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   Chapter 14 No.14

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 23482

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


We were three automobiles strong when we went out of Nancy, along what they call the "Lunéville road." That was yesterday, as I write, and already it seems long ago! The third and biggest car belonged to the Préfet; gray and military looking, driven by a soldier in uniform; and this time Dierdre O'Farrell was with us. I was wondering if she went "under orders," or if she wished to see the sights we were to see-among them, perhaps, her elusive doctor!

We turned south, leaving town, and presently passed-at Dombasle-astonishingly huge salt-works, with rubble-heaps tall as minor pyramids. On each apex stood a thing like the form of a giant black woman in a waggling gas-mask and a helmet. I could have found out what these weird engines were, no doubt, but I preferred to remember them as mysterious monsters.

At a great, strange church of St. Nicolas, in the old town of St. Nicolas-du-Port, we stopped, because the Préfet's daughters had told us of a magic stone in the pavement which gives good fortune to those who set foot on it. Only when several of us were huddled together, with a foot each on the sacred spot, were we told that it meant marriage before the new year. If the spell works, Dierdre O'Farrell, Brian, and I will all be married in less than four months. But St. Nicolas is a false prophet where we are concerned. Brian and I will never marry. Even if poor Brian should fall head over ears in love, he wouldn't ask a girl to share his broken life: he has told me this. As for me, I can never love any man after Jim Beckett. The least penance I owe is to be faithful forever to his memory and my own falsehood!

St. Nicolas is the patron saint of the neighbourhood, so it's right that from his little town and his big church all the country round should open out to the eye, as if to do him homage.

From the hill of Léomont we could see to the south the far-off, famous Forest of Parroy; away to the north, the blue heights of La Grande Couronne, where the fate of Nancy was decided in 1914; to the west, a purple haze like a mourning wreath of violets hung over the valley of the Meurthe, and the tragic little tributary river Mortagne; beyond, we could picture with our mind's eyes the Moselle and the Meuse.

But Léomont was not a place where one could stand coldly thinking of horizons. It drew all thoughts to itself, and to the drama played out upon its miniature mountain. There was fought one of the fiercest and most heroic single battles of the war.

We had to desert the cars, and walk up a rough track to the ruined farmhouse which crowned the hill; a noble, fortified farmhouse that must have had the dignity of a chateau before the great fight which shattered its ancient walls. Now it has the dignity of a mausoleum. Long ago, in Roman days when Diana, Goddess of the Moon, was patron of Lunéville and the country round, a temple of stone and marble in her honour and a soaring fountain crowned the high summit of Léomont, for all the world to see. Her influence is said to reign over the whole of Lorraine, from that day to this, St. Nicholas being her sole rival: and a prophecy has come down through the centuries that no evil may befall Diana's citadels, save in the "dark o' the moon," when the protectress is absent. Lunéville was overrun in the "dark o' the moon"; and it was then also that the battle of Léomont was fought, ending in the vast cellars, where no man was left alive.

In these days of ours, it's a wonderful and romantic mountain, sacred as a monument forever, to the glory of the French soldiers who did not die in vain. The scarred face of the ruined house-its stones pitted by shrapnel as if by smallpox-gazes over Lorraine as the Sphinx gazes over the desert: calm, majestic, sad, yet triumphant. And under the shattered walls, among fallen buttresses and blackened stumps of oaks, are the graves of Léomont's heroes; graves everywhere, over the hillside; graves in the open; graves in sheltered corners where wild flowers have begun to grow; their tricolour cockades and wooden crosses mirrored in the blue of water-filled shell-holes; graves in the historic cellars, covered with a pall of darkness; graves along the slope of the hill, where old trenches have left ruts in the rank grass.

