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   Chapter 21 No.21

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 22285

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It's late at night again-no, early to-morrow morning, just about the hour when to-morrow's war-bread is being baked by to-night's war-bakers. But it's good to burn the midnight electricity, because my body and brain are feeling electric.

We have had the most astonishing day!

Of course, I expected that, because we were going to Noyon, and I evacuated all unneeded thoughts and impressions (for instance, those concerning the O'Farrells) to make room for a crowd of new ones, as we did at the H?pital des épidémies with convalescents, for an incoming batch of patients. But I didn't count on private, personal emotions-unless we blundered into an air raid somewhere!

You remember those authors we met once, who write together-the Sandersons-and how they said if they ever dared put a real incident in a book, people picked out that one as impossible? Well, this evening just past reminded me of the Sandersons. We spent it at the War Correspondents' Chateau, not far out of Compiègne: that is, we spent it there if it was real, and not a dream.

* * *

I am the only one in Mother Beckett's confidence-I mean, about her health. Even her husband doesn't know how this trip strains her endurance, physical and mental. Indeed, he's the very one who mustn't know. It's agreed between us that, if she feels hopelessly unfit for any excursion, I shall put on invalid airs and she will stop at home to keep me company. Thus will be avoided all danger of Father Beckett suspecting the weakness she hides. But you can imagine, Padre, knowing me as you do, how frightened I was to-day-our morning for Noyon-lest she should give the signal. I felt I simply couldn't bear to miss Noyon. No use telling myself I shall feel exactly the same about Soissons to-morrow, and Roye and Ham and Chauny and various others the day after. My reason couldn't detach itself at that instant from Noyon.

Our daily programme as now arranged is: Me to knock at Mother Beckett's door half an hour before starting-time. If she's fearing a collapse, she is to exclaim: "My child, how pale you are!" or some other criticism of my complexion. Then I'm to play up, replying: "I do feel under the weather." Whereupon it's easy for her to say: "You must stop in the hotel and rest. I'll stay with you."

To my joy, the greeting this morning was: "My dear, you look fresh as a rose!"

I didn't feel it; for you know I wrote late to you. And at last in bed, I disobeyed your advice about never worrying: I worried quite a lot over Brian and Dierdre O'Farrell; my having led him into a trap, when above all things I wanted his happiness and health. I could well have passed as pale: but I was so pleased with the secret signal that I braced up and bloomed again.

We had to start early, because there was a good deal to do in the day; and we were supposed to return early, too, for a rest, as there's the great adventure of Soissons before us to-morrow. The Correspondents' Chateau wasn't on our list: that was an accident, though now it seems as if the whole trip would have been worth while if only to lead up to that "accident!"

There were several ways we could have taken to Noyon, but we took the way by Dives and Lassigny. We shall have chances for other roads, because, to see various places we mean to visit, we shall go through Noyon again.

Once upon a time, before the Germans came, Dives had a lovely chateau, part of it very old, with a round turret under a tall pointed hat; the other part comparatively young-as young as the Renaissance-and all built of that pale, rose-pink colour which most chateaux of this forestland, and this ?le-de-France used to wear in happy days before they put on smoke-stained mourning.

Now, instead of its proud chateau, Dives has a ruin even more lovely, though infinitely sad.

As for Lassigny, it was battered to death: yet I think it was glad to die, because the Germans had turned it into a fortress, and they had to be shelled out by the French. Poor little Lassigny! It must have had what the French call "une beauté coquette," and the Germans, it seemed, were loth to leave. When they found that they must go, and in haste, they boiled with rage. Not only did they blow up all that was left in the village, but they blew up the trees of the surrounding orchards. They had not the excuse for this that they needed the trees to bar the way of the pursuing French army. Such trees as they felled across the road were the big trees of the forest. Their destruction of the young fruit trees was just a slaughter of innocents; and I've never hated war, Padre, as I hated it to-day-above all, German methods of making war. Even the countless graves on the battlefields do not look so sad as those acres of murdered trees: blown-up trees, chopped-down trees, trees gashed to death with axes, trees that strove with all the strength of Nature to live, putting forth leaves and blossoms as their life blood emptied from their veins.

The graves of dead soldiers do not, somehow, look utterly sad. Their little flags stir triumphantly in the breeze, as if waved by unseen hands. The caps that mark the mounds seem to be on the heads of men invisible, under the earth, standing at the salute, saying to those who pass: "There is no death! Keep up your hearts, and follow the example we have set." The souls of those who left their bodies on these battlefields march on, bearing torches that have lit the courage of the world, with a light that can never fail. But the poor trees, so dear to France, giving life as a mother gives milk to her child!-they died to serve no end save cruelty.

