine." Very little remains of the carved coats of arms which completed the façade's ornamentation. They were broken and very nearly obliterated at the time of the Revolution.
The Chateau's eastern facade is interesting not only on account of the overhanging third story which allowed burning oil and molten lead to be dropped upon invaders, but especially on account of a remarkable series of ornamental stone carvings. The sculptor's fantasy was evidentially given free rein in this work and the "grimaces" which resulted are truly a delight and a never ending source of amusement. No two of the eighty-three which remain are alike. The faces look strikingly human even tho the features are generally "impossibly" exaggerated. I wonder if the clever sculptor did not, just for the fun of it, take the people of his own village as models, retaining only their most significant features, and then add a bit of bizarre decoration! Stupidity, hilarity, incredulity, sorrow, bitterness, melancholia ? in fact all the mental states which the human face so unmistakably reflects, are portrayed in this series of remarkably fantastic decorative caricatures. Perhaps some fortunate museum may get them some day ? at least, casts should be made and placed where they will be readily accessible to public view.
With a great handful of labeled keys, the keeper of the chateau led us from room to room, locking doors behind us and unlocking doors ahead. (I wondered how he would work the combination should he lose one of the keys!) We went silently along hallways, stopping now and then to admire the old paintings, ? through elegantly furnished rooms - up a dark winding staircase to the attic where we were shown the apertures through which molten lead burning pitch, boiling oil and other "things" calculated to discourage soldiers could be dropped upon invaders - then down again through the impressive living room and the stately Salle-a-manger with its vaulted ceiling and its priceless furniture - into the bedroom where we marveled at the massive hand-carved mahogany bed - on into the "chambre de Claude", one precious little bit of the original building - through the beautiful chapel with its genuine relics and into the balconied library where thousands of books rested without readers. And then down a hallway and outside into the open air.
"Voilà, Messieurs" - (that was the end - we had "seen" the chateau).
To make things worse, [we] were informed that there were as many rock-hewn rooms in the basement as there were rooms in the chateau proper and that far down underneath was a sort of dungeon where prisoners were left to die. (BUT, the key was lost - confound such luck).
The trip was altogether too short. I must go through again when I can linger along the way. Perhaps a sack of American tobacco slipped into the keeper's hand will do the trick.
Jan. 10 '19. A letter today with a Paris postmark on it - from Monique! She wishes me a happy New Year and hopes I had a Merry Xmas on the battlefields. The photograph of herself which I asked for is enclosed with the comment that if it does not please me she will send another! And she gives me this useful hint that if I am unable to locate her when I come to Paris, it will only be necessary to ask a policeman! The letter closes with a kiss. (Ah - Monique, wait till I come to Paris).
Sunday January 12 - Tailloncourt.
This is a day of days! Besides letters from America which are welcome "toujours", four others came from France - from Bordeaux. Two are from the de Seze boys, Eugene and Bertrand, and two from Jeanne - the little girl that I met under the chestnut tree! Eugene tells me that he still has "un peu" of the tobacco that I gave him at St. Médard and Bertrand says that he knows now the meaning of the letters M.P. on the arms of the military police - they mean "Mademoiselle Promenade"! He also tells me that Monique's father has arrived safely home after being prisoner of war in Germany for two years. Surly theirs is a happy home now.
Jan. 16- '19. A clear day at last! One's spirits go up a hundred per cent at sight of the sunshine. If only a camera were handy to get some snap-shots of the chateau and its surroundings. AH, the sketch-book! I had almost forgotten that I had it in my pack. And so, armed with a pencil (and raincoat) I stroll around and at length jot down in black and white my impression of how an old weather-beaten gateway and flight of worn stone steps appear in the sunshine.
In the moonlight of a wondrous January night the stately chateau of Montbras stands in awful solitude and impressive loneliness - amid the fragrant pines on the heights above the Meuse River. No footsteps, save occasionally those of the keeper, resound in its long hallways: its magnificent vaulted rooms are cheered by no fires; its spacious graveled terrace which affords such an inspiring view across the valley of the Meuse, is bare and deserted. It must live wholly in the varied memories of the past - this battle-scarred castle - when comfortable fires made cosy hearths and the play and laughter of children enlivened the halls - and when intrigue, love, and death schemed together.
What a night this would be for the generations gone to pass in review along the moon-bathed terrace! What a company we would see! And what stories they could tell - if they would! Perhaps we could discover the whereabouts of the lost key which unlocks the deep rock-hewn dungeon underneath the chateau.
The place remains a wonderful bit of Renaissance architecture. Its comparatively recent interior is elegantly furnished. It lacks but one thing - Life.
A feeble fire of twigs is slowly burning in the immense blackened fireplace. Over the fire, suspended from a hook, is hanging a little iron pot from which is rising the steam from a simmering soup. This, with a bit of gray bread, is to be the meal of the wrinkled old lady who is sitting with folded hands on a little low straight-backed chair by the hearth. Every now and then she rises slowly, places a few more sticks on the fire, encourages the flames with a small bellows, and with a few mumbled words resumes her seat. She is patiently waiting - waiting for the soup to be done - waiting - waiting for the end.
A big round moon is coming up over the high plateaux to the east of the Meuse and soon its light is flooding the façade of the chateau with a luminous glow which makes the stone appear as if phosphorescent. The "grimaces" appear to advantage; they are at home in this pale light which they have watched coming up over the horizon for so many generations.
Over the terrace the moonlight is reflected in the numerous little creeks and rivulets that cover, in lovely pattern, the broad flats of the rising river. Absolutely quiet, except the grinding underfoot of the pebbles on the high terrace and the sudden flight of an occasional frightened owl when we walk beneath the dark pines.
Jan. 22/19 Fort De Pagny
From this high fortified promontory, the fine white roads of France curve away in every direction - over and around hills and through the river bottoms. Tucked away in the valleys or hugging the slopes, and just barely visible in the fading light, are numerous little red topped villages. No sound save the hum of the chilly wind through the telephone wires. And over all this elevated rolling country hung a somewhat tempestuous sky except along the western horizon where, through a long narrow break, the January sun was throwing glorious golden light.
Fort De Pagny - Two Days Later.
The chill penetrating wind of January is now having sport with the misty rain which began an hour ago and soon big gray enveloping clouds are swept down to cover this extremely elevated plateau in Eastern France. One's vision can penetrate but a very short distance through the wet fog-blanket. The clay ground is water soaked; things are decidedly disagreeable. But here are soldiers - hundreds of them - part of America's victorious Army - appearing as ghostly figures in the mist - growing more distinct as they pass - fading again into the mist - marching - marching - to the rhythm of music, passing in review - in the clouds!
The big jolly round faced "Mayor" was an old warrior himself. Had he not been through the earlier years of the war and been wounded twice? He "had forty seven", he told me (which means age - not children). The army still interested him and our kitchen was his "hang out" when not engaged otherwise (his "otherwise" engagements were few). The cooks knew no French and the Mayor no English but - "ca ne fait pas rien" - a sort of wordless language or mutual understanding evolved itself, which answered all purposes. Benny, the cook, would pat "the Mayor's" fat stomach with the pancake turner and say "beaucoup cognac", and the mayor would grin, admit the accusation and then pretend to look for Benny's stomach, which was somewhat lacking even though he was cook. In a minute Jake would enter - bulky, good-natured, Jake - and the Mayor would let fly at him a string of French, which meant that he (the Mayor) had a bottle which he would share that night. But Jake, who thought that the Mayor was offering him a job as undertaker (zero for Jake - he had seen too many dead) kept saying No-no-no until I acted as interpreter when immediately his negations changed into enthusiastic affirmation and he passed his cigarettes to the Mayor, whose little round eyes twinkled knowingly.
