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   Chapter 23 No.23

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 20648

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It is two days since I wrote, Padre; and I have come back to Compiègne from a world of unnatural silence and desolation. Day before yesterday it was Roye and Nesle; the Chateau of Ham; Jussy, Chauny and Prince Eitel Friedrich's pavilion. To-morrow we hope to start for Soissons.

Yesterday we rested, because Mother Beckett had a shocking headache. (Oh, it was pathetic and funny, too, what she said when we slipped back into Compiègne at night! "Isn't it a comfort, Molly, to see a place again where there are whole houses?") After Soissons we shall return to Compiègne and then go to Amiens with several of the war correspondents, who have their own car. Women aren't allowed, as a rule, to see anything of the British front, but it's just possible that Father Beckett can get permission for his wife to venture within gazing distance. Of course, she can't-or thinks she can't-stir without me!

We took still another road to Noyon (one must pass through Noyon going toward the front, if one keeps Compiègne for one's headquarters) and the slaughter of trees was the wickedest we'd seen: a long avenue of kind giants murdered, and orchards on both sides of it. The Germans, it seems, had circular saws, worked by motors, on purpose to destroy the large trees in a hurry. They didn't protect their retreat by barring the road with the felled trunks. They left most of the martyrs standing, their trunks so nearly sawed through that a wind would have blown them down. The pursuing armies had to finish the destruction to protect themselves. Farms were exterminated all along the way; and little hamlets-nameless for us-were heaps of blackened brick and stone, mercifully strewn with flowers like old altars to an unforgotten god.

Roye was the first big place on our road. It used to be rich, and its 4,000 inhabitants traded in grain and sugar. How the very name brought back our last spring joy in reading news of the recapture! "Important Victory. Roye Retaken." It was grandly impressive in ruin, especially the old church of St. Pierre, whose immense, graceful windows used to be jewelled with ancient glass that people came from far away to see.

Jim had written his mother about that glass, consequently she would get out of the car to climb (with my help and her husband's) over a pile of fallen stones like a petrified cataract, which leads painfully up to the desecrated and pillaged high altar. I nearly sprained my ankle in getting to one of the windows, under which my eyes had caught the glint of a small, sparkling thing: but I had my reward, for the sparkling thing was a lovely bit of sapphire-blue glass from the robe of some saint, and the little lady was grateful for the gift as if it had been a real jewel-indeed, more grateful. "I'll keep it with my souvenirs of Jim," she said, "for his eyes have looked on it: and it's just the colour of yours which he loved. He'd be pleased that you found it for me." (Ah, if she knew! I can't help praying that she never may know, though such prayers from me are almost sacrilege.)

A little farther on-as the motor, not the crow, flies-we came to Nesle, or what once was Nesle. The ghost of the twelfth-century church looms in skeleton form above one more Pompeii among the many forced by the Germans upon France: but save for that towering relic of the past there's little left of this brave town of the Somme, which was historic before the thirteenth century. It gave its name to a famous fighting family of feudal days: and through the last heiress of the line-a beauty and a "catch"-a certain Seigneur de Nesle became Regent of France, in the second Crusade of Louis XII-"Saint Louis." Later ladies of the line became dear friends of another Louis, fifteenth of the name, who was never called saint. Not far from Nesle, Henry V of England crossed the Somme and won the Battle of Agincourt. But now, the greatest dramatic interest is concentrated in the cemetery!

We had heard of it at Compiègne and the wild things that had happened there: so after a look at the ruined church, and the once charming Place, we went straight to the town burial-place, and our unofficial guide was the oldest man I ever saw. He had lurked rather than lived, through months of German barbarity at Nesle, guarding a bag of money he'd hidden underground. An officer from Noyon was with us; but he had knowledge of the ancient man-a great character-and bade him tell us the tale of the graveyard. He obeyed with unction and with gestures like lightning as it flashes across a night sky. The looks his old eyes darted forth as he talked might have struck a live German dead.

