Not A ` New ' Town—the Same City. The Streets. The Soup-kitchens. The Churches
( Originally Published 1917 )
IT has been repeatedly and persistently asserted, in hastily written articles and books, that the war has created an entirely " new " Paris. Journalists and novelists have proclaimed themselves astonished at the " calm " and the " seriousness " of the Parisians, and at the " composed " and " solemn " aspect of every street, corner and stone in the city ; and how elaborately, how melodramatically have they expatiated upon the abolition of absinthe, the closing of night-restaurants, the disappearance of elegant dresses, the silence of the Apaches, the hush in the demi-monde, and the increased congregations in the churches !
" A new, reformed Paris," our critics reiterate. " The flippancy has vanished, the danger of decadence has passed, and in place of extravagance and hilarity we find economy, earnestness and dignity."
Now, with these hastily conceived reflections and criticisms I beg leave to disagree. It is not a " new " Paris that one beholds to-day, but precisely the very Paris one would expect to see. No city, at heart, is more serious, more earnest, more alive to ideas and ideals : no other capital in the world works so hard, creates so much, feels so deeply, labours and battles so incessantly and so consistently for the supreme cause of liberty, justice and humanity. Crises, and shocks, and scandals, if you like—but what generous reparations, what glorious recoveries ! Stifling cabarets, lurid restaurants, rouge, and patchouli, and startling deshabille, if you please ; but all those dissipations were provided for the particular pleasure and well-filled purses of Messieurs les Etrangers-at least twenty foreigners to one Frenchman on the hectic hill of Montmartre ; and what a babel of English and American voices chez Maxim, until five or six in the morning, when the average Parisian was peacefully enjoying his last hour's sleep ! The statues and monuments of Paris, the free Sorbonne University, the quays of the Seine with their bookstalls, the incomparable Comédie Française, the stately French Academy, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Panthéon (with its noble motto " Aux Grands Hommes, la Patrie Reconnaissante "), the Arc de Triomphe, Notre-Dame ; do these (and innumerable other) illustrious institutions, so cherished by the Parisians, appear compatible with " flippancy," " incoherency " and the danger of decadence " ? And the profound, ardent patriotism of the Parisians—how else could it have manifested itself save in the noble, supreme spectacle of courage, determination and self-sacrifice which we are witnessing to-day ? No ; it is not a " new " Paris, but the very Paris one expected to see ; hushed but proud ; stricken yet self-confident wounded, even stabbed to the heart after eleven months of war—but, however devastating the heartaches, however scalding the tears, nowhere in heroic, indomitable Paris is there to be heard a word of complaint.
Eleven months of war, and every able-bodied Frenchman, between the ages of nineteen and forty-eight, protecting the life and soul of his country. Eleven months of slaughter, so that the penalty must already be terrific. Since no casualty lists are published in the newspapers, it is impossible to estimate the extent of the losses. But an hour's sojourn on the terrace of a boulevard café provides a picture of the ravages inflicted on Paris by the War of all Wars. Here, in the radiant sunshine, come the new widows of Paris, widows young and old, one after another . , yes, widows and widows and widows in the deepest of mourning, their pale faces shrouded by heavy crêpe veils. Here, with a dull, muffled stump, stump on the pavement, comes the mutilated soldier on crutches. Here comes the soldier with the empty sleeve. Here comes the soldier with the sunken cheeks, and the dark and deep red-and-blue scars. Here come the soldiers with shattered nerves, who wander along aimlessly, vacantly, as though in a dream. And here comes the blind soldier, under the protection of a limping brother-soldier ; or in the careful, loving charge of his mother or fiancée, who, as she guides him, and speaks to him, and presses his arm, looks up tenderly and tearfully at the extinguished, devastated eyes that will never see again. . . . Then, a motor lorry, packed with haggard, unkempt soldiers, just back from the trenches, their uniforms tattered and blackened with mud. . . Then, very smoothly and silently, the ambulance cars of the Red Cross, en route to the hospitals. . . Then more widows, more blindness, more empty sleeves, and again that pathetic, muffled stump, stump, stump of crutches on the sunlit boulevard pavement.
Stout M. le Bourgeois, seated on the café terrace, watches this grim spectacle of human wreckage with a fixed, staring countenance. Now and again his eyes fill with tears. Convulsively he grips his walking-stick. In a thick voice he mutters : " Les Boches, les Boches ! Ah, les brigands ; ah, les bandits."
Not a single motor omnibus in Paris ; every one of them is on active service at the front. In the place of them, a few rickety old brakes and chars-à-bancs, drawn by a pair of shabby, lean horses ; and the twopenny fare between the Madeleine and the Bastille, is collected by a brown-faced, vigorous peasant woman in a masculine cap. Taxi-cabs in plenty, but taxis that date back to the Exhibition year of 1900, so that they shiver and rattle ; also musty, superannuated fiacres by the score, driven by deaf, rheumaticky old cochers, who, since their vehicles were replaced years ago by the taxi, have not only forgotten the art and subtleties of driving, but are misty and hazy as to the topography of Paris. " Where is it ? " the decrepit old horse-cabman inquires huskily and querulously. " I used to know where it is, but I am no longer a young man j'ai soixante-quatre ans, nom de Dieu ! And I have sons and grandsons in the trenches.
