Paris - The Heat-wave. The New Enemy. " Soldiers Three " In The Latin Quarter
( Originally Published 1917 )
TEN months have just elapsed since that memorable Saturday night when the official buildings of Paris were suddenly, rapidly and dramatically pasted with little strips of paper calling every able-bodied citizen to arms ; ten months have come and gone since the first trainload of French soldiers rumbled out of the Gare du Nord, at three o'clock in the morning, for a destination unknown : ten lurid and terrific months have expired since the most formidable war in history was savagely let loose—and now for, and now on and through with, the eleventh month.
It has begun with a heat-wave. Indeed, as I write, Paris has been baking under a fierce sun for five days. Only the dawn of June, but it might be the middle of August, and the heat seems to be intensified by the heavy crêpe veils of the innumerable widowed Parisiennes and the dull, sombre broadcloth of M. le Bourgeois. True, the latter has discarded his waistcoat ; children have been put into cool little frocks ; curly pet poodles have been shaved, and horses have been grotesquely squeezed into straw hats and poke-bonnets. Beyond this, however, no changes in " fashions." The only single fashion, the one solitary colour in clothing is—black.
On the other hand, the aspect of Paris has undergone a decided change with the eleventh month of war.
Behold the red, white and green flag of Italy fluttering here, there and everywhere. Behold, too, brand new flags of the other Allies radiantly massed together outside the Senate, the Chamber, the Ministries, the banks and the Presidential Palace of the Élysée. (It was high time to haul down the old flags of ten months ago, for they had become weatherbeaten, and wispy, and dim.) Then, behold the closing hour of the cafés handsomely extended from eight o'clock until half-past ten.
And finally, behold the official communiqués-what blows to the Boches, what successes and honours for the Allies !
No doubt about it ; Paris has suddenly taken a new lease of life. " Ça va bien, ça va très bien," exclaims stout-M. le Bourgeois, although, as a matter of fact, he is suffering severely from the heat. Become almost his old garrulous self, M. le Bourgeois, for the first time since the out-break of the war, may be heard gossiping away about a hundred and one trifles. He had a cutlet for lunch. He has seen admirable straw-berries at fourpence a pound. Some sinister brigand " of a waiter has given him a bad fifty-centime piece. And—listen to this now—a fly, yes, a " bandit " of a fly, yes, an assassin " of a fly appeared in his room at precisely seven minutes past eleven in the morning.
" With a towel, also with a brush, I chased it," relates M. le Bourgeois, his eyes bolting with excitement. "Round and round the room I went, calling out, ` Sale mouche, you shall not escape me ! ' But at last it flew out of the window and, like a good- citizen, I immediately reported the matter to the police."
Yes—really and truly—the police. For the authorities, fearing a plague of flies from the battle-field, recently issued a manifesto calling upon all " good citizens " to wage war against these new enemies. No mercy, no quarter. And the manifesto continued : " A special powder for the speedy destruction of flies, with instructions how to use it, will be supplied to the public free of charge."
A veritable rush for that powder ! A fierce, frenzied campaign against flies ! Today, eagerly and emotionally, Parisians ask one another : " Have you got your powder ? " Usually the reply comes : " Three packets of it. But I can't find a fly."
Thus one can smile, one can even laugh in Paris, in the eleventh month of the war. And it is the heat-wave, even more than the exhilarating communiqués, that is responsible for this new lease of life. Until now the Parisians have remained chiefly indoors. But today, because of the intense sultriness, behold them resuming their sociable and charming out-of-door habits.
Particularly after nightfall. Especially in narrow, humble streets. Down the dark, winding staircases of the shabby, stifling houses come chairs, and workboxes, and bottles of weak wine-and-water, and there, on the pavement, the obscure housewives of Paris, surrounded by their children, darn stockings and mend aprons, and discuss the news of the day.
Stout middle-aged greybeards, superannuated cochers, policemen and other Parisians ineligible for military service join the assembly.
From hand to hand pass the glasses of thin wine-and-water. A policeman lights a match that a housewife may thread her needle. A grey-beard talks hard into the ear of a deaf, wrinkled old grandmother-they did " the Siege of Paris together forty-four years ago. One of the superannuated cochers relates with infinite pride—" je vous jure que c'est vrai "—that he has slaughtered no fewer than five of the battle-field flies. Emotion and sensation of the entire assembly !
" I swear it is true," reiterates the cocher. But, when he admits that it was his fist, and not the famous official new powder, that did the great deed, the excitement subsides.
On goes the darning, on play the children, and out from the apron-pocket of many a house-wife comes the dingy military post card from her husband at the front. Excellent obscure Parisian housewives ! Their allowance from the Government is but one shilling and twopence a day, with an additional fourpence for every child under the age of fifteen. Out of this pittance they send their menfolk tobacco and rations. " My Ferdinand adores a smoked sausage." " When my Gustave has received his tin of sardines, ah, mon Dieu, how the pauvre garçon will rigolér!"
A glass of wine-and-water for a passing wounded soldier. A glass for myself—because I am an Englishman and an ally. High overhead the distant humming and buzzing of French aeroplanes. Down here in the hot, narrow street, on the cracked, shabby pavement, the little conversazione continues.
