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   Chapter 24 No.24

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 21608

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Our guide was right. Chauny was sadder than the rest, because there had been more of beauty to ruin. And it was ruined cruelly, completely! Even Gerbéviller, in Lorraine, had been less sad than this-less sad because of S?ur Julie, and the quarter on the hill which her devotion saved; less sad, because of the American Red Cross reconstruction centre, for the fruit trees. Here there had been no S?ur Julie, no reconstruction centre yet. The Germans, when they knew they had to go, gave three weeks to their wrecking work. They sent off, neatly packed, all that was worth sending to Germany. They measured the cellars to see what quantity of explosives would be needed to blow up the houses. Then they blew them up, making their quarters meanwhile at a safe distance, in the convent. As for that convent-you will see what happened there when the Boches had no further use for it!

In happy days before the war, whose joys we took comfortably for granted, Chauny had several chateaux of beauty and charm. It had pretty houses and lots of fine shops and a park. It was proud of its mairie and church and great usine (now a sight of horror), and the newer parts of the town did honour to their architects. But-Chauny was on the direct road between Cologne and Paris. Nobody thought much about this fact then, except that it helped travel and so was good for the country. It is only now that one knows what a price Chauny paid for the advantage. Instead of a beautiful town there remains a heap of cinders, with here and there a wrecked fa?ade of pitiful grace or broken dignity to tell where stood the proudest buildings.

The sky was empty of enemy 'planes; but our guide hurried us through the town, where the new road shone white in contrast with our cars; and having hidden the autos under a group of trees outside, led us on foot toward the convent. The approach was exquisite: a long, long avenue of architectural elms, arbour-like in shade, once the favourite evening promenade of Chauny. That tunnel of emerald and gold would have been an interlude of peace between two tragedies-tragedy of the town, tragedy of the convent-if the ground hadn't been strewn with torn papers, like leaves scattered by the wind: official records flung out of strong boxes by ruthless German hands, poor remnants no longer of value, and saved from destruction only by the kindly trees, friends of happy memories. "The Boches didn't take time to spoil this avenue," said our officer. "They liked it while they lived in the convent; and they left in a hurry."

Just beyond the avenue lies the convent garden; and though it is autumn, when we stepped into that garden we stepped into an oasis of old-fashioned, fragrant flowers, guarded by delicate trees, gentle as the vanished Sisters and their flock of young girl pupils; sweet, small trees, bending low as if to shield the garden's breast from harm.

I wish when Chauny is rebuilt this convent might be left as a monument historique, for, ringed by its perfumed pleasance, it is a glimpse of "fairylands forlorn."

One half believes there must have been some fairy charm at work which kept the fire-breathing German dragon from laying this garden waste when he was forced out of his stolen lair in the convent! Little remains of the house, and in the rubbish heap of fallen walls and beams and plaster, narrow iron bedsteads, where nuns slept or young girls dreamed, perch timidly among stones and blackened bricks. But in the garden all is flowery peace: and the chapel, though ruined, is a strange vision of beauty framed in horror.

Not that the Germans were merciful there. They burned and blew up all that would burn or blow up. The roof fell, and heaped the floor with wreckage; but out of that wreckage, as out of a troubled sea, rise two figures: St. Joseph, and an almost life-size, painted statue of the Virgin. There the two stand firmly on their pedestals, their faces raised to God's roof of blue, which never fails. Because their eyes are lifted, they do not see the flotsam and jetsam of shattered stained glass, burnt woodwork, smashed benches, broken picture-frames and torn, rain-blurred portraits of lesser saints. They seem to think only of heaven.

Though I'm not a Catholic, the chapel gave me such a sense of sacredness and benediction that I felt I must be there alone, if only for a moment. So when our officer led the others out I stayed behind. A clear ray of late sunshine slanted through a broken window set high in a side wall, to stream full upon the face of the Virgin. Someone had crowned her with a wreath of fresh flowers, and had thrust a few white roses under the folded hands which seemed to clasp them lovingly, with a prayer for the peace of the world. The dazzling radiance brought face and figure to life; and it was as if a living woman had taken the statue's place on the pedestal. The effect was so startling that, if I were a Catholic, I might have believed in a miracle. Protestant as I am, I had the impulse to pray: but-(I don't know, Padre, if I have ever told you this)-I've not dared to pray properly since I first stole the Becketts' love for Brian and me. I've not dared, though never in my life have I so needed and longed for prayer.