Well, get in, get in, and Mimi [the ancient, bony horse] and I will do our best." Not a single noisy camelot in Paris ; the evening newspapers, shrunken one-sheet affairs, are sold by women and children. And no patient, good-tempered queues outside the theatres—most of them are shut, and the Français opens its doors, with a strictly classical or patriotic play, but three times a week. On the other hand, " benefit " matinées, supported by France's leading actors and actresses, constantly provide tobacco and chocolate for the soldiers, and clothes for the ragged refugees from thé French Northern Provinces, and temporary pensions for stricken widows, and free meals for old Purée the painter, and old Simplon the poet, and old Davigny the composer, and old Cottin the actor. Indeed, each artistic profession has its particular " canteen." A well-cooked dinner, half a bottle of red or white wine, with gossip and music to follow—all for nothing. No less admirably organised, the " soupes populaires " (or soup-kitchens) for the extreme poor of Paris. Since the wife of a soldier-workman receives but one shilling a day for herself, and fifty centimes for each child under the age of fifteen, there's a rush upon the " soupes populaires " at noon, and again at six o'clock at night. Large basins of excellent, nourishing soup ; handsome portions of admirable white bread. The soup plates are distributed by Madame la Bourgeoise, Mesdemoiselles the daughters of Cabinet Ministers, the Marquise de Mauve, the Duchesse de Grandvilliers, and (let me record the fact, not in a whisper, but openly, for it is good to recognise it) by Mesdemoiselles Liane de Luneville, and Pauline Boum, and la petite " Fifine, of what is called the half-world. All in black, these various ladies, and full of compassion, and, what is more, of camaraderie for the bare-headed women in shawls and the children in bérets and sabots. The son of Madame la Duchesse and the son of the femme de ménage are both of them fighting up there in Champagne. " Some-where " near Arras are the respective sons of Madame la Bourgeoise and the wife of a cobbler. As for blonde Liane de Luneville, and brune Pauline Boum, and auburn-haired Fifine—well, well, if they haven't got actual, positive husbands up there at the front, still their bons amis have exchanged their elegant clothes for the soldier's uniform, and are fighting side by side with the husbands, sons and brothers of the poor, common women assembled in the " soupes populaires " - not a trace of awkwardness or self-consciousness. A woman of the people addresses Madame la Duchesse as " ma brave dame." When stout Madame la Bourgeoise invites another woman of the people to take a second plate of soup, she receives the reply : " Mais oui . , . je veux bien mon petit." As for Liane, and Pauline, and la petite Fifine, once upon a time chez Ciro and at Maxim's, they may have been arrogant and impudent, blasées or boisterous, glittering with jewels, wilfully wasting champagne and damaging rare fruits . . et tout le reste. But they are not arrogant, nor boisterous, nor impudent, nor wasteful today : and they wear no jewels. The probabilities are that jewels have been sold for the benefit of the Red Cross Society. French-women to-day, even of the half-world, and for that even of the whole world—for the whole world, too, has its arrogance and extravagance when things go too well with it—are not pre-occupied with worldliness, the flesh and the devil, but with humanity. And in this particular virtue, since both sinners and saints are human beings, sinners and saints may share. Perhaps this is more true in France than anywhere else, because France is the most humane country in the world and the least prudish.
And who works more vigorously than la petite Fifine to-day amidst the steam of the soup- kitchens ? How skilfully she cuts the bread ! What a quick eye she has for replenishing empty plates ! To a child : " Viens, que je to mouche, mon petit." To a battered woman of the people : " Je viendrai vous voir demain dans l'après-midi . . et il y aura du charbon." Steamier and steamier becomes the atmosphere. Flushed, and dishevelled, and unpowdered Fifine becomes, but how young she looks ! What reminiscences of girlhood—this spectacle of the women of the people, and of children in bérets and sabots, must awaken in her heart and soul ! For the chances are considerable that Fifine herself was the daughter of a struggling woman of the people, that in her girlhood she suffered hunger and cold herself . . . not so very many years ago.
Straight from the soup-kitchens, Madame la Duchesse and Madame la Bourgeoise go to their favourite churches. What a silent, pathetic assembly of women in deep mourning! What prolonged, heartfelt prayers for the souls of the departed, the recovery of the wounded, the security of the " missing," the safe return of the uninjured ! Such a shortage of cushions and praying stools, that many a woman must kneel on the bare and cold stones. Beside her burn tapers-tall, waxen tapers—for the safe return of the uninjured, the security of the " missing," the recovery of the wounded, and for rest for the souls of the departed. Not only in front of the be-flowered and brilliantly illuminated side-altars, but in the dimmest and remotest corners of the church, the women of Paris are at prayers.