The sight of them made me furious, and I glared like a basilisk at any German prisoners we saw working along the good, newly made white road. On their green trousers were large letters, "P. G." for "Prisonnier de Guerre"; and I snapped out as we passed a group, "It needs only an I between the P and the G to make it perfect!"

One man must have heard, and understood English, for he glanced up with a start. I was sorry then, for it was like hitting a fallen enemy. As he had what would have seemed a good face if he'd been British or French, perhaps he was one of those who wrote home that the killing of trees in France "will be a shame to Germany till the end of time."

Only a few days ago Brian learned by heart a poem I read aloud, a poem called "Les Arbres Coupés," by Edmond Rostand. Teaching Brian, I found I had learned it myself.

Chacun de nos soldats eut son cri de souffrance

Devant ces arbres morts qui jonchaient les terrains:

"Les pêchers!" criaient ceux de l'?le-de-France;

"Et les mirabelliers!" crièrent les Lorrains.

Soldats bleus demeures paysans sous vos casques,

Quels poings noueux et noirs vers le nord vous tendiez!

"Les cerisiers!" criaient avec fureur les Basques;

Et ceux du Rousillon criaient: "Les amandiers!"

Devant les arbres morts de l'Aisne ou de la Somme,

Chacun se retrouva Breton ou Limousin.

"Les pommiers!" criaient ceux du pays de la pomme;

"Les vignes!" criaient ceux du pays raisin.

Ainsi vous disiez tous le climat dont vous êtes,

Devant ces arbres morts que vous consideriez,

-Et moi, voyant tomber tant de jeunes poètes,

Hélas, combien de fois j'ai crié: "Les lauriers!"

I love it. Yet I don't quite agree with the beautiful turning at the end, because the laurels of the soldier-poets aren't really dead, nor can they ever die. Even some of the trees which the Boches meant to kill would not be conquered by Germans or death. Many of them, cut almost level with the ground, continued to live, spouting leaves close to earth as a fountain spouts water when its jet has been turned low. All the victims that could be saved have been saved by the French, carefully, scientifically bandaged like wounded soldiers: and the Becketts talked eagerly of giving money-much money-to American societies that, with the British, are aiding France to make her fair land bloom again. Mother Beckett became quite inventive and excited, planning to start "instruction farms," with a fund in honour of Jim. Seeds and slips and tools and teachers should all be imported from California. Oh, it would be wonderful! And how thankful she and Father were that they had Brian and Molly to help make the plan come true! I shouldn't have liked to catch Julian O'Farrell's eye just then.

All the way was haunted by the tragedy of trees, not only the tragedy of orchards, and of the roadside giants that once had shaded the straight avenues, but the martyrdom of trees in the great dark forests-oaks and elms and beeches. At first glance these woods, France's shield against her enemies-rose still and beautiful, like mystic abodes of peace, against the pale horizon. But a searching gaze showed how they had suffered. For every trio of living trees there seemed to be one corpse, shattered by bombs, or blasted by evil gas. The sight of them struck at the heart: yet they were heroes, as well as martyrs, I said to myself. They had truly died for France, to save France. And as I thought this, I knew that if I were a poet, beautiful words would come at my call, to clothe my fancy about the forests.

I wanted the right words so much that it was pain when they wouldn't answer my wish, for I seemed to hear only a faint, far-off echo of some fine strain of music, whose real notes I failed to catch.

Always forests have fascinated me; sweet, fairy-peopled groves of my native island, and emerald-lit beech woods of England. But I never felt the grand meaning of forests as I felt them to-day, in this ravaged and tortured land. I could have cried out to them: "Oh, you forests of France, what a part you've played in the history of wars! How wise and brave of you to stand in unbroken line, a rampart protecting your country's frontiers, through the ages. Forests, you are bands of soldiers, in armour of wood, and you, too, like your human brothers, have hearts that beat and veins that bleed for France! You are soldiers, and you are fortresses-Nature's fortresses stronger than all modern inventions. You are fortresses to fight in; you are shelters from air-pirates, you hide cannon; you give shelter to your fighting countrymen from rain and heat. You delay the enemy; you mislead him, you drive him back. When you die, deserted by the birds and all your hidden furred and feathered children, you give yourselves-give, give to the last! Your wood strengthens the trenches, or burns to warm the freezing poilus. Brave forests, pathetic forests! I hear you defy the enemy in your hour of death: "Strike us, kill us. Still you shall never pass!"

We had felt that we knew something of the war-zone after Lorraine; but there the great battles had all been fought in 1914, when the world was young. Here, it seemed as if the earth must still be hot from the feet of retreating Germans.

