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   Chapter 7 No.7

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 22125

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Padre, you were right. My greatest comfort, as of old, is in turning to you.

I think you had a glimpse of the future when you left me that last message: "Write to me, in the old way, just as if I were alive and had gone on a long journey."

When I lock my door, and get out this journal, it seems as if a second door-a door in the wall-opened, to show you smiling the good smile which made your face different from any other. I don't deserve the smile. Did I ever deserve it? Yet you gave it even when I was at my worst. Now it seems to say, "In spite of all, I won't turn my back on you. I haven't given you up."

When I first began to write in this book (the purple-covered journal which was your last present to me), I meant just to relieve my heart by putting on paper, as if for you, the story of my wickedness. Now the story is told, I can't stop. I can't shut the door in the wall! I shall go on, and on. I shall tell you all that happens, all I feel, and see, and think. That must have been what you meant me to do.

When Brian and I were away from home a million years ago, before the war, we wrote you every day, if only a few paragraphs, and posted our letters at the end of a week. You said those letters were your "magic carpet," on which you travelled with us. Poor Padre, you'd no time nor money for other travelling! You never saw France, till the war called you. And after a few bleak months, that other great call came. I shall write to you about France, and about myself, as I should have written if you were back at home.

First-about myself! A few pages ago I said that there was no one alive who could prove me a liar, to the Becketts or Brian: that I was "safe-brutally safe." Well, I was mistaken. I am not safe. But I will go back to our start.

Everyone warned the Becketts that they would get no automobile, no essence, and no chauffeur. Yet they got all three, as magically as Cinderella got her coach and four. The French authorities played fairy godmother, and waved a wand. Why not, when in return so much was to be done for France?

The wand gave a permit for the whole front (counting in the American front!) from Lorraine to Flanders. It produced a big gray car, and a French soldier to drive it. The soldier has only one leg: but he can do more with that one than most men with two. Thus we set forth on the journey Brian planned, the Becketts so grateful-poor darlings-for our company, that it was hard to realize that I didn't belong.

It was a queer thought that we should be taking the road to Germany-we, of all people: yet every road that leads east from Paris leads to Germany. And it was a wonderful thought, that we should be going to the Marne.

Surely generations must pass before that name can be heard, even by children, without a thrill! We said it over and over in the car: "The Marne-the Marne! We shall see the Marne, this autumn of 1917."

Meanwhile the road was a dream-road. It had the unnatural quietness of dreams. In days of peace it would have been choked with country carts bringing food to fill the wide-open mouth of Paris. Now, the way to the capital was silent and empty, save for gray military motors and lumbering army camions. The cheap bowling alleys and jerry-built restaurants of the suburbs seemed under a spell of sleep. There were no men anywhere, except the very old, and boys of the "class" of next year. Women swept out the gloomy shops: women drove omnibuses: women hawked the morning papers. Outside Paris we were stopped by soldiers, appearing from sentry-boxes: our papers were scanned; almost reluctantly we were allowed to pass on, to the Secret Region of Crucifix Corner, which spying eyes must not see-the region of aeroplane hangars, endless hangars, lost among trees, and melting dimly into a dim horizon, their low, rounded roofs "camouflaged" in a confusion of splodged colours.

There was so much to see-so much which was abnormal, and belonged to war-that we might have passed without glancing at a line of blue water, parallel with our road at a little distance, had not Brian said, "Have we come in sight of the Ourcq? We ought to be near it now. Don't you know, the men of the Marne say the men of the Ourcq did more than they to save Paris?"

The Becketts had hardly heard of the Ourcq. As for me, I'd forgotten that part in the drama of September, 1914. I knew that there was an Ourcq-a canal, or a river, or both, with a bit of Paris sticking to its banks: knew it vaguely, as one knows and forgets that one's friends' faces have profiles. But Brian's words brought back the whole story to my mind in a flash. I remembered how Von Kluck was trapped like a rat, in the couloir of the Ourcq, by the genius of Gallieni, and the glorious co?peration of General Manoury and the dear British "contemptibles" under General French.

It was a desperate adventure that-to try and take the Germans in the flank; and Gallieni's advisers told him there were not soldiers enough in his command to do it. "Then we'll do it with sailors!" he said. "But," urged an admiral, "my sailors are not trained to march."

"They will march without being trained," said the defender of the capital. "I've been in China and Madagascar, I know what sailors can do on land."

"Even so, there will not be enough men," answered the pessimists.

"We'll fill the gaps with the police," said the general, inspired perhaps by Sainte-Geneviève.