An Auto Trip To Domremy
Domremy! The birthplace of Jeanne d'Arc! And the little village is no more pretentious than hundreds of its neighbors! It is snugly situated on the left bank of the river Meuse and the broad valley is particularly attractive at this point, even in its light covering of snow. (Summer weather should make of it a real delight. I can imagine no more finer bicycle ride in the world than pedaling down from Vaucouleurs as far south as Contrexeville. Domremy would be one of the historic spots to enjoy on the way).
The nation has made a museum of the home in which Jeanne d'Arc was born and of course it is a point of pilgrimage. The simple stone house which has been restored nestles among large trees in a sort of little garden or park and the surroundings are made additionally attractive by Mercier's statue of Jeanne with her banner. The house itself is altogether plain excepting a carved tympanum above the doorway and a niche just above this wherein kneels the armor-clad figure of the Maid. Inside, the rooms are gloomy and dark. The one in which she was born boasts quite a collection of statues of the heroine, for French sculptors have not been slow in recognising her sculptural possibilities. For some, she is the simple rural shepherdess as Chapu has represented her; for others, she is the warrior on the horse as Fremiet has so effectively portrayed her; for others, the embodiment of all that the French hold dear in religion and in national life.
Many mementos and inscriptions add interest to the room beside the bits of sculpture. To me, the large stone fireplace, blackened by age and use was of especial significance - it was so easy to fancy the tiny Jeanne playing about the hearth as a child.
Outside the town, up on the hills of the valley where the shepherd maid heard the voices, a truly magnificent basilica has been erected. Vivid color has been used on both exterior and interior, and immense mural decorations, done superbly well, picture six of the dramatic episodes in the life of Jeanne.
It is cold to an uncomfortable degree in this church and one wishes for steam radiators or something of the sort to warm things up. But really how decidedly out of place they would be. Summer is the time to visit Domremy - summer, when one can wander about the flowered hills and let fancy have full play. For all of France is a great school for the development of imagination. We smother it so in America!
All the soldiers liked old Drapier - and also pitied him. His bent-over figure - covered one day with a grain sack, the next with a French blouse, and the next with an American blouse, and finally when the weather became snappy, with all three - became a very familiar figure around headquarters, for, like little André down at St. Médard, he paid daily visits to our kitchen where his old rusty mess tin was heaped full of food and his bottle filled with coffee. Sometimes he arrived while the men were eating and on such occasions his entrance was greeted with cheers and "bonjours".
Drapier was politeness itself - always saluting every soldier whom he passed, not once but many times. I recall one morning when he was watching the chauffeur wash the automobile. On the approach of the general, Drapier straightened as much as his crooked figure would permit and saluted. The salute was returned. Then he saluted again after the general had seated himself and still one more when the motor started. And as the car moved through the old gateway, Drapier lifted his cap and saluted twice. I was watching him from the chateau window and I saw him wipe his eyes as he shuffled toward home.
It is half snowing - half raining and far from pleasant. To the tinkle of a bell, I open the door, cross the well-worn stone threshold, pass the time of day with the kindly old woman who is sitting out her last years at the fireside and mount the stairs into the chateau proper. The hall is cold and uninviting and I am glad to reach the General's room, which is a little warm in spite of the French stove (These tile-covered stoves! Would that the inventor might see a little American "air-tight" at work.) But it is better here than outside and one can look out the recessed window in the four foot wall - out across the flooded MEUSE valley - and be glad he has shelter and - an overcoat.
Carrying a little tin of hot coals given him by the kindly old woman at the chateau, Drapier shuffled across the pebbled courtyard toward his home - if it could be called that. I followed for his decrepit bent-over figure interested me. A grain sack was tied about his shoulders, the seat of his gray trousers hung to his knees, he wore an American army blouse!
I have seventy-five years, he replied when I asked his age.
We crossed the road to his house or rather his room for he occupied the only room remaining intact of a wrecked building. He opened the ill-fitting door with an immense key. The room was bare, cold and uninviting - a miserable hole in which to live. It contained nothing but a rickety old bed on which was a dirty comforter and a couple of grain sacks, and, near the fire-place a couple of boxes on which were a few pans and cups. That was all. Walls and floors were bare and "beaucoup" cobwebs covered the beamed ceiling. A doorway that once led to another room had been walled up. Illumination was furnished by one window that had not seen soap and water "depuis longtemps." The familiar stone sink, so often seen in French houses, was beneath the window.
The old man puttered about the fireplace endeavoring to make a fire with coals that were nearly dead. He was on his knees, blowing as best he could into the little pile of twigs - between breaths calling upon divine assistance. It was no use. The gods were deaf. So I lighted his fire and presented him the box of matches.
"Merci, Monsieur, Merci".
The twigs burned feebly; he stretched out his boney hands to the heat and motioned me to sit down by the fire. Poor old watery-eyed, shaggy-bearded old man - surely age in this forlorn condition is to [be] profoundly pitied.
Without asking if he liked tobacco, I placed a sack of it in his trembling hand.
"Merci, Monsieur, merci". And lifting an inverted cup on one of the boxes which he said was his buffet, he exhibited his stock of tobacco: a half cigarette and a cigar stub! His bread, a dry loaf given him at our kitchen, hung from the ceiling in a red pail.
"I have not much, Monsieur, but I need little". And in language hard to understand he went on to tell how he had once been rich, had squandered it all in Paris, had fought as a volunteer in the war of 1870 and had lost everything including his wife. Since thirty years I have lived alone in this room. "It lacks me now only a wife and a bottle of wine every day" - thus he explained it.
When I left he thanked me for the visit and was sorry that we cold not drink together to the great Victory. "But I have no wine, Monsieur."
I asked for his autograph as a souvenir, expecting only a scrawl from one so old. Here it is!
Old Drapier was shaved today! Tommy Dean did it. And neither could speak the other's language! The operation was over when I arrived and Drapier sat dozing by the little fire on the hearth - with smooth cheeks and with face powder all over him! What a picture! - The ordeal with the razor had made the old man a little sick - no it was not that; Tommy should have known better but he had given Drapier some chewing tobacco and the old veteran's constitution, after seventy-five years of wear, rebelled a little at this sudden stimulant. Besides, he had swallowed it! And so, all his ashen paleness was perhaps not due to powder although he had a generous supply of it in both ears - enough for next time.
But by noon, the nausea must have passed, for Drapier's familiar bent-over figure was on hand at our kitchen to get his daily "ration". His recuperative powers must have worked overtime for he was as lively as ever - even to the extent of taking a few fancy dance steps as he left with his pan of food.
Feb. 5, '19. These cold gray winter days that make one on congenial terms with the fire are not without their peculiar charms, chiefest of which, to me, is the symphony of grayed color which the landscape presents. The harmony is as elusive and as subtle as the coming of the twilight, whose softened light reveals a transient beauty far beyond the scope of words to re-create: a beauty so altogether lovely that it is pathetically eloquent: it yearns for appreciation: it cries out "Oh look - look and enjoy".
And how these gray days contrast with the warm opalescent ones in the southland last October. It is not alone a seasonal contrast; the country itself is different in character; things are on a vaster scale here; one can see farther for much of the land is open and free of trees. The valley of the Garonne seemed more compact and "cosy" than the Meuse valley but of course the landscape was foliaged then. Here, except for the pine groves, the trees are bare - but the network of branches makes delightful tracery against the sky.