An unseen choir of bird-voices was singing the sweetest requiem ever sung for the dead; yet Léomont in its majestic loneliness saddened us, even the irrepressible Puck. We were sad and rather silent all the way to Vitrimont; and Vitrimont, at first glance, was a sight to make us sadder than any we had seen. There had been a Vitrimont, a happy little place, built of gray and rose-red stones; now, of those stones hardly one lies upon another, except in rubble heaps. And yet, Vitrimont isn't sad as others of the ruined towns are sad. It even cheered us, after Léomont, because a star of hope shines over the field of desolation-a star that has come out of the west. Some wonderful women of San Francisco decided to "adopt" Vitrimont, as one of the little places of France which had suffered most in the war. Two of them, Miss Polk and Miss Crocker-girls rather than women-gave themselves as well as their money to the work. In what remains of Vitrimont-what they are making of Vitrimont-they live like two fresh roses that have taken root in a pile of ashes. With a few books, a few bowls of flowers, pictures, and bits of bright chintz they have given charm to their poor rooms in the half-ruined house of a peasant. This has been their home for many months, from the time when they were the only creatures who shared Vitrimont with its ghosts: but now other homes are growing under their eyes and through their charity; thanks to them, the people of the destroyed village are trooping back, happy and hopeful. The church has been repaired (that was done first, "because it is God's house") with warm-coloured pink walls and neat decoration; and plans for the restoring of the whole village are being carried out, while the waiting inhabitants camp in a village of toy-like bungalows given by the French Government. I never saw such looks of worshipping love cast upon human beings as those of the people of Vitrimont for these two American girls. I'm sure they believe that Miss Crocker and Miss Polk are saints incarnated for their sakes by "la Sainte Vierge." One old man said as much!

He was so old that it seemed as if he could never have been young, yet he was whistling a toothless but patriotic whistle, over some bit of amateur-carpenter work, in front of a one-room bungalow. Inside, visible through the open door, was the paralyzed wife he had lately wheeled "home" to Vitrimont, in some kind of a cart. "Oh, yes, we are happy!" he stopped whistling to say. "We are fortunate, too. We think we have found the place where our street used to be, and these Angels-we do not call them Demoiselles, but Angels-from America are going to build us a new home in it. We have seen the plan. It is more beautiful than the old!"

Wherever we passed a house on the road to Lunéville, and in town itself, as we came in, we saw notices-printed and written-to remind us that we were in the war-zone, if we forgot for an instant. "Logement militaire," or "Cave vo?tée, 200 places-400 places." Those hospitable cellars advertising their existence in air raids and bombardments must be a comforting sight for passers-by, now and then; but no siren wailed us a warning. We drove on in peace; and I-disappointed at Vitrimont-quietly kept watch for a tall, thin figure of a man with a slight limp. At any moment, I thought, I might see him, for at Lunéville he lives-if he lives anywhere!

I was so eager and excited that I could hardly turn my mind to other things; but Brian, not knowing why I should be absent-minded, constantly asked questions about what we passed. Julian O'Farrell had exchanged his sister for Mr. and Mrs. Beckett, whom he had persuaded to take the short trip in his ramshackle taxi. His excuse was that Mother Beckett would deal out more wisely than Dierdre his Red Cross supplies to the returned refugees; so we had the girl with us; and I caught reproachful glances if I was slow in answering my blind brother. She herself suspects him as a poseur, yet she judges me careless of his needs-which I should find funny, if it didn't make me furious! Just to see what Dierdre would do, and perhaps to provoke her, sometimes I didn't answer at all, but left her to explain our surroundings to Brian. I hardly thought she would respond to the silent challenge, but almost ostentatiously she did.

She cried, "There's a castle!" when we came to the fine and rather staid chateau which Duke Stanislas loved, and where he died. She even tried to describe it for Brian, with faltering self-consciousness, and the old streets which once had been "brilliant as Versailles, full of Queen Marie's beautiful ladies." Now, they are gray and sad, even those streets which show no scars from the three weeks' martyrdom of German rule. Soldiers pass, on foot and in motors, yet it's hard to realize that before the war Lunéville was one of the gayest, grandest garrison towns of France, rich and industrious, under Diana's special protection. Just because she was away in her moon-chariot, one dark and dreadful night, all has changed since then. But she'll come back, and bless her ancient place of Lun? Villa, in good time!