The whole landscape was pitted with shell-holes, and spider-webbed with barbed wire. The three lines of French trenches we passed might, from their look, have been manned yesterday. Piled along the neat new road were bombs for aviators to drop

; queer, fish-shaped things, and still queerer cages they had been in. There were long, low sheds for fodder. At each turn was the warning word, "Convois." The poor houses of such villages as continued to exist were numbered, for the first time in their humble lives, because they were needed for military lodgings. Notices in the German language were hardly effaced from walls of half-ruined buildings. They had been partly rubbed out, one could see, but the ugly German words survived, strong and black as a stain on one's past. Huge rounds of barbed wire which had been brought, and never used, were stacked by the roadside, and there were long lines of trench-furniture the enemy had had to abandon in flight, or leave in dug-outs: rough tables, chairs, rusty cooking-stoves, pots, pans, petrol tins, and broken dishes: even lamps, torn books, and a few particularly ugly blue vases for flowers. They must have been made in Germany, I knew!

Wattled screens against enemy fire still protected the road, and here and there was a "camouflage" canopy for a big gun. The roofs of beautiful old farmhouses were crushed in, as if tons of rock had fallen on them: and the moss which once had decked their ancient tiles with velvet had withered, turning a curious rust colour, like dried blood. Young trees with their throats cut were bandaged up with torn linen and bagging on which German printed words were dimly legible. It would have been a scene of unmitigated grimness, save for last summer's enterprising grass and flowers, which autumn, kinder than war, had not killed.

Late roses and early chrysanthemums grew in the gardens of broken, deserted cottages, as if the flowers yearned to comfort the wounded walls with soft caresses, innocent as the touch of children. On the burned fa?ades of houses, trellised fruit-trees clung, some dead-mere black pencillings sketched on brick or plaster-but now and then one was living still, like a beautiful young Mazeppa, bound to a dead steed.

So we arrived at Noyon, less than two hours by car from Compiègne. The nearness of it to the heart of France struck me suddenly. I could hear the echo of sad voices curbing the optimists: "The Germans are still at Noyon!"

Well-they are not at Noyon now. They've been gone for many moons. Yet there's a look on the faces of the people in the town-a look when they come to the windows or doors of their houses, or when they hear a sudden noise in the street-which makes those moons seem never to have waned.

Washington has adopted Noyon, so the Becketts could not offer any great public charity, but they could sprinkle about a few private good deeds, in remembrance of Jim, who loved the place, as he loved all the ?le-de-France. One of Mother Beckett's most valued letters from "Jim-on-his-travels" (as she always says) is from Noyon, and she was so bent on reading it aloud to us, as we drove slowly-almost reverently-into the town, that she wouldn't look (I believe she even grudged our looking!) at the fa?ade of the far-famed H?tel de Ville, until she'd come to the end of the last page. She seemed to think that to look up prematurely would be like wanting to see the stage before the curtain rose on the play!

I loved her for it-we all loved her-and obeyed as far as possible. But one couldn't shut one's eyes to the Stars and Stripes that flapped on the marvellously ornate front of the old building-flapped like the wings of the American Eagle that has flown across the Atlantic to help save France.

Jim-a son of the Eagle-who gave his life for this land and for liberty, would have felt proud of that flag, I think, if he could have seen it to-day: for because she is the adopted child of Washington, Noyon "stars" the emblem of her American mother. She hangs out no other flag-not even that of France-on the H?tel de Ville. Maybe she'll give her own colours a place there later, but at this moment the Star Spangled Banner floats alone in its glory.

No nice, normal-minded person could remember, or morbidly want to remember, the name unkindly given by Julius C?sar to Noyon, when he had besieged it. I can imagine even Charlemagne waving that cumbrous label impatiently aside, though Noyon mixed with Laon was his first capital. "Noviodunum Belgarum it may have been" (I dare say he said). "But I'm going to call it Noyon!"

He was crowned king of Austria in Noyon cathedral-an even older one than the cathedral of to-day, which the Germans have generously omitted to destroy, merely stealing all its treasures! But I feel sure he doesn't feel Austrian in these days, if he is looking down over the "Blessed Damosel's" shoulder, to see what's going on here below. He belonged really to the whole world. Why, didn't that fairy-story king, Haroun al Raschid, send him from Bagdad the "keys of the tomb of Christ," as Chief of the Christian World? They say his ghost haunts Noyon, and was always there whenever a king was crowned, or elected-as Hugh Capet was. Perhaps it may have been Charlemagne in the spirit who persuaded the Germans to their great retreat from the Noyon front this last spring of 1917!"

Coming into the Place, and stopping in front of the H?tel de Ville, gave me the oddest sense of unreality, because, when we were in Paris the other day, I saw the scene in a moving picture: the first joyful entry of the French soldiers into the town, when the Germans had cleared out. I could hardly believe that I wasn't just a figure flickering across a screen, and that the film wouldn't hurry me along somewhere else, whether I wanted to go or not.