So the deed was dared; and in a panic at sight of the mysteriously arriving troops, Von Kluck retreated from the Ourcq to the Aisne. It was when he heard how the trick had been played and won by sheer bravado, that he cried out in rage, "How could I count on such a coup? Not another military governor in a hundred would have risked throwing his whole force sixty kilometres from its base. How should I guess what a dare-devil fool Gallieni would turn out? But if Trochu, in '70, had been the same kind of a fool, we should never have got Paris!"

Half the ghosts in history seemed to haunt this Route de Strasbourg, and to meet us as we passed. You know how you see the characters in a moving-picture play, and behind them the "fade ins" that show their life history, visions that change on the screen like patterns in a kaleidoscope? So on this meadow-bordered road, peaceful in the autumn sunlight, we saw with our minds' eyes the soldiers of 1914: behind them the soldiers of 1870: farther in the background Napoleon the Great with his men: and fading into the distance, processions of kings who had marched along the Marne, since the day Sainte-Geneviève ordered the gates of Paris to be shut in the face of Attila.

Such a gay, gold-sequined blue-green ribbon of a river it looked! Almost impudent in gaiety, as if it wished to forget and be happy. But souls and rivers never really forget. When they know what the Marne knows, they are gay only on the surface!

It was at Meaux where we had our first close meeting with the Marne: Meaux, the city nearest Paris "on the Marne front," where the Germans came: and even after three years you can still see on the left bank of the river traces of trench-shallow, pathetic holes dug in wild haste. We might have missed them, we creatures with mere eyes, if Brian hadn't asked, "Can't you see the trenches?" Then we saw them, of course, half lost under rank grass, like dents in a green velvet cushion made by a sleeper who has long ago waked and walked away.

From a distance the glistening gray roofs of Meaux were like a vast crowd of dark-winged doves; but as we ran into the town it opened out into dignified importance, able to live up to its thousand years of history. There was no work for the Becketts there, we thought, for the Germans had time to do little material harm to Meaux in 1914: and at first sight there seemed to be no need of alms. But Jim had loved Meaux. His mother took from her blue morocco bag his letter describing the place, mentioning how he had met the bishop through a French friend.

"Do you think," she asked me timidly, "we might call on the bishop? Who knows but he remembers our Jimmy?"

"He's a famous bishop," said Brian. "I've heard poilus from Meaux tell stories of how the Germans were forced to respect him, he was so brave and fine. He took the children of the town under his protection, and no harm came to one of them. There were postcard photographs going round early in the war, of the bishop surrounded by boys and girls-like a benevolent Pied Piper. It's kindness he's famous for, as well as courage, so I'm sure we may call."

Near the beautiful old cathedral we passed a priest, and asked him where to find the bishop's house. "You need not go so far; here he comes," was the answer. We looked over our shoulders, almost guiltily, and there indeed he was. He had been in the cathedral with two French officers, and in another instant the trio would have turned a corner. Our look and the priest's gesture told the bishop that we were speaking of him. He paused, and Mr. Beckett jumped out of the stopped car, agile as a boy in his excitement.

"Oh, I forgot, I can't talk French! Mary, you must see me through!" he pleaded.

I hurried to the rescue, and together we walked up to the bishop. Off came Mr. Beckett's hat; and both officers saluted us. One was a general, the other a colonel.

If I'd had time to rehearse, I might have done myself some credit. As it was, I stammered out some sort of explanation and introduced Jim's father.

"I remember young Monsieur Beckett," the bishop said. "He was not one to be forgotten! Besides, he was generous to Meaux. He left a noble present for our poor. And now, you say, he has given his life for France? What is there I can do to prove our gratitude? You have come to Meaux because of his letters? Wait a few minutes, till these brave messieurs have gone, and I myself will show you the cathedral. Oh, you need not fear! It will be a pleasure."

He was as good as his word, and better. Not only did he show the splendid Gothic cathedral, pride of the "fair ?le-de-France," but the bishop's house as well. Bossuet had lived there, the most famous bishop Meaux had in the past. It was dramatic to enter his study, guided by the most famous bishop of the present; to see in such company the room where Bossuet penned his denunciation of the Protestants, and then the long avenue of yews where he used to walk in search of inspiration. We saw his tomb, too-in the cathedral (yes, I believe Brian saw it more clearly than we!), one of those grand tombs they gave prelates in the days of Louis XIV: and when the Becketts had followed Jim's example in generosity, we bade adieu to the-oh, ever so much kindlier heir of the great controversialist. I'm afraid, to tell the truth, the little old lady cared more to know that her Jim's favourite cheese-Brie-was made in Meaux, than anything else in the town's history. Nevertheless, she listened with a charmed air to Brian's story of Meaux's great romance-as she listens to all Brian's stories. It was you, P