It was here, Brian reminded me, that they drew up the treaty which gave the Rhine frontier to France, after Napoleon won the Battle of Marengo. I wonder if the Germans remembered this in 1914 when they came?

We lunched at an hotel, in a restaurant crowded with French officers; and not a civilian there except ourselves. I was hoping that Paul Herter might come in, for the tragic Rue Princesse Marie is not far away-and even a Wandering Jew must eat! He did not come; but I almost forgot my new disappointment in hearing the French officers talk about Lorraine.

They were in the midst of a discussion when we came in, and when they had all bowed politely to us, they took up its thread where it had broken off. A colonel-a Lorrainer-was saying that out of the wealth of Lorraine (stolen wealth, he called it!) Germany had built up her fortune as a united nation, in a few years far exceeding the indemnity received in 1871. Germany had known that there were vast stores of iron; but the amazing riches in phosphorus ores had come to her as a surprise. If she had guessed, never would she have agreed to leave more than half the deposit on the French side of the frontier! Well enough for Prussian boasters to say that Germany's success was due to her own industry and supervirtue, or that her tariff schemes had worked wonders. But take away the provinces she tore from France, and she will be a Samson shorn! Take away Lorraine and the world will be rid once and for all of the German menace!

When we left Lunéville there was still hope from Gerbéviller. Herter is often there, it seems. Besides, Gerbéviller was the principal end and aim of our day's excursion. Once no more than a pleasant town of quiet beauty on a pretty river, now it is a monument historique, the Pompeii of Lorraine.

As we arrived the sun clouded over suddenly, and the effect was almost theatrical. From gold the light had dimmed to silver. In the midst of the afternoon, we saw Gerbéviller as if by moonlight in the still silence of night. On the outskirts we forsook our three cars, and walked slowly through the dead town, awestruck and deeply thoughtful as if in a church where the body of some great man lay in state.

There was not a sound except, as at Léomont, the unseen choir of bird-voices; but their song emphasized the silence.

In the pale light the shells of wrecked houses glimmered white, like things seen deep down under clear water. They were mysterious as daytime ghosts; and already a heartbreaking picturesqueness had taken possession of the streets, as an artist-decorator comes into an ugly room and mellows all its crudeness with his loving touch.

Gerbéviller's tragic little river Mortagne gleamed silver-bright beneath a torn lace of delicate white flowers that was like a veil flung off by a fugitive bride. It ran sparkling under the motionless wheel of a burned mill, and twinkled on-the one living thing the Germans left-to flow through the park of a ruined chateau.

When it was alive, that small chateau must have been gay and delightful as a castle in a fairy tale, pink and friendly among its pleasant trees; but even in its prime, rich with tapestries and splendid old paintings, which were its treasures, never could the place have been so beautiful as in death!

At a first glance-seen straight in front-the face of the house seems to live still, rosy with colour, gazing with immense blue eyes through a light green veil. But a second glance brings a shock to the heart. The face is a mask held up to hide a skull; the blue of the eyes is the open sky framed by glassless windows; the rosy colour is stained with dark streaks of smoke and flame; the chateau among its trees, and the chapel with its stopped clock and broken saints are skeletons.

Not even O'Farrell could talk. We were a silent procession in the midst of silence until we came at last to the one quarter of the town whose few houses had been spared to the courage of Gerbéviller's heroine, S?ur Julie.

Her street (but for her it would not exist) has perhaps a dozen houses intact, looking strangely bourgeois, almost out of place, so smugly whole where all else has perished. Yet it was a comfort to see them, and wonderful to see S?ur Julie.

