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   Chapter 18 No.18

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 18801

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Almost any place on earth would be an anti-climax the day after Verdun-but not Rheims!

Just at this moment (it mayn't be much more) Rheims is resting, like a brave victim on the rack who has tired his torturers by an obstinate silence. Only a few people are allowed to enter the town, save those who have lived there all along, and learned to think no more of German bombs than German sausages; and those favoured few must slip in and out almost between breaths. Any instant the torturing may begin again, when the Boches have bombs to spare for what they call "target practice"; for think, how near is Laon!-and we'd been warned that, even at the portals of the town, we might be turned back.

We had still another new French officer to take us to Rheims. (I am getting their faces a little mixed, like a composite picture, but I keep sacredly all their dear visiting-cards!) He was a captain, with a scarred but handsome face, and he complimented Mother Beckett and me on our "courage." This made Father Beckett visibly regret that he had brought us, though he had been assured that it was a "safe time." However, his was not the kind of regret which tempts a man to turn back: it only makes his upper lip look long.

I never saw Rheims in palmy days of peace. Now I wish I had seen it! But there was that lithograph of the cathedral by Gustave Simonau, the great Belgian artist, hanging above your desk, in the den, Padre. I used to study it when I should have been studying my lessons, fascinated by the splendid fa?ade, the twin towers, the three "portals of the Trinity," the rose-window, the gallery of kings, the angels, the saints, the gargoyles and all the carved stone lace-work which the picture so wonderfully shows.

On the opposite side of the room was Simonau's Cathedral of Chartres, in a dark frame to match, and I remember your saying that Chartres was considered by some critics even finer than Rheims. The Cathedral of Chartres seemed a romantic monument of history to me, because it was built as a shrine for the "tunic of the Virgin"; but the Gothic Notre-Dame of Rheims appealed to my-perhaps prophetic-soul. Maybe I had a latent presentiment of how I should see the real cathedral, as la grande blessée of the greatest war of the world.

Anyhow, I always took a deep interest in Rheims from the day I first gaped, an open-mouthed child, at that beautiful drawing, and I was glad I'd forgotten none of its details, as we motored toward the martyr town. Usually there's Brian, who can tell the dear Becketts all they don't know and want to know, but this time they'd only me to depend upon. And when I think what a cruel fraud I am at heart, there's some consolation in serving them, even in small ways.

There's a wide plain that knows desolately what German bombardment means: there are gentle hills rising out of it, south and west (will grapes ever be sweet on those sad hillsides again?) and there's the little river Vesle that runs into the Aisne. There's the Canal of the Aisne and the Marne, too-oh, many wide waters and little streams, to breathe out mist, for Rheims is on the pleasant ?le-de-France. There was so much mist this autumn day that it hid from our eyes for a long time the tall form of the Cathedral which should dominate the plain for many miles; a thick, white mist like the sheet with which a sculptor veils his masterpiece until it's ready to face the world. As we drove on, and still saw no looming bulk, frozen fear pinched my heart, like horrid, ice-cold fingers. What if there'd been some new bombardment we hadn't had time to hear of, and the Cathedral were gone?

But I didn't speak my fear. I tried to cover it up by chattering about Rheims. Goodness knows there's a lot to chatter about! All that wonderful history, since Clovis was baptized by Saint Remi; and Charlemagne crowned, and Charles the VII, with Jeanne d'Arc looking on in bright armour, and various Capets, and enough other kings to name Notre-Dame of Rheims the "Cathedral of Coronations." I remembered something about the Gate of Mars, too-the oldest thing of all-which the Remi people put up in praise of Augustus C?sar when Agrippa brought his great new roads close to their capital. I think it had been called Durocoroturum up to that time-or some equally awful name, which you remember only because you expect to forget! I hardly dared tell the Becketts about the celebrated archiepiscopal palace where the kings used to be entertained by the archbishops (successors of Saint Remi) while the coronation ceremonies were going on: and the Salle du Tau with its wonderful hangings, its velvet-cushioned stone seats and carved, upright furniture, where the royal guests-in robes stiff with jewelled embroidery-had their banquets from plates of solid silver and gold. It seemed cruel to speak of splendours vanished forever, vanished like the holy oil of the sacred phial brought from heaven by a dove for the baptism of Clovis, and kept for the anointing of all those dead kings!