Je vous jure que c'est vrai," shouts the superannuated cocker into the ear of the deaf, wrinkled grandmother. But, with a scornful sniff, the old lady retorts that when she " did " the Siege of Paris in the days of her youth, she saw much more extraordinary things than battle-field flies.
At eight o'clock at night, when the cafés close their doors, the Paris of to-day becomes a city of shadows.
And of all the darkened and deserted districts of Paris none is more shadowy or more hushed, more stricken or more lifeless, than the dear Latin Quarter.
Suddenly, however, when I reach the door of a small, darkened restaurant, the silence is astonishingly broken by the strains of an English music hall chorus:
"Hullo, hullo, who's your lady friend,
Amazement of myself ! I can hardly believe my ears. Sheer, undiluted Cockneyism in the hushed, shadowy Latin Quarter ! Yet the chorus continues, more vigorously than ever : "Who, who, who's your lady friend ? " And, without further hesitation, I open the door of the small restaurant.
A homely, cheerful spectacle. Seated all together at a table spread with liqueur-glasses and coffee-cups are a stout, elderly Frenchman, his equally portly wife, their very charming daughter and—three bronzed British soldiers.
For a moment, embarrassment of the party. But when once I have declared myself an English-man there's a great deal of handshaking, and a cordial invitation to sit down, and in less than no time I learn that the names of the soldiers are Corporal Jenkins and Privates Benson and Dickens, and that they have come all the way from the trenches to the Latin Quarter on a forty-eight hours' leave. As for their French friends, they are the family Leblond—the proprietors of the restaurant.
Just been 'aving a little bit of a sing-song," states Corporal Jenkins. " The French enjoys an English tune : don't they, mother ? "
"Mais oui, mon fils—vairy pretty," replies portly Madame Leblond, patting the Corporal's arm.
Certainly, a surprising state of affairs. Here is a stalwart British corporal calling a Frenchwoman his mother," and Madame in her turn addressing him as her " son." Nor is this all. Privates Benson and Dickens are also the " sons " of Madame Leblond, and she, too, is their " mother," and stout M. Leblond is " father " ; but the very charming daughter remains, respectfully and conventionally, " Mamzelle."
Nor are the Leblonds and the three soldiers old friends. They have known one another exactly two hours. The restaurant door just opened and in walked the trio in khaki, and ordered a soup and a stew, and fell into conversation with the Leblonds, who insisted upon offering " the coffee, whereupon the Corporal ordered liqueurs, and very charming "Mamzelle " asked for a real English song.
"'Er young man's at the front," Private Dickens informs me. " Mother, that speaks a bit of English, told us. Ain't 'ad a word from 'im since February. Poor little Mamzelle ! So we thought we'd cheer 'er up with a song."
Simple, kind-hearted and excellent British soldiers ! Not one out of the many scores I have yet met has complained of his own experiences in the trenches. Invariably he has extolled the heroism of others, sympathised with the mis-fortunes of others, deplored the death of others--knowing all the while that he himself might be the next victim to fall.
No, never a thought for himself. Here in this little Latin Quarter restaurant, where Madame Leblond became tearful over the three sons she has fighting somewhere in France," Corporal Jenkins puts his great arm around Madame Leblond's shoulders and assures her that the " boys will come back as lively as fleas."
" And your boy, just the same," says Private Dickens to " Mamzelle."
What does he say ? " Mademoiselle Leblond asks me, and when I have translated the affirmation of her fiancé's safe return, " Mamzelle smiles, and shakes Private Dickens by the hand —but her eyes fill with tears.
Corporal Jenkins notices the tears. And to his colleagues he says : " Let's give her another song. Wot about : 'Old Your 'And out, Naughty Boy ? "
The song goes with a swing. No sooner is it over than the Corporal calls out to Private Benson : " Now then, Jack, let them 'ave a look at your tit-bits from the trenches."
The " tit-bits are war trophies, tied up in a huge spotted handkerchief, deposited under Private Benson's chair. After hoisting the swollen handkerchief on to the table, and laboriously unknotting it, Private Benson discloses to our view—four or five bullets, a few jagged bits of shell, friendly buttons from French uniforms, a sharp dart from a flying Hun, a tattered and mud-stained copy of a German newspaper, and two fat Egyptian cigarettes, piously preserved in a card-board box, which were presented to Private Benson by the Prince of Wales whilst his Royal Highness was inspecting the trenches.
Of course Private Benson is tremendously proud of his cigarettes, and naturally the rest of us survey them with interest and admiration. Then, after the " tit-bits from the trenches," come, photographs.
The photographs of Madame Leblond's three sons and of her daughter's " missing " fiancé. The photographs of the English mothers of the bronzed and heroic trio in khaki. The photo-graph of Corporal Jenkins' dog. The photograph of Private Dickens' small sister. The photograph of an aged grandfather. The photograph of a garden. Photographs and photographs—and all of them littered about amidst the liqueur-glasses and the coffee-cups, and the " tit-bits from the trenches and all our heads and shoulders close together until the clock, striking ten, gives the signal for departure.
Then do the French " mother " and her adopted English " sons " embrace one another resoundingly on both cheeks. Then are " father " and " Mamzelle " gripped warmly by the hand. Then —whilst Madame Leblond wipes her eyes and stands smiling through her tears on the doorstep —disappearance of the three soldiers down the hushed, darkened street.