We knocked at the door of the hospice, the cottage hospital which is famous because of her, its head and heart; and she herself let us in, for at that instant she had been in the act of starting out. I recognized her at once from the photographs which were in every illustrated paper at the time when, for her magnificent bravery and presence of mind, she was named Chevalière of the Legion of Honour.

But with her first smile I saw that the pictures had done her crude injustice. They made of S?ur Julie an elderly woman in the dress of a nun; somewhat stout, rather large of feature. But the figure which met us in the narrow corridor had dignity and a noble strength. The smile of greeting lit deep eyes whose colour was that of brown topaz, and showed the kindly, humorous curves of a generous mouth. The flaring white headdress of the Order of Saint-Charles of Nancy framed a face so strong that I ceased to wonder how this woman had cowed a German horde; and it thrilled me to think that in this very doorway she had stood at bay, offering her black-robed body as a shield for the wounded soldiers and poor people she meant to save.

Even if we had not come from the Préfet, and with some of his family who were her admiring friends, I'm sure S?ur Julie would have welcomed the strangers. As it was she beamed with pleasure at the visit, and called a young nun to help place chairs for us all in the clean, bare reception room. By this time she must know that she is the heroine of Lorraine-her own Lorraine!-and that those who came to Gerbéviller come to see her; but she talked to us with the unself-consciousness of a child. It was only when she was begged to tell the tale of August 23, 1914, that she showed a faint sign of embarrassment. The blood flushed her brown face, and she hesitated how to begin, as if she would rather not begin at all, but once launched on the tide, she forgot everything except her story: she lived that time over again, and we lived it with her.

"What a day it was!" she sighed. "We knew what must happen, unless God willed to spare Gerbéviller by some miracle. Our town was in the German's way. Yet we prayed-we hoped. We hoped even after our army's defeat at Morhange. Then Lunéville was taken. Our turn was near. We heard how terrible were the Bavarians under their general, Clauss. Our soldiers-poor, brave boys!-fought every step of the way to hold them back. They fought like lions. But they were so few! The Germans came in a gray wave of men. Our wounded were brought here to the hospice, as many as we could take-and more! Often there were three hundred. But when there was no hope to save the town, quick, with haste at night, they got the wounded away-ambulance after ambulance, cart after cart: all but a few; nineteen grands blessés, who could not be moved. They were here in this room where we sit. But ah, if you had seen us-we sisters-helping the commandant as best we could! We made ourselves carpenters. We took wooden shutters and doors from their hinges for stretchers. We split the wood with axes. We did not remember to be tired. We tore up our linen, and linen which others brought us. We tied the wounded boys on to the shutters. They never groaned. Sometimes they smiled. Ah, it was we who wept, to see them jolting off in rough country wagons, going we knew not where, or to what fate! All night we worked, and at dawn there were none left-except those nineteen I told you of. And that was the morning of the 23rd of August, hot and heavy-a weight upon our hearts and heads.

"Not only the wounded, but our defenders had gone. The army was in retreat. We had fifty-seven chasseurs left, ordered to keep the enemy back for five hours. They did it for eleven! From dawn till twilight they held the bridge outside the town, and fought behind barriers they had flung up in haste. Boys they were, but of a courage! They knew they were to die to save their comrades. They asked no better than to die hard. And they fought so well, the Germans believed there were thousands. Not till our boys had nearly all fallen did the enemy break through and swarm into the town. That was down at the other end from us, below the hill, but soon we heard fearful sounds-screams and shoutings, shots and loud explosions. They were burning the place street by street with that method of theirs! They fired the houses with pastilles their chemists have invented, and with petrol. The air was thick with smoke. We shut our windows to save the wounded from coughing. Soon we might all die together, but we would keep our boys from new sufferings while we could!

