The Forty-fourth Anniversary Of Sedan. Smaller Stageland. Soho In The Eighth Week
( Originally Published 1917 )
TODAY, the first of September, sees the French residents of Soho in a particularly acute state of anxiety and emotion. For to-day is the forty-fourth anniversary of the disastrous battle of Sedan. Behold, looking backwards, the French Emperor made a prisoner, the French nation humiliated. Down fell the Empire. In came the Third Re-public. Despite the heroic efforts of Gambetta's Army of the Loire, further agonising surrenders and defeats, culminating in the entry of the Germans into crippled, starving Paris. The battle of Sedan practically determined the destiny of France, exactly forty-four years ago this very day.
If Sedan be in the minds and in the hearts of the inhabitants of Soho, Sedan, we may be sure, has not been forgotten by the French and German armies on the battle-field. How are the French troops commemorating_ the anniversary ? And the Germans, how are they coming through it ? In the estimation of Soho the French army will not fail to attempt to inflict a decisive defeat on the enemy today.
" I am convinced that our soldiers began operations at dawn," a little old white-headed news-agent informs me. " When they went to sleep last night it was with the name of Sedan on their lips. When they woke up the first word was Sedan."
" Unless it was Revenge," suggests the news-agent's wife.
" Sedan and Revenge," agrees her husband. "Revenge, Revenge ; O that France may be taking it this very moment, whilst you and I, my poor wife, are sitting here, old people, old, old people in spectacles and slippers, doing nothing . . . aching . . . helpless."
From the newsagent's shop to a restaurant, where, although it is four o'clock in the afternoon, I discover M. Georges Leblond, another white-headed old Frenchman, lunching off an omelet. For twenty years has M. Leblond, a small wine merchant, lived in London, and throughout that period he has invariably taken his luncheon, a substantial one, French fashion, at noon. Since the war, lunch at any hour, sometimes none at all. To-day, the forty-fourth anniversary of Sedan, he sends away his omelet unfinished, refuses fruit and cheese, calls for coffee. But he ignores the coffee, he forgets to light his cigarette. The month of September of the year 1870 ; the month of September of the year 1914. M. Leblond fought and was wounded at Sedan.
" Ah, the brigands ! Ah, the bandits ! " he breaks out suddenly, his eyes flashing, his hands trembling on the table. " My sons—my Jean and Henri--what are they doing to-day to those vile assassins ? "
"Doing splendidly, taking their revenge," I soothingly reply.
" Then why haven't we any news ? Why don't the papers come out ? Why don't we hear that Sedan has been avenged ? "
" It's only four o'clock," I hasten to point out. " Much too early for news. Perhaps tonight. But, more probably, to-morrow."
Burying his head in his hands, old M. Leblond, a stout Frenchman, gasps and heaves convulsively. After a while I engage him in a game of dominoes—his favourite pastime. But suddenly he pushes the dominoes away, and, rising from the table, walks about the restaurant with his hands deep down in his pockets, hotly muttering. The ticking of the clock gets on his nerves, and during his perambulations to and fro he stops and shakes his fist at it. Newspapers appear—but no exhilarating information. Again M. Leblond demands : " And Jean and Henri—my sons, my own dear sons—what are they doing against those vile assassins ? And my wife—ma vieille bonne femme—where is she ? What have the brigands and bandits done to her ? "
And now does old white-headed M. Leblond break down piteously, and cry. For a few days before the outbreak of the war Madame Leblond, also a sexagenarian, left London to visit her nieces in Lorraine. A telegram announced her safe arrival. Since then, nearly five weeks ago, no news of her. Every effort to obtain information of the poor old lady fruitless.
" Where is she, ma bonne, ma brave vieille femme ? What are they doing, my Jean and Henri ? " the white-headed Frenchman sobs convulsively.
" Courage, mon vieux. Your wife is quite safe, your sons are doing their duty—courage, mon vieux," says the proprietor of the restaurant in a thick voice, as he pats M. Leblond affectionately on the shoulder.