This time I couldn't resist, unworthy as I am. The smile of peace and pardon on the statue's illumined face seemed to make all sin forgivable in this haunt of holy dreams. "God forgive me, and show me how to atone," I sent my plea skyward. Suddenly the conviction came that I should be shown a way of atonement, though it might be hard. I felt lighter of heart, and went on to pray that Jack Curtis's hope might be justified: that, no matter what happened to me, or even to Brian, Jim Beckett might be alive, in this world, and come back safely to his parents.

While I prayed, a sound disturbed the deep silence. It was a far-away sound, but quickly it grew louder and drew nearer: at first a buzzing as of all the bees in France mobilized in a bee-barrage. Then the buzzing became a roar. I knew directly what it was: enemy aeroplanes.

I could not see them yet, but they must be close. If they were flying very low, to search Chauny for visitors, I might be seen if I moved. Those in the garden were better off than I, for they were screened by the trees, but trying to join them I might attract attention to myself.

As I thought this, I wondered why I didn't decide upon the thing most likely to solve all my problems at once. If I were killed, Brian would grieve: but he had the Becketts to love and care for him, and-he had Dierdre: no use disguising that fact from my intelligence, after the episode of the dog! What a chance for me to disappear, having done for Brian all I could do! Oh, why didn't I add another prayer to my last, and beg God to let me die that minute?

I'll tell you why I did not pray this, Padre, and why, instead of trying to expose my life, I wished-almost unconsciously-to save it. I hardly realized why then, but I do realize now. It is different in these days from that night in Paris, when I wished I might be run over by a motor-car. At that time I should have been glad to die. Now I cling to life-not just because I'm young and strong, and people call me beautiful, but because I feel I must stay in the world to see what happens next.

I kept as still as a frightened mouse. I didn't move. I scarcely breathed. Presently an aeroplane sailed into sight directly overhead, and flying so low that I could make out its iron cross, exactly like photographs I'd seen. Whether the men in it could see me or not I can't tell; but if they could, perhaps they mistook me for one of the statues they knew existed in the ruined chapel, and thought I wasn't worth bombing.

In that case it was St. Joseph and the Virgin who protected me!

In a second the big bird of prey had swept on. I was sick with fear for a moment lest it should drop an "egg" on to the garden, and kill Brian or the Becketts, or the lieutenant who had wished to spare us this danger. Even the O'Farrells I didn't want hurt; and I was pleased to find out that about myself, because they are a far more constant danger for me than all the aeroplanes along the German front; and when I came face to face with realities in my own soul, I might have discovered a wicked desire for them to be out of the way at any price. But since Dierdre proved herself ready to die for Brian, I do admire if I don't like her. As for Julian-would it be possible, Padre, to miss a person you almost hate? Anyhow, when I tried to imagine how I should feel if I went back to the garden and saw him dead, I grew quite giddy and ill. How queer we are, we human things!

But no one was hurt. The whole party hid under the trees; and as the cars were also hidden at a distance, the German fliers turned tail, disappointed; besides, the anti-aircraft gun which we'd been told about, and had seen on our way to the convent, was potting away like mad, so it wasn't healthful for aeroplanes to linger merely "on spec."

Mother Beckett was pale and trembling a little, but she said that she had been too anxious about me, in my absence, to think of herself, which was perhaps a good thing. I noticed, when I joined them in the garden, after the roar had changed again to a buzz, that Dierdre stood close to Brian, and that his hand was on her shoulder, her hand on Sirius's beautiful head. Yet I felt too strangely happy to be jealous. I suppose it must have been through my prayer-or the answer to it.

* * *

When all was clear and the danger over (our guide said that the "birds" never made more than one tour of inspection in an afternoon) we started off again. Father Beckett suggested that his wife had better go home and rest, but she wouldn't hear of it. And when we reached a turning of the road which would lead us to Coucy-le Chateau, it was she who begged our lieutenant to let us run along that way, "just far enough for a glimpse, a tiny glimpse."

"My son wrote me it was the most wonderful old chateau in France," she pleaded. "I've got in my pocket now a snapshot he sent me."

The Frenchman couldn't resist. You know how charming the French are to old ladies. "It isn't as safe as-as the Bank of England!" he laughed. "Sometimes they keep this road rather hot. But to-day, I have told you, things are quiet all along. We will take what Madame calls a tiny glimpse."

Orders were given to our chauffeur. Brian was with the O'Farrells, coming on behind, and of course the Red Cross taxi followed at our heels like a faithful dachshund. Our big car flew swiftly, and the little one did its jolting best to keep up the pace, for time wouldn't wait for us-and these autumn days are cutting themselves short.