But it was just the time and place to talk about Attila-Attila the First, I mean, of whom, as I told you, I firmly believe the present "incumbent" to be the reincarnation. As Attila I. thought fit to put Rheims to the sword, Atilla II. is naturally impelled by the "spiral" to do his best from a distance, by destroying the Cathedral which wasn't begun in his predecessor's day. But what does he think, I wonder, about the prophecy? That in Rheims-scene of the first German defeat on the soil of Gaul-Germany's last defeat will be celebrated, with great rejoicing in the Cathedral she has tried to ruin?

Those words, "tried to ruin," I uttered rather feebly, holding forth to the Becketts, because we had passed a long dark line of trees before which-we'd been told-we ought to see the Cathedral rise triumphant against an empty background of sky. And still there was nothing!

Of course, I told myself, it must be the mist. But could mist be thick enough entirely to hide a great mountain of a cathedral from eyes drawing nearer every minute? Then, suddenly, my question was answered by the mist itself. I must have hypnotized it! A light wind, which we had thought was made by the motor, cut like the shears of Lachesis through the woolly white web. A gash of blue appeared and in the midst, floating as if it had died and gone to heaven, the Cathedral.

Yes, "died and gone to heaven!" That is just what has happened to Notre-Dame of Rheims. The body has been martyred, but the soul is left alive-beautiful, brave soul of the old stones of France!

"Oh!" went up from three voices in the motor-car. I think even our one-legged soldier-chauffeur emitted a grunt of joy; and Mother Beckett clasped her hands on her little thin breast, as if she were praying, such a wonderful sight it was, with the golden coronation of the noon-day sun on the towers. Our officer-guide, in his car ahead, looked back as if to say, "I told you so! They can't kill France, and Rheims is the very spirit and youth of France."

Not one of us spoke another word until we drove into the town, and began exclaiming with horror and rage at what Attila II has done to the streets.

The mist had fallen again, not white in the town, but a pale, sad gray, like a mantle of half-mourning. It hung over the spacious avenues and the once fine, now desolate, streets, which had been the pride of Rheims; it slipped serpent-like through what remained of old arcades: it draped the ancient Gate of Mars in the Place de la République as if to hide the cruel scars of the bombardment; it lay like soiled snow on the mountain of tumbled stone which had been the Rue St. Jacques; it curtained the "show street" of Rheims, the Rue de la Grue, almost as old as the Cathedral itself, which a Sieur de Coucy began in 1212; trickling gray as glacier waters over the fallen walls which artists had loved. It marbled with pale streaks the burned, black corpse of the once famous Maison des Laines; it clouded the marvellous old church of St. Remi, and when we came to the Cathedral-kept for the climax-it floated past the wounded statues on the great western fa?ade like an army of spirits-spirits of all those watching saints whom the statues honoured.

The crowns of the broken towers we could not see, but at that height the mist was gilded by the sun which sifted through so that each tower seemed to have its own faint golden halo.

"This effect comes often on these foggy autumn days, when the sun is high, about noontime," said our guide. "It's rather wonderful, isn't it? We have a priest-soldier invalided here now, who used to be of the service in the Cathedral, before he volunteered to fight. He has written some verses, which it seems came to him in a dream one night. Whether the world would think them fine I do not know, but at Rheims we like them. The idea is that Jeanne d'Arc has mobilized the souls of the saints who protect Rheims, to bless and console the Cathedral, which they were not permitted to save from outward ruin. It is she who gilds the mist on the towers with a prophecy of hope. As for the mist itself, according to the poet, it is no common fog. It is but the cloak worn by this army of saints to visit their cathedral, and bathe its wounds with their cool white hands, so that at last, when peace dawns, there shall be a spiritual beauty found in the old marred stones

-a beauty they never had in their prime."