Monotonously the clock ticks on. Six, half-past six, and M. Leblond rises unsteadily from his chair, reaches unsteadily for his hat, and, always unsteadily, and with a ravaged face, and without a word, goes out into the street.
Without its spacious and comfortable saloon bars, in which all kinds and conditions of actors and actresses discuss their professional and personal affairs, Maiden Lane, a hard, narrow little street that runs parallel with the Strand, would be colourless and lifeless. Of course " stars " don't come here. You would never meet Mrs Patrick Campbell at Rule's, Sir Herbert Tree in the Bedford Head, or Sir George Alexander in the Peacock. Maiden Lane is the meeting-place of smaller Stageland. This afternoon I don't believe it contains a soul whose salary has ever exceeded seven pounds a week. Out of that sum costumes, wigs and grease paint to be bought. Another portion of it to be set aside for possible weeks — perhaps months - of unemployment. Aged parents or invalid relatives also to be provided for. So that nobody theatrically wears diamonds or drinks champagne in Maiden Lane.
However, upon most occasions it is a cheerful spot. In the saloon bars, gossip, comradeship. In the upper rooms all kinds of rehearsals are taking place—lurid melodrama in room No. 1, gay musical comedy in another, pantomime in a third ; it is even on record that a mixed troupe of performing parrots, doves and cats has rehearsed in Maiden Lane. Everyone knows everybody else. Rarely does one hear a surname ; it is just " George " or " Harry," or " Dolly " or " Ethel," or " Hello, old thing," and Hello, old dear." Since smaller Stageland passes most of the year on tour, appointments are made to meet in such different and distant places as Aberdeen, Wigan, Cardiff, Yarmouth and the Isle of Man. The addresses of the most suitable lodgings and land-ladies are handed round. Mrs West, of Wigan, is recommended for cleanliness and steak-and-kidney pudding ; Mrs Duff, of Douglas, for honesty and " as much hot water as you want " ; but be-ware of Mrs Bolt, of Blackburn, who makes shameless raids upon your butter, sugar, tea and stout.
Such is Maiden Lane upon ordinary occasions. But a very different Maiden Lane to-day.
Smaller Stageland has, in fact, been disastrously stricken by the war. Last Saturday night numbers of provincial touring companies " closed down," and back they have come to London, in a state of pathetic anxiety and confusion. Most of the first and second class touring companies are still fulfilling their engagements, but the others, in their own words, are " on the rocks." Even a provincial production of the enormously successful Mr Wu has suddenly succumbed. Here, in Maiden Lane, I meet two members of the cast who have been playing the small parts of Chinese coolies.
" So we're not Chinamen any longer. We're just nothing. After being coolies, we're now cooling our heels. That's a pun, but I don't think much of it," says the ex-Chinaman from the provinces. He speaks dully and monotonously. His friend, the fellow-coolie, says nothing, and looks fixedly at nothing. Then up speaks another actor :
" Last week I was playing the Earl of 'Lower-castle -- old aristocrat's part — gout, beautiful daughters, and silver hair. A big success. Brought the house down when I gave the hand of my favourite daughter, the Lady Ethelreada, to Harry Burton, the son of my gamekeeper, saying to him as follows :—' Harry Burton, you have served your King and Country most nobly and magnificently. Here, apart from the honours that his Majesty the King has bestowed upon you, here—in Lady Ethelreada—is your reward.' "
" You won't say it again for a long time," says the first Chinese coolie.
" Perhaps we sha'n't be putting on grease paint again for another three years," funereally observes the second Chinaman.
" So what's going to happen to us ? " exclaims the Earl.
There's the rub. Smaller Stageland can hold out on its scanty savings for a few weeks, but no longer—and afterwards ? Therefore do the habitués of Maiden Lane ask themselves most anxiously how long the war will last, hence are their faces fixed, strained and haggard, and so do they express acute concern, not only for them-selves, but for aged parents and disabled relatives. Until the end of the war scarcely the shadow of a hope of engagements for smaller Stageland. The Earl of Towercastle foresees visits to the pawn-shop. The coolies from the provincial tour of Mr Wu predict a diet of sausages and kippers. Other actors — dukes, generals, millionaires, solicitors, doctors, detectives, farmers—all the heroes and villains of smaller Stageland survey the future with the darkest apprehension. Nor are the ladies of the obscure touring companies better off. " Closed down," all of them, whether they have been playing gay, flippant parts in musical comedy, or haughty countesses in drawing-rooms, or persecuted but eventually victorious shop-girls and mill-hands in melodrama.