Presently we saw a thing which proved that

the road was indeed "hot" sometimes: a neat, round shell-hole, which looked ominously new! We swung past it with a bump, and flashed into sight of a ruin which dwarfed all others we had seen-yes, dwarfed even cathedrals! A long line of ramparts rising from a high headland of gray-white chalk-ramparts crowned with broken, round towers, which the sun was painting with heraldic gold: the stump of a tremendous keep that reared its bulk like a giant in his death struggle, for a last look over his shield of shattered walls. This was what German malice had made of Coucy, pride of France, architectural masterpiece of feudal times!

"This is as far as I dare go!" our lieutenant said, with a brusque gesture which bade the chauffeur stop. But before the car turned, he gave us a moment to take in the picture of grandeur and unforgivable cruelty. Yes, unforgivable! for you know, Padre, there was no military motive in the destruction. The only object was to deprive France forever of the noblest of her castles, which has helped in the making of her history since a bishop of Rheims began to build it in 920.

"Roi ne suis Ne prince, ne duc, ne comte aussy. Je suys le Sire de Coucy."

The beautiful old boast in beautiful old French sang in my head as I gazed through tears at the new ruin of ancient grandeur.

Some of those haughty Sires de Coucy may have deserved to have their stronghold destroyed, for they seem-most of them-to have been as bad as they were vain. I remember there was one, in the days of Louis XII, who punished three little boys for killing a few rabbits in his park, by ordering the children to be hanged on the spot; and St. Louis was so angry on hearing of the crime that he wished to hang the Sire de Coucy on the same tree. There were others I've read of, just as wicked and high-handed: but their castle was not to blame for its master's crimes! Besides, the last of the proud Enguerrands and Thomases and Raouls, Seigneurs of the line, was son-in-law to Edward III of England; so all their sins were expiated long ago.

"The Boches were jealous of our Coucy," said the Frenchman, with a sigh. "They have nothing to compare with it on their side of the Rhine. If they could have packed up the chateau and carted it across the frontier they would-if it had taken three years. As they couldn't do that, they did what Cardinal Mazarin wasn't able to do with his picked engineers; they blew it up with high explosives. But all they could steal they stole: carvings and historic furniture. You know there was a room the guardian used to show before the war-the room where César de Bourbon was born, the son of Henri Quatre of Navarre and Gabrielle d'Estrées? That room the Boches emptied when they first came in August, 1914. Not a piece of rich tapestry, not a suit of armour, not even a chair, or a table, or lamp did they leave. Everything was sent to Germany. But we believe we shall get it all again some day. And now we must go, for the Boches shell this road whenever they think of it, or have nothing better to do!"

The signal was given. We turned and tore along the road by which we'd come, our backs feeling rather sensitive and exposed to chance German bombs, until we'd got round the corner to a "safe section." Our way led through a pitiful country of crippled trees to a curious round hill. A little castle or miniature fortress must have crowned it once, for the height was entirely circled by an ancient moat. On top of this green mound Prince Eitel Fritz built for himself the imitation shooting-lodge which was our goal and viewpoint. And, Padre, there can't be another such German-looking spot in martyred France as he has made of the insulted hillock!

I don't know how many fair young birch trees he sacrificed to build a summer-house for himself and his staff to drink beer in, and gaze over the country, at St. Quentin, at Soissons and a hundred conquered towns and villages! Now he's obliged to look from St. Quentin at the summer-house-and how we pray that it may not be for long!

Over one door of the building a pair of crossed swords carved heavily in wood form a stolid German decoration; and still more maddeningly German are the seats outside the house, made of cement and shaped like toadstools. In the sitting room are rough chairs, and a big table so stained with wine and beer that I could almost see the fat figures of the prince and his friends grouped round it, with cheers for "Wein, Weib, und Gesang."

Close down below us, in sloping green meadows, a lot of war-worn horses en permission were grazing peacefully. Our guide said that some were "Americans," and I fancied them dreaming of Kentucky grasslands, or the desert herbs of the Far West, which they will never taste again. Also I yearned sorrowfully over the weary creatures that had done their "bit" without any incentive, without much praise or glory, and that would presently go back to do it all over again, until they died or were finally disabled. I remembered a cavalry-man I nursed in our H?pital des épidémies telling me how brave horses are. "The only trouble with them in battle," he said, "is when their riders are killed, to make them fall out of line. They will keep their places!"