The serenity of Montbras was interrupted on January the twenty-eighth by a discovery which caused quite a respectable splash in the smooth and quiet-flowing life of the community. Workmen engaged in excavating for a walk unearthed a stone coffin - apparently of great age - containing two adult skeletons. Here was a mystery indeed! The good towns-folk of Montbras and Tailloncourt came by scores to see this latest discovery (similar finds were not uncommon in that region) and each had his own theory to advance. One old man, mellow with the years, ventured the belief that the sarcophagus was Roman! But Monsieur le cure disagreed. The carving on the stone, still plainly discernable, was not Roman, he said, and besides, there would be nothing left of bodies after a period of ever fourteen hundred years and these skeletons were fairly well preserved. And so it went. Like old Omar --
The workmen continued in their digging. Monsieur, the maire expressed his hearty belief that other objects of interest might be found.
"You might even uncover a bottle of cognac", I suggested with a wink.
"That would go better than a coffin", the maire rejoined.
In a day or two a story began to circulate about the chateau, among the Americans, - a translation accounting in a most plausible manner for the presence of the stone coffin and its two lonely bony occupants. Here it is.
"Methods of Medieval Punishment"
By Jacques LeBrun.
Published in 1837 - Paris - Georges Benoit & Son.
Extract from Chapter 6 - page 93 - "Dungeons & Chambers of Torture."
"A well authenticated story which has persisted through the years and which we read in many histories of the period, almost identical in detail, tells of a tragedy almost as gruesome as the above and illustrates again the terrible crimes connected with underground chambres of torture.
It seems that upon the completion of the main part of the Chateau de Montbras in 1609, Claude, the Baron and his wife, Louise de Salles, gave a feast in honor of their fair daughter Marguerite and also in celebration of their newly completed and magnificent chateau. The nobility of the neighboring estates were all invited as well as the architect and artists whose skill had been employed in Claude's behalf. For days in advance, hunting parties scoured the forests for wild boar; the baron's serfs brought fish from the river Meuse; the oldest and finest wine obtainable was procured and the feast was made ready.
Now in the eastern part of France at this time, were [a] minstrel Aloin, a poet Ulain and [an] old sorceress from Germany -- Wigmund; three wanderers who were known far and wide for their song and divining powers. These three were summoned by Claude to appear at the feast for the amusement of the royal lords and ladies. On the appointed day they arrived at the chateau and toward the close of the sumptuous feast they were introduced into the immense dining hall. All were in jolly mood; there was sparkling wine a plenty for minstrel, poet and sorceress, as well as for lord and lady. And the poet composed verse as he had never done before and the melodies of Aloin were strangely beautiful.
Now the baron's very charming daughter, Marguerite, caught the eye of the poet Ulain and in her honor he composed a love song expressing in unmistakable terms her charms and witchery and accusing her of flirting with him. Well she might, for he was a dashing fellow clad in red - calculated to please. And Wigmund, the old sorceress predicted with a certainty that Marguerite would eventually marry Ulain. This greatly enraged the baron Claude and he ordered the poet and sorceress to be thrown into the chateau's dungeon - a deep, dark, heavily locked pit hewn in the solid rock far beneath the cellars.
The next day, despite the earnest and repeated entreaties of Marguerite, Claude refused freedom to the two prisoners believing himself justified in entombing them. Days passed and Ulain and Wigmund died an agonizing death from thirst in their tiny living tomb.
The years rolled on; the baron died; the estate changed hands several times and the tiny dungeon door in an obscure corner of the cellar was forgotten. In 1712 a new heir came into possession. During the investigation of his new inheritance, the moldy door of the dungeon came under his observation. It puzzled him and to satisfy his curiosity, he had it unlocked and there, lying on the damp cold stone, were the skeletons of Ulain and Wigmund. Being a pious individual, who believed in the sanctity of the dead, he planned to give the bones decent burial. That his wife, who was so happy in her new home, might not know of the atrocious crime that had been once committed in the building, the preparations for the burial were secret. A stone coffin, carved from a single block, was ordered made. In this, the bones were carefully placed, together with the key to the dungeon which was locked so that never again could it be used for nefarious purposes. And then, in the darkness of the night, by the light of torches, the heavy coffin was carried through a tunnel that connected the chateau with a chapel situated to the south. Here at midnight it was reverently buried in the sacred ground of the churchyard.
But the story of this unusual and mysterious burial leaked out, probably through some careless remark of one of the workmen who had been sworn to secrecy, and for many years it was the belief that after every full moon, at the hour of midnight, the spirits of Ulain and Wigmund could be seen hovering about the burial spot, together with a third: - the spirit of Aloin, the singer, who, only in death, was able to rejoin his friends. That these apparitions were actual and not the result of vivid imaginations is fully established by the evidence sworn to by men of unquestioned veracity who have remained in the old graveyard until the appointed time in order to personally witness the appearance of the three spirits."**
PARIS! PARIS! These magic words, called out in a nasal voice gradually penetrated my drowsy head and at length arrived at a point where their significance was appreciated. I roused myself from the half-asleep condition which I had enjoyed (?) all night - sitting up in a railway coach. PARIS! This was no time to be half awake!
The train stopped. Shouldering my ever-present pack, I trudged into the gare de l'Est. The time was six A.M. and the same weather conditions that prevailed at the front greeted me here. Yes, it was raining.
After the usual tedious red tape of the army was over with and I had received a little blue card which conferred upon me the right to be on the Paris streets, I hailed a cab, told the "cocher" where to drive me, and was whisked away at high speed down a boulevard - dodging in an amazing fashion pedestrians, autos, street cars and monuments - and in a few minutes landed safely at the gare de Lyon, where I got rid of my pack. The relief was fully as great as that of Christian in "Pilgrim's Progress", but in my case the separation was only for a period! I must get it back and pay for it, too.
Fate allowed me but eight brief hours in Paris. It was useless to argue with army officials.
"Your train for the Mediterranean coast leaves at 2 P.M. See that you take it".
"But I should like to stay over a day or two if it can possibly be arranged".
"Absolutely impossible. You leave today at two".
"Yes, sir". ("Oh, death, where is thy sting?")
The prospect of seeing Paris in the rain, while not especially agreeable did not deter me from taking advantage of my eight pitiful hours in that magic city. The left bank of the Seine was my goal and I started out in the blue mist - crossing the historic river by the pont Austerlitz and following up the river bank along the quais, past the Jardin des Plantes and the wine market.
The river was busy even at this early hour - men were working along the wharves and little tugs were puffing white smoke into the foggy moisture-laden air. Gradually, out of the blue mist, the mighty cathedral of Notre Dame silhouetted itself - altogether like an edifice in fairyland……. I was glad it was raining. One could not have had one's first glimpse of the justly famous Gothic monument under more lovely conditions!
The concierge at number eleven Quai Voltaire told me that Monique was not there. The family had moved.
"Where can I find her then, if you please?"
She told me the name of the street, but as it was an unfamiliar one to me, I did not "compris" at all.
"Will you write it, please?"
Rue de Mezieres - "Viola, Monsieur". And then Madame proceeded to tell me with a flow of language that exceeded all speed laws in America, how to find the rue de Mezieres.
"Do you understand, Monsieur?"
"Perfectly, Madame, and thank you", I lied.
Outside, I consulted my guide-book and, following its directions, I entered the Latin quarter where so many delightful and immortal things have had their birth - where a host of famous French writers, artists and musicians have lived, loved, suffered, created and died. The hour was still early and I spent considerable time in the vicinity of the Ecole des Beaux-arts where the displays of artists' material in the shop windows interested me. Crossing the Boulevard St. Germaine, I proceeded up the rue de Rennes until the rue de Mezieres was reached.