"I should like to see that soldier-priest!" said Father Beckett, when I had translated for him the officer's description of the poem. "Couldn't we meet him? What's his name?"

I passed on the questions to our captain of the scarred face. "The man's name is St. Pol," he told us. "You can see from that he comes of an old family. If it had been this day last week you could have met him. He would have been pleased. But-since then-alas! Mademoiselle, it is impossible that he should be seen. It would be too sad for you and your friends."

"He has been wounded in some bombardment?" I exclaimed.

"Not wounded-no. We don't think much of wounds. What has happened is sadder than wounds. Some day the man may recover. We hope so. But at present he-is out of everything, dead in life."

"What happened?" I gasped.

"Oh, it is quite a history!" said the Captain. "But it begins a long time ago, when the Germans came to Rheims in 1914. Perhaps it would fatigue you? Besides, you have to translate, which takes double the time. I might write out the story and send it, Mademoiselle, if you like. You and your friends are not as safe here as in your own houses, I do not disguise that from you! The Germans have let us rest these last few days. Yet who can tell when they may choose to wake us up with a bomb or two?"

"I don't think we're afraid," I said, and consulted the Becketts. The little old lady answered for both. She was stoutly sure they were not afraid! "We shouldn't deserve to be Jim's parents if we were-of a thing like that! You tell the Captain, Molly, we're getting used to bombs, and we want the story right here, on the spot!"

"C'est très chic, ?a!" remarked the Captain, eyeing the mite of a woman. He stood for a minute, his scarred face pale in the mist, his eyes fixed thoughtfully on a headless stone king. Then he began his story of the soldier-priest.

Monsieur le Curé de St. Pol was very young when the war began-almost as young as a curé can be. He did not think, at first, to become a soldier, for he hated war. But, indeed, in those early days he had no time to think at all. He only worked-worked, to help care for the wounded who were pouring into Rheims, toward the last of August, 1914. Many were brought into the Cathedral, where they lay on the floor, on beds of straw. The Curé's duty was among these. He had relations in Rheims-a family of cousins of the same name as his. They lived in a beautiful old house, one of the best in Rheims, with an ancient chapel in the garden. There was an invalid father, whose wife devoted her life to him, and a daughter-a very beautiful young girl just home from a convent-school the spring before the war broke out. There was a son, too-but naturally, he was away fighting.

This young girl, Liane de St. Pol, was one of many in Rheims who volunteered to help nurse the wounded. All girls brought up in convents have some skill in nursing, you know!

While she and the Curé were at work in the Cathedral, among the wounded men who came in were her own brother, a lieutenant, and his best friend, a captain of his regiment. Both were badly hurt-the St. Pol boy worse than his friend. Yet even for him there was hope-if he could have had the best of care-if he could have been taken home and lovingly nursed there. That was not possible. The surgeons had no time for house-to-house visits. He was operated on in the Cathedral, and as he lay between life and death, news came that the Germans were close to Rheims.

In haste the wounded were sent to épernay-to save them from being made prisoners. But some could not go: Louis de St. Pol and his friend Captain Jean de Visgnes. De Visgnes might have been hidden in the St. Pol house but he would not leave the boy, who could not be moved so far. The Curé vowed to hide both, and he did hide them in a chapel of the Cathedral itself. On September 3, at evening, the first Germans rode into the town and took up their quarters in the Municipal Palace, where they forced the Mayor, a very old man, to live with them. It was a changed Rheims since the day before. The troops of the garrison had gone in the direction of épernay, since there was no hope of defence. Many rich people had fled, taking what they could carry in automobiles or cabs. The poor feared a siege-or worse: they knew not what. The St. Pol family received into their house a number of women whose husbands were at the Front, and their babies. No one ventured out who could stay indoors. The city filled up with German soldiers, with the Kaiser's son, Prince August Wilhelm, at their head. They, too, had wounded. The Cathedral was put to use for them, and the Curé cared for the Boches as he had cared for the French. This gave him a chance, at night, to nurse his two friends. So dragged on seven days, which seemed seven years; and then rumours drifted in of a great German retreat, a mysterious failure in the midst of seeming victory. The Battle of the Marne was making itself felt. In rage and bewilderment the Germans poured out of Rheims, leaving only their wounded behind. The townspeople praised God, and thought their trial was over. But it was only just begun! On the 16th the bombardment opened. The Germans knew that their wounded still lay in the Cathedral, but they did not seem to care for men out of the fighting line. A rain of bombs fell in the town-one of the first wrecked the Red Cross ambulance-and many struck the Cathedral. Then came the night when the straw bedding blazed, and fire poured through the long naves, rising to the roof.