There were the venerable houses with the steep slate roofs, and singularly intelligent-looking windows, whose bright panes seemed to twinkle with knowledge of what they had seen during these dreadful eighteen months of German occupation. There were the odd, unfinished towers of the cruciform cathedral-quaint towers, topped with wood and pointed spirelets-soaring into the sky above the gray colony of clustered roofs. There was the cobbled pavement, glittering like masses of broken glass, after a shower of rain just past; and even more interesting than any of these was the fantastically carved fa?ade of the H?tel de Ville, which has lured thousands of tourists to Noyon in days of peace. Who knows but they have been coming ever since 1532, when it was finished?

At first sight, we should never have guessed what Noyon had suffered from the Germans. It was only after wandering through the splendid old cathedral of Notre-Dame, stripped of everything worth stealing, and going from street to street (we paused a long time in the one where Calvin was born, a disagreeable, but I suppose useful, man!) that we began to realize the slow torture inflicted by the Germans. Of course, "lessons" had to be taught. Rebellious persons had to be "punished." Nothing but justice had been done upon the unjust by their just conquerors. And oh, how thorough and painstaking they were in its execution!

As they'd destroyed all surrounding cities and villages, they had to put the "evacuated" inhabitants somewhere (those they couldn't use as slaves to work in Germany), so they herded the people by the thousand into Noyon. That place had to be spared for the Germans themselves to live in, being bigger and more comfortable than others in the neighbourhood; so it was well to have as many of the conquered as possible interned under their own sharp eyes. Noyon was "home" to six thousand souls before the war. After the Germans marched in, it had to hold ten thousand. But a little more room in the houses was thriftily obtained by annexing all the furniture, even beds. Tables and chairs they took, too, and stoves, and cooking utensils, which left the houses conveniently empty, to be shared by families from Roye, and Nesle, and Ham, and Chauny-oh, so many other towns and hamlets, that one loses count in trying to remember!

How the people lived, they hardly know now, in looking back, some of them told us, as we walked about with a French officer who was our guide. Eighteen months of it! Summer wasn't quite so bad. One can always bear hardships when weather, at least, is kind. But the winters! It is those winters that scarcely bear thinking of, even now.

No lights were allowed after dark. All doors must be left open, for the German military police to walk in at any hour of the night, to see what mischief was brewing in the happy families caged together. There was no heating, and often no fire for cooking, consequently such food as there was had to be eaten cold. No nose must be shown out of doors unless with a special permit, so to speak, displayed on the end of it. Not that there was much incentive to go out, as all business was stopped, and all shops closed. Without "le Comité Américain," thousands would have starved, so it was lucky for Noyon that the United States was neutral then!

We spent hours seeing things, and talking to people-old people, and children, and soldiers-each one with a new side of the great story to tell, as if each had been weaving a few inches of some wonderful, historic piece of tapestry, small in itself, but essential to the pattern. Then we started for home-I mean Compiègne-by a different way; the way of Carlepont, named after Charlemagne, because it is supposed that he was born there.

The forest was even more lovable than before, a younger forest: fairy-like in beauty as a rainbow, in its splashed gold and red, and green and violet and orange of autumn. The violet was "atmosphere," but it was as much a part of the forest as the leaves, or the delicate trunks dim as ghosts in shadow, bright as organ-pipes where sun touched them. Out from the depths came sweet, mysterious breaths, and whispers like prophecies of peace. But to this region of romance there were sharp contrasts. Not even dreams have sharper ones! German trenches, chopped into blackened wastes that once were farmlands, and barbed wire wriggling like snake-skeletons across dreary fields.

We got out of our cars, and went into the trenches, thinking thoughts unspeakable. Long ago as the Germans had vanished, and every corner had been searched, our officer warned us not to pick up "souvenirs." Some infernal machine might have been missed in the search and nothing was to be trusted-no, not even a bit of innocent-looking lead pencil.

They were trenches made to live in, these! They had been walled with stones from ruined farmhouses. The "dug-outs" were super-dug-outs. We saw concealed cupolas for machine-guns, and "les officiers boches" had had a neat system of douches.

There was no need to worry that Brian might stumble or fall in the slippery labyrinths we travelled, for he had Dierdre O'Farrell as guide. I'm afraid I knew what it was to be jealous: and this new gnawing pain is perhaps meant to be one of my punishments. Of course it's no more than I deserve. But that Brian should be chosen as the instrument, all unknowingly, and happily-that hurts!

It was just as we were close to Compiègne, not twenty minutes (in motor talk) outside the town, that the "accident" happened.

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