adre, who told it to Brian, and to me, one winter night when we'd been reading about Gaston, de Foix, "Gaston le Bel." Our talk of his exploits brought us to Meaux, at the time of the Jacquerie, in the twelfth century. The common people had revolted against the nobles who oppressed them, and all the ?le-de-France-adorable name!-seethed with civil war. In Meaux was the Duchess of Orleans, with three hundred great ladies, most of them beautiful and young. The peasants besieged the Duchess there, and she and her lovely companions were put to sore straits, when suddenly arrived brave Gaston to save them. I don't quite know why he took the trouble to come so far, from his hill-castle near the Spanish frontier, but most likely he loved one of the shut-up ladies. Or perhaps it was simply for love of all womanhood, since Gaston was so chivalrous that Froissart said, "I never saw one like him of personage, nor of so fair form, nor so well made."

From Meaux our road (we were going to make Nancy our centre and stopping place) followed the windings of the green ribbon Marne to Chateau-Thierry, on the river's right bank. There's a rather thrilling ruin, that gave the town its name, and dominates it still-the ruin of a castle which Charles Martel built for a young King Thierry. The legend says that this boy differed from the wicked kings Thierry, sons and grandsons of the Frankish Clovis; that he wanted to be good, but "Fate" would not let him. Perhaps it's a judgment on those terrible Thierry kings, who left to their enemies only the earth round their habitations-"because it couldn't be carried away"-that the Germans have left ruins in Chateau-Thierry more cruel than those of the crumbling castle. In seven September days they added more monuments historiques than a thousand years had given the ancient Marne city.

Jim Beckett had written his mother all about the town, and sent postcard pictures of its pride, the fortress-like, fifteenth-century church with a vast tower set upon a height. He liked Chateau-Thierry because Jean de la Fontaine was born there, and called it "a peaceful-looking place, just right for the dear fable-maker, who was so child-like and sweet-natured, that he deserved always to be happy, instead of for ever in somebody's debt." A soldier having seen the wasted country at the front, might still describe Chateau-Thierry as a "peaceful-looking place." But it was the first glimpse the Becketts had had of war's abominable destruction. I took up nursing in the south of France before the Zeppelins made much visible impression on London; and as I volunteered for a "contagious" hospital, I've lived an isolated life far from all horrors save those in my own ward, and the few I saw when I went to nurse Brian. Perhaps it was well for us to begin with Chateau-Thierry, whose gaping wounds are not mortal, and to miss tragic Varreddes. Had Sermaize-les-Bains, which burst upon us later, been our first experience, the shock might have been too great for Mrs. Beckett. As it was, we worked slowly to the climax. Yet even so, we travelled on with a hideous mirage of broken homes, of intimacies brutally laid bare, floating between the landscape and our eyes. We could not get rid of this mirage, could not brush it away, though the country was friendly and fair of face as a child playing in a waterside meadow. The crudely new bridges that crossed the Marne were the only open confessions of what the river had suffered. But the Marne spirit had known wars enough to learn "how sweet it is to live, forgetting." With her bits of villages scattered like strewn flowers on her green flood, she floats in a dream of her adventurous past and the glorious future which she has helped to win for France.

It was hard to realize that the tiny island villages and hamlets on the level shores had seen the Germans come and go; that under the gray roofs-furry-soft as the backs of Maltese cats-hearts had beaten in agony of fear; that along the white road, with its double row of straight trees like an endless army on parade, weeping fugitives had fled.

We were not aiming to reach Nancy that night, so we paused at épernay. The enemy behaved better there than in most Marne towns, perhaps because Wagner once lived in it, or, more likely, under the soothing influence of épernay's champagne, which has warmed the cockles of men's hearts since a bishop of the ninth century made it famous by his praise. Nevertheless, there are ruins to see, for the town was bombarded by the Germans after they were turned out. All the quarter of the rich was laid waste: and the vast "Fabrique de Champagne" of Mercier, with its ornamental frieze of city names, is silent to this day, its proud fa?ade of windows broken. Not a big building of the town, not a neighbouring chateau of a "Champagne baron" has a whole window-pane visible, though three years have rolled on since the cannonading did its work! Nowadays glass is as dear as diamonds in France, and harder to get.