The Curé told afterward how wonderful the sight was with the jewelled windows lighting up for the last time, before the old glass burst with the shrill tinkle of a million crystal bells. He and Jean de Visgnes carried Louis de St. Pol out into the street, but the boy died before they reached his father's house, and De Visgnes had a dangerous relapse. It was on this night that the Curé made up his mind to volunteer, and soon he was at the Front. Nearly three years passed before he and De Visgnes met again, both en permission, travelling back to Rheims to pass their "perm." Jean was now engaged to Liane de St. Pol who, with her parents, had remained in the bombarded town, refusing to desert their poor protegées. The two planned to marry, after the war; but Liane had been struck by a flying fragment of shell, and wounded in the head. De Visgnes could bear the separation no longer. He made the girl promise to marry him at once-in the chapel of the old house, as she was still suffering, and forbidden to go out. His leave had been granted for the wedding, and the moment Liane was strong enough she and the old people would leave Rheims. Jean was to take them himself to his own home in Provence. The Curé was to marry his cousin to the man whose life he had saved.

Many children of the poor whom Liane had helped decorated the chapel with flowers, and though the wedding-day was one of fierce bombardment, no one dreamed of putting off the ceremony. No fine shops for women's dress were open in Rheims, but the bride wore her mother's wedding-gown and veil of old lace. None save the family were asked to the marriage, because it was dangerous to go from house to house; yet all Rheims loved Liane, and meant to wish happiness for bride and bridegroom as the chapel-bells chimed for their union. But the bells began and never finished. At the instant when Liane de St. Pol and Jean de Visgnes became man and wife a bomb fell on the chapel roof. The tiles collapsed like cards, and all the bridal party was killed as by a lightning stroke. Only the soldier-priest was spared. Strangely, he was not even touched. But horror had driven him mad. Since then he spoke only to rave of Liane and Jean; how beautiful they had looked, lying dead before the wrecked altar.

"The doctors say it is like a case of shell-shock," the Captain finished. "They think he'll recover. But at present, as I said-it is a sad affair. Sad for him-not for those who died together, suffering no pain. One of the Curé's favourite sayings used to be, they tell me, 'Death is not an end, but a beginning.'"

"You know him well?" I asked.

"Yes. I was stationed in Rheims before the war. I used to dance with Liane when she came home from school."

"Ah, if only her family hadn't stayed here till too late!" I cried.

The captain with the scarred face shrugged his shoulders. "Destiny!" he said. "Besides, the best people do not run away easily from the homes they love. Perhaps they have the feeling that, in a home which has always meant peace, nothing terrible can happen. Yet there's more in it than that-something more subtle which keeps them in the place where they have always lived: something, I think, that binds the spirits of us Frenchmen and women to the spirit of their own hearths-their own soil. Haven't you found that already, in other places you have visited in this journey of yours?"

"Yes," I answered, thinking of the old people I had seen at Vitrimont living in the granaries of their ruined houses, and strangely, unbelievably happy because they were "at home." "Yes, we have seen that in little villages of Lorraine."

"Then how much more at Rheims, under the shadow of Notre-Dame!" The scarred captain still gazed at the headless king, and faintly smiled.

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