Thus a dejected, lifeless Maiden Lane. Thus, when night comes on, smaller Stageland—instead of decking itself out in artificial costumes, wigs and grease paint—instead of playing elegant or exciting parts—instead of provoking applause, tears and laughter—thus does smaller Stage-land make its way to the cheap and dingy theatrical lodging-houses of Kennington and Brixton.
A scanty supper, early to bed—and the awakening on the morrow ? More melancholy and Maiden Lane.
This eighth week of the war sees the French inhabitants of Soho in a state of patient and pathetic resignation. A month ago fierce out-bursts and explosions over the brutalities of the Germans, and distressing, poignant apprehensions as to the fate of sons and husbands who had been hastily ordered to the battlefield. But tears run dry at last, the heat of anger gradually declines, and gives place to a dull, bruised feeling of weariness and helplessness. Soho, then, is worn out ; not, however, because it has suffered shocks and blows in the nature of cruel tidings from the front, but because of the even darker and more devastating ordeal of Silence. Better to know the worst than, week after week, to hear nothing. Better to cry one's heart out than to leave it aching from suspense. Such is the state of Soho. After Eight Weeks, it knows nothing.
Not a letter, not a post card from Soho's soldiers at the front. No use applying at the French Embassy or Consulate for news. As for the French papers, silence on the point of casualties within France herself the names of the killed and wounded are privately communicated to their families. But it's a long, long way from the seat of the French Government to Soho—and Soho is but a corner, and consequently Soho is officially ignored.
" Nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing," states a white-headed old newsagent, in a shabby skull-cap.
" Rien, rien, absolument rien," repeats Soho's leading washerwoman.
" Five of my waiters and three of my kitchen hands left me on August the 5th. They promised post cards, at least. They went off singing the Marseillaise. My wife embraced them all before they left. But not a word," relates a restaurant-keeper.
Dull, subdued voices ; voices that once were shrill or lively. Maps of the battle-field pinned to the walls of the shops and the restaurants but what do they tell ? Tales of magnificent advances, of admirably conducted re-treats. But of Gaston and Georges, of Henri and Jules, Soho's soldiers at the front, always nothing.
Three weeks after the anniversary of Sedan, and for M. Leblond, alas ! no tidings of his wife, no news, so I am told, of his sons. As for M. Leblond himself, he has (Soho informs me) practically shut himself up in his small third-floor flat, and " wishes " to see "nobody." However, as an old friend, and after a great deal of knocking, I gain admittance to M. Leblond's stricken home. The old gentleman, stout, florid, white-headed, apologises for his shirt-sleeves. On the table, at which he has been sitting, the photo-graphs of his wife and sons. Dust, crumbs, visions of unwashed cups and saucers, fragments of galantine on a plate, cinders and ashes in the fireplace--the discomfort and disorder of a man left helplessly alone.
" Read that," says M. Leblond, handing me a post card, which he produces shakily from an inner pocket.
A French post card, limp and dingy, torn in one corner, that conveys in English the following literal message :—" Your son wounded right leg and arm, but will do nicely, and arsks me to write you, which I now does with pleasure as your sons one of the best and I was fighting longside of your son and see im got shot but will do nicely as I sed before and sends love and me is pal best respects." Thus, all the way to Soho, a typical, brief, kindly message from Thomas Atkins.
" Excellent news," I say cheerfully to my stricken host.
" But which of my two sons, Jacques or Henri ? " M. Leblond dully answers. " And look at the front of the card."
Postmark, Paris. Date, September the second. Received, only yesterday, the 26th September.
" The second of September ! " cries, or rather chokes, M. Georges Leblond. " Where are my two sons ? What has become of la patronne—ma bonne et brave femme—my cherished, poor old wife ? "