Both Father Beckett and the French officer had field-glasses, but we hardly needed them for St. Quentin. Far away across a plain slowly turning from bright blue-green to dim green-blue in the twilight, we saw a dream town built of violet shadows-Marie Stuart's dowry town. Its purple roofs and the dominating towers of its great collegiate church were ethereal as a mirage, yet delicately clear, and so beautiful, rising from the river-bank, that I shuddered to think of the French guns, forced to break the heart of Faidherbe's brave city.

It was a time of day to call back the past, for in the falling dusk modern things and old things blended lovingly together. For all one could see of detail, nothing had changed much since the plain of Picardy was the great Merovingian centre of France, the gateway through which the English marched, and went away never to return until they came as friends. Still less had the scene changed since the brave days when Marguerite de Valois rode through Picardy with her band of lovely ladies and gallant gentlemen. It was summer when she travelled; but on just such an evening of blue twilight and silver moonshine might she have had her pretended carriage accident at Catelet, as an excuse to disappoint the Bishop of Cambrai, and meet the man best loved of all her lovers, Duc Henri de Guise. It was just then he had got the wound which gave him his scar and his nickname of "Le Balafré"; and she would have been all the more anxious not to miss her hero.

I thought of that adventure, because of the picture Brian painted of the Queen on her journey, the only one of his which has been hung in the Academy, you know, Padre; and I sat for Marguerite. Not that I'm her type at all, judging from portraits! However, I fancied myself intensely in the finished picture, and used to hope I should be recognized when I strolled into the Academy. But I never was.

Looking down over the plain of Picardy, I pretended to myself that I could see the Queen's procession: Marguerite (looking as much as possible like me!) in her gold and crystal coach, lined with rose-coloured Spanish velvet, jewel-broidered: the gentlemen outriders trying to stare through the thick panes obscured with designs and mottoes concerning the sun and its influence upon human fate; the high-born girls chattering to each other from their embroidered Spanish saddles, as they rode on white palfreys, trailing after the glittering coach; and the dust rising like smoke from wheels of jolting chariots which held the elder women of the Court.

Oh, those were great days, the days of Henry of Navarre and his naughty wife! But, after all, there wasn't as much chivalry and real romance in Picardy then, or in the time of St. Quentin himself, as war has brought back to it now. No deeds we can find in history equal the deeds of to-day!

* * *

We got lost going home, somehow taking the wrong road, straying into a wood, plunging and bumping down and down over fearful roads, and landing-by what might have been a bad accident-in a deep ravine almost too strange to be true.

Even our French officer couldn't make out what had happened to us, or whither we'd wandered, until we'd stopped, and our blaze of acetylene had lighted up a series of fantastic caverns in the rock (caverns improved up to date by German cement) and in front of that honeycombed gray wall a flat, grassy lawn that was a graveyard.

"Mon Dieu, c'est le Ravin de Bitry!" he cried. "Let us get out of it! I would never have brought you here of my own free will."

"But why-why?" I insisted. "It isn't the only graveyard we have seen, alas! and there are only French names on the little crosses."

"I know," he said. "After we chased the Germans out of this hole, we lived here ourselves, in their caves-and died here, as you see, Mademoiselle. But the place is haunted, and not by spirits of the dead-worse! Put on your hats again, Messieurs! The dead will forgive you. And, ladies, wrap veils over your faces. If it were not so late, you would already know why. But the noise of our autos, and the lights may stir up those ghosts!"

Then, in an instant, before the cars could turn, we did know why. Flies!... such flies as I had never seen ...nightmare flies. They rose from everywhere, in a thick black cloud, like the plague of Egypt. They were in thousands. They were big as bees. They dropped on us like a black jelly falling out of a mould. They sat all over us. It was only when our cars had swayed and stumbled up again, over that awful road, out of the haunted hole in the deep woods, and risen into fresh, moving air, that the horde deserted us. Julian O'Farrell had his hands bitten, and dear Mother Beckett was badly stung on the throat. Horrible!... I don't think I could have slept at night for thinking of the Ravin de Bitry, if we hadn't had such a refreshing run home that the impression of the lost, dark place was purified away.

Forest fragrance sprayed into our faces like perfume from a vaporizer. We seemed to pass through endless halls supported by white marble pillars, which were really spaces between trees, magically transformed by our blazing headlight. Always in front of us hovered an archway of frosted silver, moving as we moved, like a pale, elusive rainbow; and when we put on extra speed for a long, straight stretch, poplars carelessly spared by the Boches spouted up on either side of us like geysers. Then, suddenly, across a stretch of blackness palely shone Compiègne, as Venice shines across the dark lagoon.

* * *

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