"The animals! What do you think they did when they were masters here?" he snarled. "Ah, you do not know the Boches as we learned to know them, so you would never guess. They opened our tombs, the vaults of distinguished families of France. They broke the coffins and stole the rings from skeleton fingers. They left the bones of our ancestors, and of our friends whose living faces we could remember, scattered over the ground, as if to feed the dogs. In our empty coffins they placed their own dead. On the stone or marble of monuments they cut away the names of those whose sacred sleep they had disturbed. Instead, they inscribed the disgusting names of their Boche generals and colonels. Where they could not change the inscriptions they destroyed the tombstones and set up others. You will see them now. But wait-you have not heard all yet. Far from that! When the Tommies came to Nesle-your English Tommies-they did not like what the Boches had done to our cemetery. They said things-strong things! And while they were hot with anger they knocked the hideous new monuments about. They could not bear to see them mark the stolen graves. The little crosses that showed where simple soldiers lay, those they did not touch. It was only the officers' tombs they spoiled. I will show you what they did."

We let him hobble ahead of us into the graveyard. He led us past the long rows of low wooden crosses with German names on them, the crosses with British names-(good, sturdy British names: "Hardy," "Kemp," "Logan," "Wilding," planted among flowers of France)-and paused in the aristocratic corner of the city of the dead. Once, this had been the last earthly resting-place of old French families, or of the rich whose relatives could afford expensive monuments. But the war had changed all that. German names had replaced the ancient French ones on the vaults, as German corpses had replaced French bodies in the coffins. Stone and marble monuments had been recarved, or new ones raised. There were roughly cut figures of German colonels and majors and captains. This rearrangement was what the "Tommies" had "not liked." They liked it so little that they chopped off stone noses and faces; they threw red ink, brighter than blood, over carved German uniforms, and neatly chipped away the counterfeit presentment of iron crosses. In some cases, also, they purified the vaults of German bones and gave back in exchange such French ones as they found scattered. They wrote in large letters on tombstones, "Boch no bon," and other illiterate comments unflattering to the dead usurpers; all of which, our old man explained, mightily endeared the Atkinses to the returning inhabitants of Nesle.

"Those brave Tommies are gone now," he sighed, "but they left their dead in our care. You see those flowers on their graves? It is we who put them there, and the children tend them every day. If you come back next year, it will be the same. We shall not forget."

"A great statesman paid us a visit not long after Nesle was liberated," our officer guide took up the story. "He had heard what the Tommies did, and he was not quite sure if they were justified. 'After all, German or not German, a tomb is a tomb, and the dead are dead,' he argued. But when he saw the cemetery of another place not far away, where the bodies of Frenchmen-yes, and women and little babies!-still lay where Germans had thrown them in stealing their graves, the grand old man's blood rushed to his head. He was no longer uncertain if the Tommies were right. He was certain they had done well; and in his red rage he, with his own hands, tore down thirty of the lying tombstones."

Oh, the silence of these dead towns that the Germans have killed with bombs and burning! You know what it is like, Padre, because you have passed behind the veil and have knowledge beyond our dreaming: but to me it is a triste révélation. I never realized before what the words "dead silence" could mean. It is a silence you hear. It cries out as the loudest voice could not cry. It makes you listen-listen for the pleasant, homely sounds you've always associated with human habitations: the laughter of girls, the shouts of schoolboys, the friendly barking of dogs. But you listen in vain. You wonder if you are deaf-if other people are hearing what you cannot hear: and then you see on each face the same blank, listening look that must be on your own. I think a night at Chauny, or Jussy, might drive a weak woman mad. But-I haven't come to Chauny or Jussy yet! After Nesle we arrived at Ham, with its canal and its green, surrounding marshes.

Ham has ceased to be silent. There are some houses left, and to those houses people have come back. Shops have reopened, as at Noyon, where the French Government has advanced money to the business men. We drove into the town of Ham (what is left of it!) just as we were hating ourselves for being hungry. It is sordid and dreadful to be hungry in the midst of one's rage and grief and pity-to want to eat in a place like Ham, where one should wish to absorb nothing but history; yet our officer guide, who has helped make a good deal of history since 1914, seemed to think lunching quite as important as sightseeing. In a somewhat battered square, busy with reopening shops (some of them most quaint shops, with false hair as a favourite display!) was a hotel. The Germans had lived in it for months. They had bullied the very old, very vital landlady who welcomed us. Their boots had worn holes in the stair carpet, going up and down in a goose-step. Their elbows had polished the long table in the dining room, and-oh, horror!-their mouths had drunk beer from glasses in which t

he good wine of France was offered to us!