Outside Champagnopolis, in the wide wooden village of hospital huts, a doctor told us a war ghost story. One night the Germans made a great haul of champagne, of a good year, in a castle near by. They had knocked off the heads of many bottles, naming each for a French general of yesterday or to-day, when some officer who knew more history than the rest remembered that Henri IV had taken épernay in 1592. He named his bottle for Henri de Navarre, and harangued his comrades on the superiority of Wilhelm von Hohenzollern. As the speechmaker cracked the neck with his sword, the bottle burst in a thousand pieces, drenching everyone with wine. A bit of glass struck the electric lamp over the table, and out went the light. For an instant the room was black. Then a white ray flickered on the wall, as if thrown through the window by a searchlight. Out of its glimmer stepped a man, with a long, laughing face and a pointed beard. Round his neck was a high ruff. He wore a doublet of velvet, and shining silk hose. In his hand was a silver goblet, frothing over the top with champagne. "He drinks best who drinks last!" cried he in French, and flung the goblet at the face of him who named the bottle. At the same second there was a great explosion, and only one soldier escaped; he who told the story.

Think, Padre, it was near Chalons that Attila was defeated, and forced to fly from France for ever! I ought to say, Attila the first, since the self-named Attila II hasn't yet been beaten back beyond the Rhine.

We-you, and Brian and I-used to have excited arguments about reincarnation. You know now which of us was right! But I cling to the theory of the spiral, in evolution of the soul-the soul of a man or the soul of the world. It satisfies my sense of justice and my reason both, to believe that we must progress, being made for progression; but that we evolve upward slowly, with a spiral motion which brings us at certain periods, as we rise, directly above the last earth-phase in our evolution. If it's true, here, after nearly thirteen centuries, are the Huns overrunning Europe once more. Learned Huns, scientific Huns, but always Huns, repeating history on a higher scale, barbarously bent on pulling down the liberty of the world by the power of brute force. Again they're destined to be conquered as before, at a far bigger price. What will the next turn of their spiral bring, I wonder? A vast battle of intellect, perhaps, when wars of blood have been forgotten. And I wonder, too, where has Attila been, since he was beaten in this Champagne country of the Marne, and died two years later at his wedding-feast in Hungary!

Did he appear in our world again, in the form of some great, cruel general or king, or did his soul rest until it was reincarnated in the form that claims his name to-day?

I could scarcely concentrate upon Chalons, though it's a noble town, crowded with grand old buildings. My mind was busily travelling back, back into history, as Peter Ibbetson travelled in his prison-dreams. It didn't stop on its way to see the city capitulate to the Allies in 1814, just one hundred years before the great new meaning came into that word "allies." I ran past the brave fifteenth-century days, when the English used to attack Chalons-sur-Marne, hoping to keep their hold on France. I didn't even pause for Saint-Bernard, preaching the Crusade in the gorgeous presence of Louis VII and his knights. It was Attila who lured me down, down into his century, buried deep under the sands of Time. I heard the ring of George Meredith's words: "Attila, my Attila!" But I saw the wild warrior Attila, fighting in Champagne, not the dead man adjured by Ildico, his bride. I saw him "short, swarthy, broad-chested," in his crude armour, his large head, "early gray," lifted like a wolf's at bay. I saw his fierce, ugly face with its snub nose and little, deep-set eyes, flushed in the fury of defeat as he ordered the famous screen of chariots to be piled up between him and the Romano-Gauls. I saw him and his men profiting by the strange barrier, and the enemy's exhaustion, to escape beyond the Rhine, with eyes yearning toward the country they were to see no more.

History calls that battle "one of the decisive battles of the world," yet it lasted only a day, and engaged from a hundred and seventy-four thousand to three hundred thousand men. Oh, the spiral of battles has climbed high since then!

I think I should have had a presentiment of the war if I'd lived at Chalons, proud city of twenty-two bridges and the Canal Rhine-Marne. The water on stormy days must have whispered, "They are coming. Take care!"

At Vitry-le-Fran?ois there is also that same sinister canal which leads from the Marne to the Rhine, the Rhine to the Marne. The name has a wicked sound in these days-Rhine-Marne; and at Vitry-le-Fran?ois of all places. The men from over the Rhine destroyed as much as they had time to destroy of the charming old town planned by Francis I, and named for him. All the villages round about the new Huns broke to pieces, like the toy towns of children: Revigny, sprayed from hand pumps with petrol, and burnt to the ground: Sermaize-les-Bains, loved by Romans and Saracens, obliterated; women drowned in the river by laughing German soldiers, deep down under yellow water-lilies, which mark their resting place to-day: everywhere, through the fields and forests, low wooden crosses in the midst of little votive gardens, telling their silent tale.

Ah, but it is good that Mother Beckett saw Chateau-Thierry first, or she might have covered her eyes and begged to go back to Paris! Here all speaks of death and desolation, save the busy little hut-villages of the Quakers. The "Friends" quietly began their labour of love before the Battle of the Marne was ended, and they're "carrying on" still. The French translate them affectionately into "les Amis."

It was at Bar-le-Duc that I met disaster face to face in so strange a way that it needs a whole letter to tell you what happened.

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