But Monique was still in bed. Would I return in an hour?
I have tried before, with ineffective results, to describe this little black haired Parisianne. It is useless to try again. She seemed even more charming than ever with her dark elf locks and her exquisite oval face. With naïve unconsciousness she dropped on the floor in front of my chair and we talked together for three quarters of an hour - recalling the happy autumn days at St. Médard and, especially, the fun we had hunting Nanette. And then I had to go.
"No, I cannot stay for dinner, Monique, my train leaves too early".
"Au revoir, Monsieur, I shall not forget you".
"Au revoir, Monique, ni mei non plus".
(The threat made on page - was carried out twice).
The Luxembourg gardens were practically deserted. Instead of the gay shouts of playing children - the little princesses and princes who ordinarily enliven the terraces - was the drip-drip of the lazy rain, and in place of the summer pageant of arm-in-arm strollers was a lone bewhiskered artist under a leaky umbrella recording his impression of the gray Senate building seen through the trees. The big shallow pool where children sail their boats was empty and rusting pipes were being replaced by new ones; the magic pool in front of the Medici fountain was also empty and the rain was not even obliging enough to fill it; there were no students prowling about; there was even no place to buy a toy balloon, let alone the delightful task of choosing between red, green and blue! Something was wrong. Rusting pipes and plumbers working in the rain are not as productive of emotion as princesses and toy-balloons! OH, Romance, where are you?
I recrossed the river by the Port Royal after enjoying a little exhibition of paintings displayed along Quai Malaquais near the Beaux-Arts. Traversing the imposing court of the Louvre and cursing to myself that the museum was not open, I emerged on the rue de Rivoli and followed this fashionable street down past the Palais Royal until opposite the Pont Neuf. This famous bridge I crossed simply for the sake of crossing it and seeing Henri quatre on the island. And then the interior of Notre Dame attracted me for a moment to revel in the gorgeous color of the delectable rose window.
Montpellier - I had never heard of the city until February 24th when I received orders to report there on detached service - as a student at the university. Now, after having lived for four months in the delightful conditions offered there, Montpellier stands out in my memory as one of "the" places in France. A gentleman on the train informed me that the "city is truly superb, Monsieur" and I had not been there more than an hour or two until I knew that he had told the truth. In fact, after a day or so there, a glorious vista of four happy months opened up immediately. I liked the place from the start and I knew that the novelty was not going to wear off. As I remarked to my landlady, much to her pleasure, Montpellier seemed like Paradise after the mud, rain and cold of northern France.
"We call it little Paris", she replies, "and it has the reputation of being the most beautiful city in France because Paris is not a city - it is a world". (The truth at last.)
With these thoughts and a hundred pleasant impressions all mixed up in my mind, I went to bed tired but quite a contented individual.
Montpellier, February 26, 1919.
And now the life at Montbras is only a memory - it has passed forever - but what happy and interesting memories remain. To live six weeks in an "honest-to-goodness" chateau, a "regular" place, you know, is bound to leave some impressions that will not soon grow dim, even if one were totally unresponsive to or unaffected by his surroundings.
Beside the spooky old chateau and its statues, which trip the light fantastic every night at midnight (so tradition says), I shall always remember the big open courtyard of Montbras and the curious people who lived around it. Especially I recall with pleasure little Jeanne Boyer, a rare rosey-cheeked "petite enfant" of eight years. She, in turn, will not likely soon forget the Americans nor an automobile ride which she fairly reveled in, I venture to say even though she was very nearly crying from a toothache when I lifted her into the car. But the novelty of this first ride brought smiles which had dried her tears by the time the American dentist was reached - although naturally, her eyes overflowed again when the "mechant" tooth was pulled……
She promised to write me a letter, this little Jeanne. I wonder if she will? Yes or no, I shall not soon forget her original little smile nor the clack of her wooden shoes on the hard stoney ground.
(And the story about the old stone coffin and the two skeletons! I made the whole thing up. It was a colossal fib all the way through! The book by Jacques LeBrun on methods of medieval punishment never existed save in my imagination. But it is certain that the story will stick with the chateau as a part of its web of legend and romance. What an enjoyable profession it would be - making history for old chateaux!)
"Bonjour, Madam, I should like to look at the room you have for rent. No, it is not for me. I am here to make sure that the room is ready for occupancy, for the American students are beginning to arrive".
"Are you American?" - she inquired. (The American uniform was unknown in Montpellier until the university opened its doors to American students.)
I assured her that such was the case and I was immediately ushered inside. The room was not well illumined but it was evident that everything was neat and clean. After walking all day with hob-nailed shoes, up and down hill, over uneven cobblestone streets, the big upholstered armchair seemed a fit place to repose eternally.
"Will you wait just for a minute?"
I remarked that nothing would suit me better. But the minute was very short. I would gladly have waited an hour instead of a few seconds. Shuffling footsteps and low voices sounded in the hallway. The door opened and two figures entered:-- the one a boy with sparkling eyes, the other a young man of perhaps twenty-five who wore the blouse of a French soldier. Their arms were interlocked. I arose.
"He is an American" said the boy.
The soldier extended his hand and I took it. I looked at his eyes but they would not meet mine. Instead his gaze went far beyond. He did not see me!
"You are American?" he inquired in a pleading voice and with these words his hand gripped mine as no hand had ever done before.
"Yes, Monsieur". There was no need to ask the next question but it escaped my lips before I thought.
"You were blinded in the war?"
"For how long?"
"Since three years, Monsieur".
The mother came into the room and while she stood with her hand on the shoulder of her sightless son, I asked regarding the vacant room and made my notes. And when I left, I shook again the hand of the blinded soldier and tried to put into the handshake as much feeling and expression as he had. But it was impossible. I was not blind. I did not know.
From a letter written home - March 5, 1919.
I have had a superb cold. It fulfilled admirably all the requisites of perfection. It was "the" supreme cold. My nose, as a part of the respiratory apparatus, had absolutely ceased to function as such and my eyes wept sympathetically. I wanted to sneeze all the time but only occasionally was this exquisite pleasure granted me. Necessity demanded that I breathe at intervals - consequently my mouth was more or less ajar for several days. In other words, lest you might not yet comprehend the situation, I have been all "bunged up" in earnest. And it all happened, I think, because of the sudden change from the cold and dampness of northern France to the sunny warmth of the Mediterranean. If I had stopped off at every other station on the way south to acclimate myself, as a miner does in ascending or descending the shaft of a mine, I might never have been privileged to write all this! But as it was, I made the jump in one night and my system rebelled a little, I guess. At any rate I had the cold and the good old grandmother in the house where I am living undertook to cure me. To this end she concocted a kind of stuff that I fear would have put to shame the witches' broth in Macbeth. I drank it to please her and since I could neither smell nor taste, it went down easily. For three days I drank plenty of this "Tisane" as she called it and eventually the cold vanished - thanks to her care I told her. Here are the component parts of the broth which I swallowed:-- Eucalyptus, aubepine, bourrache, veroeine, tilleul, coquelicot and guimauve! No wonder the cold broke! - under a withering barrage like that!
Among the first of Montpellier's diverse attractions to delight a stranger - after the magnificent theatre, Place de la Comedie and Peyrou - are the little balconies that open from nearly every window. Petite efflorescent affairs they are, hugging the walls of buildings and homes and overflowing with flowers and hanging vines. The French word "chic" fits them admirably. They are always delightful to look at and admire. Wrought iron railings of exquisite design and ingeniously carved stone supports add variety and interest. The quarries of France furnish a stone that is easily cut but which hardens on exposure to the air and the French have not been slow to appreciate its worth, with the result that even the most unpretentious buildings are embellished with "stone" lace. When one looks at the chaste facades of some of these structures and tries to analyze the why and wherefore of their loveliness and elegance, one finds that to a large extent it is all brought about by the careful placing of these rich, delightfully airy "balcons".