"Ah, but I have scrubbed the goblets since with a fortune's worth of soda," the woman volubly explained. "They are purified. If I could wash away as easily the memories behind my eyes and in my ears! Of them I cannot get rid. Whenever I see an automobile, yes, even the most innocent automobile, I live again through a certain scene! We had here at Ham an invalid woman, whose husband the Boches took out and shot. When she heard the news, she threw herself under one of their military cars and was killed. If a young girl passes my windows (alas, it is seldom! the Germans know why) I see once more a procession of girls lined up to send into slavery. God knows where they are now, those children! All we know is, that in this country there is not a girl left of an age between twelve and twenty, unless she was hidden or disguised when the Boches took their toll. If I hear a sound of bells, I see our people being herded into church-our old, old church, with its proud monuments!-so their houses might be burned before the Germans had to run. They stayed in the church for days and nights, waiting for the chateau to be blown up. What a suspense! No one knew if the great shock, when it came, might not kill everyone!"

As she exploded reminiscences, the old lady fed us with ham and omelette salted with tears. We had to eat, or hurt her feelings, but it was as if we swallowed the poor creature's emotion with our food, and the effect within was dynamic. I never had such a volcanic meal! Our French officer was the only calm one among us, but-he had been stationed in this liberated region for months. It's an old story for him.

After luncheon we staggered away to see the great sight of Ham, the fortress-chateau which has given it history and fame for centuries. The Germans blew up the citadel out of sheer spite, as the vast pink pile long ago ceased to be of military value. They wished to show their power by ruining the future of the town, which lived on its monument historique: but (as often happens with their "frightfulness") that object was just the one they failed in. I can't believe that the castle of Ham was as striking in its untouched magnificence as now in the rose-red splendour of its ruin!

To be sure, the guardians can never again show precisely where Joan of Arc was imprisoned, or the rooms where Louis Napoleon lived through his six years of captivity, or the little garden he used to cultivate, or the way he passed to escape over the drawbridge, dressed as a mason, with a plank on his shoulder. But the glorious old tower or donjon still stands, one hundred feet high and one hundred feet wide. German gunpowder was too weak to bring it down, and so perhaps the prophecy of the Comte de St. Pol, builder of the fortress, may be fulfilled-that while France stands, the tower of Ham's citadel will stand. Thousands more pilgrims will come in a year, after the war, to see what the Germans did and what they failed to do, than ever came in the mild, prosperous days before 1914, when Ham's best history was old. They will come and gaze at the massive bulk-red always as if reflecting sunset light-looming against the blue; they will peer down into dusky dungeons underground: and the new guardian (a mutilated soldier he'll be, perhaps, decorated with the croix de guerre) will tell them about the girl of Ham who lured a German officer to a death-trap in a secret oubliette, "where 'tis said his body lies to-day." Then they will stand under the celebrated old tree in the courtyard, unhurt by the explosion, and take photographs of the chateau the Germans have unwittingly made more beautiful than before.

"Mon mieux" was the motto St. Pol carved over the gateway; "Our worst" is the taunt the Germans have flung. But the combination of that best and worst is glorious to the eye.

From Ham we spun on to Jussy, along the new white road which is so amazing when one thinks that every yard of it had to be created out of chaos a few months ago. (They say that some sort of surface was given for the army to pass over in three days' work!) At Jussy we came close to the real front-closer than we've been yet, except when we went to the American trenches. The first line was only three miles away, and the place is under bombardment, but this was what our guide called a "quiet day," so there was only an occasional mumble and boom. The town was destroyed, wiped almost out of existence, save for heaps of rubble which might have been houses or hills. But there were things to be seen which would have made Jussy worth a long journey. It had been a prosperous place, with one of the biggest sugar refineries in France, and the wrecked usine was as terrible and thrilling as the moon seen through the biggest telescope in the world.

Not that it looked like the moon. It looked more like a futurist sketch, in red and brown, of the heart of a cyclone; or of the inside of a submarine that has rammed a skeleton ship on the stocks. But the sight gave me the same kind of icy shock I had when I first saw the moon's ravaged face through a huge telescope. You took me, Padre, so you'll remember.