"Then at last the hour struck for us. One of our sisters, who had run to look at the red sky to see how near the fire came, cried out that Germans were pouring up the hill-four officers on horseback heading a troop of soldiers. I knew what that meant. I went quickly to the door to meet them. My knees felt as if they had broken under my weight. My heart was a great, cold, dead thing within me. My mouth was dry as if I had lost myself for days in the desert. I am not a small woman, yet it seemed that I was no bigger than a mouse under the stare of those big men who leaped off their horses, and made as if to pass me at the door. But I did not let them pass. I knew I could stop them long enough at least to kill me and then the sisters, one by one, before they reached our wounded! We backed slowly before them into the hall, the sisters and I, to stand guard before this room.

"'You are hiding Frenchmen here-French soldiers!' a giant of a captain bawled at me. Beside him was a lieutenant even more tall. They had swords in their hands, and they both pointed their weapons at me.

"'We have nineteen soldiers desperately wounded,' I said. 'There are no other men here.'

"'You are lying!' shouted the captain. He thought he could frighten me with his roar like a lion: but he did not seem to me so noble a beast.

"'You may come in and see for yourselves that I speak the truth,' I said. And think what it was for me, a woman of Lorraine, to bid a German enter her house! I did not let those two pass by me into this room. I came in first. While the lieutenant stood threatening our boys in their beds that he would shoot if they moved, the captain went round, tearing off the sheets, looking for firearms. In his hand was a strange knife, like a dagger which he had worn in his belt. One of our soldiers, too weak to open his lips, looked at the German, with a pair of great dark eyes that spoke scorn; and that look maddened the man with a sudden fury.

"'Coward, of a country of cowards! You and cattle like you have cut off the ears and torn out the eyes of our glorious Bavarians. I'll slit your throat to pay for that!'

"Ah, but this was too much-more than I could bear! I said 'No!' and I put my two hands-so-between the throat of that boy and the German knife."

When S?ur Julie came to this part of the tale, she made a beautiful, unconscious gesture, re-enacting the part she had played. I knew then how she had looked when she faced the Bavarian officer, and why he had not hacked those two work-worn but nobly shaped hands of hers, to get at the French chasseur's throat. She seemed the incarnate spirit of the mother-woman, whose selfless courage no brute who had known a mother could resist. And her "No!" rang out deep and clear as a warning tocsin. I felt that the wounded boy must have been as safe behind those hands and that "No!" as if a thick though transparent wall of glass had magically risen to protect him.

"All this time," S?ur Julie went on, gathering herself together after a moment. "All this time Germans led by non-commissioned officers were searching the hospice. But they found no hiding soldiers, because there were none such to find. And somehow that captain and his lieutenant did not touch our wounded ones. They had a look of shame and sullenness on their faces, as if they were angry with themselves for yielding their wicked will to an old woman. Yet they did yield, thank God! And then I got the captain's promise to spare the hospice-got it by saying we would care for his wounded as faithfully as we tended our own. I said, 'If you leave this house standing to take in your men, you must leave the whole street. If the buildings round us burn, we shall burn, too-and with us your German wounded. Will you give me your word that this whole quarter shall be safe?'

"The man did not answer. But he looked down at his boots. And I have always noticed that, when men of any nation look at their boots, it is that they are undecided. It was so with him. A few more arguments from me, and he said: 'It shall be as you ask.'

"Soon he must have been glad of his promise, for there were many German wounded, and we took them all in. Ah, this room, which you see so clean and white now, ran blood. We had to sweep blood into the hall, and so out at the front door, where at least it washed away the German footprints from our floor! For days we worked and did our best, even when we knew of the murders committed: innocent women with their little children. And the fifteen old men they shot for hostages. Oh, we did our best, though it was like acid eating our hearts. But our reward came the day the Germans had to gather up their wounded in wild haste, as the French commandant had gathered ours before the retreat. They fled, and our Frenchmen marched back-too late to save the town, but not too late to redeem its honour. And that is all my story."

As she finished with a smile half sad, half sweet, S?ur Julie looked over our heads at some one who had just come in-some one who had stood listening in silence, unheard and unseen by us. I turned mechanically, and my eyes met the eyes of Paul Herter, the "Wandering Jew."

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