"Les petites boutiques" - the little shops of Montpellier! Street after street is lined with them - tiny little affairs but generally so neat and cleverly arranged. One wonders how so many of them can "get along" at all - how it is that the proprietors can gain a living. It is difficult to figure out until it is understood that, although profits are small, expenses are still smaller, and Madame and Monsieur for example are content with a very little. Qu'est-ce que vous voulez? They have arranged a fortunate match for their daughter Elise - their son Paul was killed the first year of the war which, although it was a cruel blow, brought "la gloire" to the family, and their younger daughter Helene is working in a milliner's shop. And now Madame and Monsieur themselves take care of the little shop. No help is hired for none is needed. While Monsieur unlocks and folds back the heavy wooden shutters that protect the shop at night, Madame is sweeping out the place and even the street in front of the store. Voila! They are ready for business and a profit of a few francs daily suffices.
These little shops sell everything - literally - and such fantastic names as they have! One little shop - a flower store - which made a specialty of violets, was painted a delicate violet color and above the door was a signboard bearing the name of the shop - "To one hundred thousand violets". A certain glove shop was dedicated "To the glove of gold" and an enormous gilded hand hung outside!
On the little crooked side streets are to be found the antique shops - generally tended by rather antique shop-keepers. (Constancy, thou art a jewel.) I forgot to mention that the violet shop was run by two young girls who, while not as modest as violets are supposed to be, were at any rate as pretty. The antique shops and second-hand stores are dusty little places - even inclined to carry dustiness to the point of dirtiness - but maybe this is part of their stock-in-trade! All sorts of trinkets and odds and ends find their way to these places. Much of the stuff is valueless but much would be almost priceless - here in America. Hand carved furniture - the possessions of defunct families dating back (both family and furniture) to the middle ages - can often be picked up for a song, provided the song is accompanied by a few dollars. Old paintings, engravings and drawings figure largely in some of the stocks. I spent not a little time nosing about some of these musty old portfolios but, because of the impossibility of carrying things home, my expenditures in the line of antiques was limited to two cents which I paid for an autographed photograph of Ernest Michel - the celebrated French painter - at work in his studio!
"The young fool" thought the antique-dealer as he pocketed the copper coin and smiled, "to spend two whole cents for a worthless photograph!"
"The old fool" thought I. "He doesn't know that this is worth anything".
From a letter -
I wonder if I have mentioned how narrow some of Montpellier's streets are - that is, of course in the older parts of the town where compactness was at one time necessary for safety. Two carts could never pass in some of these streets and when one goes by you must hug the buildings to escape the wheels! Being so narrow, these passage-ways (they scarcely merit the name of street) seem like veritable canyons especially when the old buildings with their circular stone staircases mount up five or six stories. But these are the streets that fascinate me far more than the modern open thoroughfare. There is a certain picturesqueness about them that is irresistible as they bend and twist up hill and down. In all of them, children are playing on the uneven stone pavement, and babies - more or less clothed - are crawling about in the doorways or being cared for by sisters. It is true, the children are not always clean. In fact, quite often they are considerably soiled and mussed up. But they are happy - they are playing and singing - singing opera airs instead of ragtime! Surely the gods must look down and smile.
The rue de l'Universite is a steep incline, paved with cobble-stones (which may have been smooth centuries ago) and lined on both sides with small shops where one may buy bread, meat (horse variety) grain, wine, books, garlic and second-hand furniture! It is a busy little thoroughfare; diminutive burrows are forever pulling overloaded carts up the incline; women with aprons full of fresh vegetables are forever stopping to gossip and to block the way, and wooden-shoed children are forever racing with their hoops down hill. Sparkling eyes, jet-black hair and gaily colored shawls loiter in the doorways and make this very ancient street alive with color.
It is an ancient street. The narrow stone buildings which look down on it today are the same ones that saw Jean Jacques Rousseau stride by on his way to the university and also Petrarch, the prince of Italian poets, who was a student of law here for four years.
The university of Montpellier is located a little over half way down the street. It too is ancient - being founded by an edict of Nicolas the fourth in 1289. This date, in letters of iron, is just above the modest entrance to the courtyard of the school and serves to remind one that he is not attending an institution of learning that has sprung up over night. In fact, age is written all over the place…… So many illustrious men have been here in years gone by - so many learned, energetic and kindly folk are here now. And how royally they welcomed the youth of America!
It is 7:30 A.M. and my way to the art school takes me up the Rue St. Guilhem - one of the busy arteries that leads up to the market-place. Already both of sides of the street are lined with little push-carts where you can buy anything from lucious strawberries or big black cherries to mouldy cheese, snails, and deadly garlic! Patient little gray donkeys are tugging carts up the hill and empty carts are coming down - already "sold out". It is a very animated thoroughfare - this up-hill Rue St. Guilhem.
At the top is one of Montpellier's markets where a searcher after local color could find all he wanted of that peculiar commodity - and all to the tune of a good-natured hum produced by voices of every known variety!
All manner of vegetables are filed on the cobblestone pavement and behind each display sits the market woman - generally a fat happy-looking individual who knits between sales and at the same time cries out the virtues of her "beautiful carrots" or "pretty figs." Should you buy five sous worth of the latter, she will weigh them out with exquisite exactitude, put them into a paper cornucopia manufactured on the spot and hand them to you with one hundred francs worth of gallantry and a dozen "mercis."
Whenever time permits I find my way to the Peyrou - that spacious and lovely promenade planned and built by Louis the fourteenth. From this commanding spot - it is the highest in the city - one can see in every direction and see a long way. At one's feet lies the busy beautiful city, or rather its tile roofs and curiously fashioned chimneys; in the middle distance, dotted among stately cypress trees and dark pines, are cream-colored chateaux and "maisons de campagne" topped by red roofs; distant hills and blue Cevennes mountains where Stevenson traveled with his donkey lie on the eastern northern and western horizons, and off to the south is the straight blue line of the Mediterranean.
A post-card from Tailloncourt.
"I received your kind letter. I wish I had wings in order to come to see you and to visit the city of Montpellier."
Your little friend,
(Poor little fatherless Jeanne - up in the mud and rain of northern France - and down here it is so delightful!)
It is really a genuine pleasure to get lost in the maze of Montpellier's tortuous streets - that is, of course, provided you have to time to get lost and provided it is daylight. (Getting lost does not take much time, but finding yourself afterward may.) A nocturnal ramble is not especially enjoyable unless you choose the big open squares and boulevards where the obvious night life asserts itself. The little side streets are ill-lighted and practically deserted after dark - and cats are always running around! Skinny black cats they are, with eyes that catch and reflect the feeble light of the occasional gas-lamps!
From a letter March 11, 1919.
"Allez" cries the husky young conductress to the motorman and the funny little street-car moves. "Allez" cries the stout teamster and his big horse and heavy load of wine barrels goes up the street. "Allez" cries a little bare-legged Miss of five years and her big hoop goes a-rolling along the Esplanade. Indeed, "Allez" is a magic word and it works wonders if you say it just right. It makes anything move. Even the Bosche had to obey it!
March 19, 1919. An afternoon at Lathes.
The picture of this sunny afternoon is one of the most vivid among all my varied memories of Montpellier. The weather-man had absent-mindedly allowed a perfect May day to slip into the windy month of March; the sky was clear with a blueness I had never seen before and the air was a delight to breathe.