If you came to Jussy, and didn't know about the war, you'd think you had stumbled into hell-or else that you were having a nightmare and couldn't wake up. I shall never forget a brobdingnagian boiler as big as a battle tank, that had reared itself on its hind-legs to peer through a cheval de frise of writhing girders-tortured girders like a vast wilderness of immense thorn bushes in a hopeless tangle, or a pit of bloodstained snakes. The walls of the usine have simply melted, and it's hard to realize that it as a building, put up by human hands for human uses, ever existed. There is a new Jussy, though, created since the German retreat; and seeing it, you couldn't help knowing that there was a war! The whole landscape is full of cannon, big and little and middle-sized. Queer mushroom buildings have sprung up, for officers' and soldiers' barracks and canteens. Narrow plank walks built high above mud-level-"duck boards," I think they're called-lead to the corrugated iron, tin, and wooden huts. There are aerodromes and aerodromes like a vast circus encampment, where there are not cannon; and the greenish canvas roofs give the only bit of colour, as far as the eye can see-unless one counts the soldiers' uniforms. All the rest is gray as the desert before a dust-storm. Even the sky, which had been blue and bright, was gray over Jussy, and the grayest of gray things were the immense "saucisses"-three or four of them-hanging low under the clouds like advertisements of titanic potatoes, haughtiest of war-time vegetables.

Dierdre O'Farrell inadvertently called the big bulks "saucissons," which amused our officer guide so much that he laughed to tears. The rest of us were able to raise only a faint smile, and we felt his disappointment at our lack of humour.

"Ah, but it is most funny!" he said. "I will tell everyone. In future they shall for us be 'saucissons' forever. I suppose it is not so funny for you, because the sight of these dead towns has made you sad. I am almost afraid to take you on to Chauny. You will be much sadder there. Chauny is the sight most pitiful of all. Would you perhaps wish to avoid it?"

"What about you, Mother?" Father Beckett wanted to know.

But Mother had no wish to avoid Chauny. She was not able to believe that anything could be sadder than Roye, or Nesle, or Ham, or more grim than Jussy.

"He doesn't want to take us to Chauny," Brian whispered to me. We were all grouped together near the cars, with Sirius, a quiet, happy dog. "He's trying to think up a new excuse to get out of it."

I glanced at our guide. It was like Brian to have guessed what we hadn't seen! Now I was on the alert, the clear-cut French face did look nonplussed; and a nervous brown hand was tugging at a smart black moustache.

"Is there any reason why you think it would be better for us not to go there?" I decided to ask frankly.

"It's getting rather late," he suggested, in his precise English. "You have also the Pavilion of Prince Eitel Fritz before you. If it grows too dark, you cannot see St. Quentin well, in the distance, and the glasses will be of no use for Soissons."

"But we're going to Soissons day after to-morrow!" said Father Beckett.

"And there'll be a moon presently," added Dierdre. She had heard of the ruined convent at Chauny and was determined not to miss it.

"Yes, there'll be a moon," reluctantly admitted Monsieur le Lieutenant.

"Is there still another reason?" I tried to help him.

"Well, yes, there is one, Mademoiselle," he blurted out. "I had meant not to mention it. But perhaps it is best to tell, and then you may all choose whether you go to Chauny or not. There is a certain risk at this time of day, or a little later. You know we are close to the front here, and enemy aeroplanes fly nearly every afternoon over Chauny toward dusk. They hope to catch some important personage, and they come expressly to 'spot' automobiles. The road through the ruined town is white and new, and the gray military cars in which we bring visitors to the front stand out clearly, especially as twilight falls. I'm afraid we have lingered too long in some of these places. If we were a party of men, I should say nothing, but with three ladies--"

"I can answer for all three, Monsieur," said Mother Beckett, with a pathetically defiant tilt of her small chin.

"My son, you know, was a soldier. We have come to this part of the world to see what we can do for the people in honour of his memory. So we mustn't leave Chauny out."

"Madame, there are no people there, for there are no houses. There are but a few soldiers with an anti-aircraft gun."

"We must see what can be done about building up some of the houses so the people can come back," persisted the old lady, with that gentle obstinacy of hers.

The French officer made no more objections; and knowing his wife, I suppose Father Beckett felt it useless to offer any. We started at once for Chauny: in fact, we flew along the road almost as fast-it seemed-as enemy aeroplanes could fly along the sky if they pursued. But we had a long respite still before twilight.

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