The wandering white road to Palavas down by the sea is lined with plane-trees and these were budding. I saw the same road later in the season and it was a veritable bower or arbor for the branches of the trees meet and intermingle overhead. But on this particular day the sunlight came freely through the bare branches and it was quite acceptable, for the air from off the sea, gentle though it was, made a little counteracting warmth desirable.
On either side of the white road are vineyards and gardens where men and women were working - more women than men, for although the war is over the French army is still practically intact. As we approach Lathes and the river (Lathes is a station on the famous (?) Montpellier-Palavas railway) the air became fragrant, for Spring, already arrived, had been at work starring the meadows with narcissus!
I picked as many of these pale golden flowers as I could comfortably carry and all the way back my nose was buried in the depths of the big bouquet - inhaling the exquisitely sweet drowsy odour. The next day I paid dearly for this bit of sensuous enjoyment with a first class case of acute hayfever! 'Twas ever thus! But 'twas worth it.
March 22, 1919 - A letter from Marie-Louise, at St. Médard.
She encloses a purple flower picked on the grounds of the chateau.
"I am enclosing in my letter a little flower which comes from the chateau beside our house - where you as well as I have passed so many happy hours. Now the place is lonely and solitary but it is still just a little gay since it always has the trace of those who have been so kind to me".
Tout le monde is out in the country. It's the Monday after Easter and this is always a Holiday. The weather is superb - clear and warm, no wind, flowers everywhere and the air loaded with their perfume. The street-cars running from the heart of Montpellier to the suburbs are crowded with folk en route to the country. Overloaded baskets do their bit in filling up car space and tell-tale bottles protrudes from pockets in an amusing fashion. Everybody is happy - glad to get away from the city out into the open places. The environs of Montpellier are varied. One can spend the day in the mountains among the rocks, in grassy meadows along the Lez river, under gnarled olive trees or down at the beach at Palavas. We choose the uplands out toward the mountains where the olive trees thrive. The little rock-walled roads winding among orchards and vineyards are alive with families intent on finding a shady spot to pass the day.
In an olive orchard, beneath a low spreading tree, we eat our "déjeuner". The spot was selected at random but we could not have found a better one had we searched all morning. In every direction are delightful little vistas seen through the twisted and gnarled branches of the trees. Here is a group of red and yellow roofs, there a bit of white road and moss-covered wall, yonder a clump of dark green pines and to the right of this the roofs and towers of Montpellier. Best of all, if you look just in the right place you can see the blue line of the Mediterranean!
Soon the dinner is ready; salad, concocted on the spot, with lettuce, eggs, fish, oil and vinegar, combined in just the right proportions; omelettes cooked with ham; fried rabbit (which in its curled up position on the plate looks for all the world like a cat but tastes like chicken!) long crisp loaves of bread cut in a corkscrew fashion; camembert cheese of odoriferous and balmy quality; French pastries and of course fine red wine.
"Will Monsieur have some of this?"
"I thank you".
"And of this, too?"
"And of course you'll have to try this".
"Merci, Madame, merci".
And so it went. The Americans have a reputation for eating which I feel honor bound to uphold!
From a letter --
"You should be one of the party at a French picnic. Even more than Americans, I believe, these people like to get away from the city. But they make too much work of it for when a French family wants to picnic they want to carry the thing out in "the grand manner" - with plates, napkins, tableware and everything. To "rough it" a little by using newspaper instead of a tablecloth or substituting paper napkins for linen is inconceivable - at any rate to the family with whom I live. They even go so far as to carry along folding chairs. And their baskets of provisions weigh a ton. I know, because I carried two of them!...... And after it is all over, instead of throwing away bones and crusts of bread, they carry all the remains back home for the family cat! "Le Pauvre, he has been shut up all day".
(On the train - en route to Nimes.)
The changing panorama from the car window is a never-ending source of pleasure and interest. Provence is smiling under the sun's influence - this April day. The pale green-gray olive orchards and the almond and fruit trees are actually swimming in the sunlight, while along the roadsides thousands of brilliant red poppies are reflecting the warmth ten-fold. Here an extensive vineyard is putting forth its "first green shoots"; there a flock of sheep is grazing along the bank of a poplar-lined stream. Little villages, almost like toys, dot the landscape, and in their creamy whiteness they glisten in the sun like jewels and contrast in a marked manner with clumps of dark pine and stately cypress.
Nimes, April 25, 1919 (From my diary.)
It is absolutely impossible to put into words one's feelings as one stands in this old Roman coliseum. I have spent an hour and a half here - wandering slowly about the galleries, marveling at the massive construction of the thing, trying to realize somehow its extreme antiquity and to visualize the life, color, and movement that these stones have seen in far-away Roman days. I am writing this sitting on the topmost tier of stone seats overlooking the oval arena, and a strange thing is happening - an airplane is droning overhead. True, an airplane is a common sight these days, but to see one when, mentally, you are living a thousand years ago is a little out of the ordinary. How the old Romans would have craned their necks!
Every Sunday afternoon the Esplanade is crowded. Hundreds are seated on chairs which are rented for a few sous; hundreds more are strolling up and down under the long rows of platane [plantain?] trees; the fashion of Montpellier is on display. And also the romance! Yvonne and her soldier-lover, who has just been demobilized, stroll by - arm in arm. He is proud of his uniform and the decorations on his chest and she is no less proud of him. Then come Henriette and Louise who are on their way to meet Charles and Marcel, and Jean, who sets opposite me at the pension, has met his little rosey-cheeked dark-eyed "amie". (There is nothing new under the sun) Jean has just put on long trousers and is still conscious of their presence. He tips his hat and blinks delightfully as he passes and the little girl at his side nods. I wonder if he will tell her how much and how fast the Americans eat!
From a letter --
"I am enjoying the good fortune of being invited now and then to the homes of the wealthier class in Montpellier which seems eager to do its part in making the stay of the Americans enjoyable.
Dinner is always served in the grand style with the familiar array of knives, forks and spoons at each plate, delicate china, waitresses and other adjuntes that spell style and are ordinarily calculated to make one feel just a trifle "starchy". But while the hosts are polite to the Nth degree, there is very little formality after all; they are as human, wholesome and good natured as the rest of the world. One feels at home and is soon lost in an interesting conversation which may run from the war to seasickness with an account of mountain climbing in Switzerland sandwiched in between. China, forks and waitresses are soon forgotten - the guests have become a part of the family. Voila!
After the meal, one adjourns perhaps to the salon to admire pictures, or out on the balcony to watch a sunset. And then "au revoir's" are said and the leave-taking is consummated by bows and handshakes. After all it has been rather fine to say the least!"
One of my friends among the American students at the university was a thoroughly likeable chap who had traveled more or less throughout Europe before the war, had studied music in Vienna and was an adept in discovering things of interest. Not that it was necessary to go out of your way to do this - quite the contrary. But this particular soldier unearthed such unusual interests. After classes it was often my good fortune to meet him, and if time was not pressing, we sometimes strolled up and down some of the less-frequented streets of the town in search of odd and quaint corners. One hot afternoon chance took us past a little out-of-the-way chapel, and the suggestion that we drop in for a moment met with favor. Padded doors were forthwith pushed aside and we entered the dim, half-lighted enclosure.
"Ah" - said my friend sniffing the air. Then in an undertone he confessed that he was somewhat of a connoisseur with reference to the odours in old cathedrals and churches!
"I like the smells in old churches" said he. "They are all different. If you care to visit in succession all the churches in Montpellier you will discover that each has its distinctive odour!"
Like Columbus' egg trick, after you knew how, it was easy. And ever since that day, the first thing I have done on entering any European church has been to sniff!
It is four-thirty in the afternoon - the hour of the aperitif - and the cafés are crowded. Even the tables out on the sidewalk are all taken. Busy white-aproned "garcons" are rushing about, edging their way between tables, carrying trays filled with glasses and bottles - for here, life bubbles and fizzes literally!
And the patrons? The fashion of Montpellier is on display; canes and spats, lorignettes and bobbed hair, beards near-beards, powder and paint, ear-rings and necklaces, monocles and moustaches! In fact, nothing more entertaining can be found on a hot afternoon than watching the French sip their aperitif and display themselves in the sipping. It is a part of life - something to look forward to - and at a time of day when things begin to lag and become wearisome. For the tired shopper the café affords a very welcome rest; for the store proprietor a relief from strain and for the professional "boulevardier" it is his very life. He loves to sit and watch the golden liqueur sparkle in his tiny glass. It glistens like the eyes of Marcelle who sits opposite, and, like her eyes it is alive and warm with the stored-up heat of the Midi sun. He smiles - everybody does - it is in the Spring air. For southern France is a region of warmth and smiles.
If you care to write a letter, the "garcon" will bring paper, pen and ink - and the table is yours as long as you wish to stay. It is a good place to write provided you wish to write descriptions of French life, for things are happening all about. At the same time it is a bad place to write for the noise and commotion are too distracting. So the time may be spent at a game of cards. And the "garcon" will not only bring the cards but a tiny rug to put on top the marble table.
With all the chic fashion on the streets along comes a bunch of fat pigs. The efforts of four men with long sticks are necessary to keep the huge animals off the sidewalks, for the display windows along the boulevard have an elusive attraction for these big beauties from the country. Now the boulevard is gay with the toilettes of women and thus the elect of both country and city are brought strangely into an amusing proximity!
I am to meet my painter friend at the "ceuf" - the egg-shaped place that surrounds the statue of the three Graces. This is the official meeting place for all Montpellierains. It is more or less people during the day and generally, in fact always, it has a few guests well into the small hours of the night.
Ah, there he is, striding across the Place de la Comedie, with his painting paraphernalia slung about his shoulders - a few weeks ago Bouissou the poilu, ? now Bouissou the artist. He has had four years of active service and it was hard too, with a wife and an adorable little "Francette" at home. But he is happy now and he greets me as though I were a long-lost brother, (It was only this morning that we met and planned our sketching trip.) The south of France - the Midi - is exuberant. The people know it and are rightly proud of it…… After the street car has deposited us out on the edge of things, we choose a little winding walled-in road and follow its course. Every now and then the air is perfumed with the odour of blossoming trees. We pass country villas, gardens with riotous flower growth, clumps of dark pine trees, rows of stately poplars, and acre after acre of rolling vineyards. Suddenly a turn of the road brings us face to face with a wild poppy field - a vast expense of gorgeous royal red flowers - a solid mass of vivid color shimmering in the sunlight!
"Ah, qu'elles sont belles!"
"Yes, but too brilliant to paint, N'est-ce pas?"
And so we choose something less striking but more paintable - the little hill-top village of Montferier as seen in the sunlight through the trunks and branches of pine trees…… Imperceptibly evening approaches and a pink haze rises about the little town. One lone star shines in the sky above the distant mountains…… We leave reluctantly, just as the finest moments of the day are at hand, and as we round a curve of the road which shuts off from our view the fairy village of Montferier, from the very tip of a towering poplar tree a blackbird informs us, in eloquent fashion, how good it is to be alive.
The village of Castelnau rambles in a most astonishing fashion on the hilly rocky banks of a clear deep river. There is no end of fun in wandering about in this little town for the streets form a veritable maze and surprises await at every turn - you never know what is going to happen. Antiquity is written all over the place; on old crumbling walls over which flowering vines fall, in well-worn stone staircases, on little saggy-roofed cracked houses, and even on the wrinkled faces of old women knitting in the sun-lighted doorways or caring for the only modern and up-to-date things in the town - babies!
Down on the river front, in the clear water up to their knees, women are pounding the dirt from dirty clothes and talking "a perfect stream".
And if you leave the village by a certain way, there is always a diminutive black donkey fastened on the side hill, who sings his carol to you every time you pass.
From a deep blue sky the June sun, hot to say the least, pours down into the narrow curving streets. Not much life is manifest at midday but when the cool of the evening comes, from out the curtained doorways emerge women and children who add delightful bits of brilliant color to the gray and white of the houses.
It is shady under the two rows of trees that run the circuit of the Peyrou and frequent benches invite repose, especially tempting after the long climb up the hill in the hot sunlight. A cooling breeze nearly always greets you as you walk along the stone balustrade of this elevated promenade. Today a buoyant air from the sea is coming up which stirs the branches of the giant trees and the sunlight, filtering through, makes dancing patterns of light on the shaded ground.
The colossal bronze statue of Louis the fourteenth stands out in the sunlight in the open central space. Neither the old monarch nor his beautiful horse seem to mind the brilliant light! The fact that Louis looks out from bronze eyes accounts for the absence of smoked glasses!
At the north end of the Peyrou rises that little gem of architecture, the Chateau d'Eau, and the swans, floating on the mirror-surface of the pool at its base, do not disturb the perfect reflection in the water. It is truly superb. Hats off to the architect and to Louis who made it possible!
After the brilliant noon day sun and the ensuing ennui of the hot afternoons, the coolness of the evening and the enchanting panorama attract hundreds of people and the Peyrou becomes very much alive. The air is fragrant with the odour of thousands of purple, pink and white flowers; the magnolia trees are spotted with big creamy blossoms; groups of statuary rest like gems among the trees; on the benches are friends, families and lovers. And the pale new moon and brilliant Venus are gracing the western sky.
May 26, 1919 A letter from Marie-Louise.
"I sent you the three colors of France." And she encloses a red poppy petal, some white daisy petals and two brilliant blue flowers! The love of the country is in the blood.
What shall be said of the evenings at Montpellier? Most of them I recall as having been spent in conversation with the family out on the balcony, but often we climbed the hill to the airy Peyrou to watch the sun sink behind the Cevennes mountains and to revel in the cool air from off the sea. Sometimes the evening hours were passed strolling on the Esplanade under the platane trees and, when the weather grew hot, at the cafes enjoying the lively crowds that filled every available chair even to the curbing. They were never commonplace - these hours between day and night - and looking back on them now they are colored with all the witchery and Romance that is in the magic air of the Midi.
The twisting precipitous streets - lighted by the moon - fascinated me. In their marked contrast of pale blue-green light and purple shadow, what wonderful stage settings for tragedy they would have made. Often the strains of a violin came down the little canyons from upper stories and always, in the small but lovely garden just off from the rue D - the pure and brilliant music of a nightingale delighted me.
Mistral, the poet of Provence and all the troubadors of the Middle ages have sung of the magic of the land and of the spell it casts. They knew its physical beauty because of their wanderings and they had tasted of the hospitality of the people. And you must know the people before you can appreciate a country.
Clermont - June 8, 1919 (From my diary.)
This little town, back up in the mountains away from the ordinary route of the tourists, offers to the seeker after the quaint and curious many fascinating attractions. The older part of the town is built on the side of a steep hill which is graced at its summit by superb ruins of a medieval castle. In these cracked and discolored houses originally lived the serfs in the employ of the lord, and judging by the extreme age of some of the present occupants, I conclude that several of the medieval inhabitants still live here!
True, the streets are not as clean as they might be but they are just about as picturesque as they can be. There is no mistaking their extreme antiquity.
The summit of the hill on which stand the ruined battlements of the lord's chateau is attained by a series of steep narrow staircase streets. The buildings lean in a most haphazard way and it would not require an impossible stretch of the arm to shake hands with your patriarchal neighbor across the way. In the doorways of these old houses sit feeble old women who seem an integral part of the place. Like Castelnau, babies bring an up-to-date note.
At Clermont - June 8.
With a dignified courtesy the little old parchment-faced priest paced us around the ruins. He knew a few English words - worthy soul that he was - and how proud he seemed when I understood them! Yes, he had been in England, but when he was a young man - so very long ago, Monsieur.
We climbed all over what was left of the once-mighty castle; over its broken walls, up its ruined battlements, and through some of its underground passages. High up from the world, even aloof from the town of Clermont which nestled at the foot of the eminence, there was a sense of peace and remoteness about the place that I liked. And the tottering little priest - the acme of gentility - how completely he harmonized with his environment!
After we had made the rounds the sound of a bell from the retreat half-way down the hill reminded our reverend guide that mealtime had arrived again, and he, having still the good fortune to be among mortals, doffed his flat little hat and shook our hands. I slipped a franc in his palm.
"For the poor of the parish, Monsieur le cure".
He declined politely but I insisted. Bowing he thanked me.
"You are the first American I have seen. I probably will never see you again. But we shall meet in Paradise, I trust". And a big tear rolled down his cheek as he turned down the hill.
Palavas was baking in the sunlight when we arrived. Hundreds of folk, intent on taking a dip into the blue waters of the Mediterranean, had braved the discomfort of the dinky little crowded train that runs down to the sea from Montpellier, and were now racing toward the beach. We stood in the jam at the ticket window, purchased a "cabine", donned our bathing suits and paraded through the café and out on the clean hot sand of the beach - where the bathers were more numerous than in the water. In fact, the water was a trifle chilly at first and it required no persuasion to loaf a while in the sunlight and watch braver souls nimbly dance their way out into the surf. Besides, the siesta on the sand produced without effort a perfect case of sunburn - and this was quite "the" thing to carry back to Montpellier. There were however a few dainty demoiselles who saw fit to protect their white shoulders and arms with big bathrobes. Oh, qu'il fait chaud, Suzanne!
The tiny children were the real sports. Many of them were waddling about in true Adam-and-Eve style and enjoying themselves in utter abandon - splashing their pink toes in the water, filling up tiny buckets of sand and laughing in the sheer delight of it all.
We swam in the Mediterranean for about ten minutes and then spent the balance of the afternoon on the beach - thereby getting a sun-printed picture of our bathing suits on our bodies. And then after patronizing the café, we got aboard the train and the little engine puffed us back up to Montpellier.
June 19, 5:30 P.M.
The sun was beating down hot as the train from Bordeaux pulled into the little station at St. Médard. I looked in vain for Odette as I passed through the gates but the newsstand was closed……The place was so familiar. Eight months before, American soldiers were here, the war was still on and there was more or less excitement. Now things seem so quiet. As I walked up the familiar little hill that led up to the Café-Hotel an irresistible memory clamored for attention - the memory of a stroll up the hill with a big yellow dahlia pinned on my blouse! And I was adorned with nothing but a victory ribbon now which was really of no worth compared with that dahlia!
In front of the café, I found the whole family seated. Evidently business was not rushing.
"Bonjour, Bonjour - how is everybody?"
"How are you, Monsieur, we thought you were back in America by this time. Where have you been? How long can you stay?"
I took a chair and proceeded to answer questions for a half hour. Then I crossed the bridge and trudged down the road around the chateau, passing the same little gate to the garden, the same little path leading off to the right through the woods, the same fig-tree hanging over the wall. It seemed good to be back - but everything was so quiet!
Marie-Louise was not at home - she was working in the vineyards - I might have known - all France works, old and young alike…… We had a pleasant little supper cooked over the big open fireplace. And then, letters from America were translated, presents from across the sea were displayed and a hundred questions asked and answered. Between times, a sort of public reception was held in the little lamp-lighted room for the news of my arrival spread rapidly and those of the town folk who remembered me came with their "bonsoir"……
From a letter home.
"We are traveling up the beautiful Rhone Valley - en route to St. Nazaire where a boat will be waiting I hope - and a great old trip it is! For once I am glad that the engineer is not afflicted with the speed mania. We have plenty of time to see the country as we pass through it and it is certainly worth the seeing. The river is on our right - on the left are big hills and precipitous cliffs. Every few minutes we pass ruined castles perched high up on these promontories……
It is a matter of days now until I shall leave France and I do not hesitate to say that I feel a little bad about it even though leaving means HOME. Her winding rivers, reflecting ruined battlements of chateaux, her crumbling castles which still retain some of their medieval splendor, her broad fertile meadows, her blue hills, her vineyards, her poplar trees and winding roads, her quaint towns and her cool dusky cathedrals - these all somehow get a-hold of you. And then her splendid and glorious traditions, her idealism, her patriotism, and the amiability of her people - these demand your respect and admiration…… I wish you could have gone through the whole thing with me."
On board the "Santa Elena" - July 10, 1919.
The friendly shores of France are fast becoming indistinct. In a minute or two they will have totally disappeared. We are leaving - but leaving for home! Hundreds of soldiers are on board the ship, each with his own memories, his own impressions, his own longings. I am glad for my ten months experience in France - now a thing of the past. All my expectations were fulfilled - and more. I expected to find a beautiful country. I found it. France challenges the world for beauty. I expected to find a kindly people and I was prepared to go at least half way with them in order to get their viewpoint and to really know them. No people are more kindly nor hospitable. I love France because of the ways in which she differs from America.
What a wonderful blue are the shores of France - beauty to the last. Au revoir - au revoir.
**The story of the stone coffin.
This note appears in the Cedar Rapids, IA Gazette, February 19, 2005, 3D, in the "Times of Our Lives" column, under the headline, "Coe teacher Cone's prank fools French."
75 years ago: 1930
Feb. 23: Coe College teacher and artist Marvin Cone revealed how he wrote the fictitious history of a mysterious stone coffin unearthed in the village of Montbras in France during World War I.
Cone's unit of Doughboys was stationed near the village when the coffin was discovered. Local experts were at a loss to explain the strange markings on the casket or identify what group of people had made the unusual burial.
In the mood for mischief, Cone penned a tale in English of how the coffin's two occupants had died of treachery in a local dungeon. He passed his tale to a French interpreter, claiming it was a translation of an ancient manuscript. The interpreter translated the story into French, and it soon circulated throughout the village. Cone said the tale was still being quoted by villagers as the true story of the coffin's inhabitants when his unit shipped home.
Like many a typescript, the original of this diary contains many irregularities, including usage, spelling, typos, and inconsistencies of other kinds. As editor, I have corrected the more obvious spelling and typographical errors. And I have also regularized to some extent Cone's use of dividers and other minor punctuation. Where I am uncertain of a word in sometimes hard to read, faded typing, and where I believe corrections need to be added, I have used brackets. I hope these procedures will help to make the journal readable while preserving some of Cone's spontaneity. One way I can almost painlessly preserve a sense of the journal's freshness is to leave Cone's French as he typed it. Readers will note inconsistencies in French spelling, and almost certainly there are errors that will be clear to those who know French better than I.
These people gave essential assistance in producing this document: Mary Dias, Linda Heller, Robert Marrs, and Kelly Sanders.