Paris - The Wounded In The Bois De Boulogne. Vanished Prejudices At Versailles. Clericalism And The Republic
( Originally Published 1917 )
ONE radiant afternoon it is my privilege to take a mutilated French soldier—a young man of twenty-five, whom we will call Louis Moreau-for a drive in the Bois.
As far back as September last, at the battle of the Marne, the greater part of his left leg was shot away and he was terribly wounded in the head. Since the unspeakable Huns were firing heavily on the Red Cross, it was impossible to come to the assistance of the wounded ; and young Louis Moreau lay battered and bleeding on the battle-field for a period of seventeen hours. It took another twenty-four hours to transport him to the Cochin Hospital in Paris.
Thus, a prolonged and perilous delay of forty-one hours before the shattered limb and gaping forehead could be adequately attended to. Today, nine months after, he is still an inmate of the Cochin Hospital. But he can stump about on crutches, and the deep wound in the forehead has healed, leaving it darkened and dented with a black-and-blue scar.
His crutches in front of him, Louis Moreau sits up comfortably enough in the motor car. In a month or so he hopes to be discharged from the hospital and to return to Manchester, where he resided for three years before the outbreak of the war. There, in Cottonopolis, he became engaged to an English girl. There, with her aid, he soon mastered the difficulties and eccentricities of our language. Also, he made excellent progress in the factory where he was employed.
" But I can speak English no longer," Louis Moreau informs me in French, with an air of bewilderment. " It has all gone—except for a very few words. The wound in the head, I suppose."
Wearily he rubs the scar on his forehead. Then, with a smile, the soldier continues : " When I get back to Manchester my fiancée will help me to learn English again. She has seen me at the hospital. I was afraid of her visit ; what would she think of me ? But I need not have been afraid."
By now, on its way to the Bois, our motor car has reached the radiant Champs Élysées, and it is charming to note the lavish hospitality that this most elegant of Parisian thoroughfares has extended to the wounded soldiers of France. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, if you like. For fashionable hotels and great private mansions have been transformed into hospitals, and the once magnificent drawing-rooms are now plain, white-washed dormitories, and into the delicate boudoirs have come medicines and bandages and grim surgical instruments ; and the balconies and vast open windows overlooking the brilliant Élysées are crowded with jaded, damaged soldiers in dressing-gowns, overcoats or cool flannel suits.
Not so jaded and damaged, however, but that they exchange a wave of the hand with Louis Moreau as our motor car passes by, and more waves of the hand with other convalescent colleagues who are also being driven out to the Bois. Indeed; a veritable procession of convalescents in motors. Legless, like Moreau, or armless, or bandaged, or blind—and all of them in the compassionate charge of Parisians who have not the slightest acquaintance with their poor, stricken guests, but have simply driven to the military hospitals and inquired : " Have you any soldiers who would like to spend an afternoon in the Bois ?
Very shabby and weather-stained are the uniforms of the convalescents. They might have seen 'service in 1870. For, of course, the new bluish-grey uniform, of which there is a shortage, is reserved exclusively for the fit, and any old uniform will do for the incapable crippled. Yes, dingy, battered old uniforms. Never before have these luxurious, elegant motors carried such shabbiness ! But the police stop the traffic to make way for the cars : and the ten-year-old Parisian, after a word from his nurse or his mother, rises hastily from his chair or his bench and gives the mutilated convalescents the official military salute.
Thus shabbily, but triumphantly, into the heart of the Bois, to no less fashionable a restaurant than the Armenonville, where, at this same season last year, " le Tout Paris " was assembled at afternoon tea, the red-coated tziganists were playing languorous valses, and the grave, pompous maître d'hôtel was picking up the fallen handkerchief of the Marquise de Mauve or reverently lighting the cigarette of M. le Due.
The tziganists have vanished, but the grey-headed maître d'hôtel remains—and it is his chief business to attend to the coffee, and the cakes, and the liqueurs, and the cigarettes of the convalescents. Fancy cripples and shabbiness chez expensive, elegant Armenonville ! But there they are, thirty or forty of them, with their no-arms, and no-legs, and no-eyes, with their bandages and crutches, sipping coffee or tea, consuming sugared cakes, and gaily and whole-heartedly enjoying themselves — yes, actually laughing and laughing. Heavens—gracious heavens—the courage and cheerfulness of these heroes ! Here are two young soldiers, fellow-patients at the Cochin Hospital of my companion, Louis Moreau, both of them totally blind yet chattering and laughing. Over to them, on his crutches, stumps Corporal Moreau. A few moments later, hilarity of all three of them.
Never such a spectacle ! I like to observe that the grey-headed maître d'hôtel, although portly and gouty, is more assiduous in his attentions to the convalescents than even he was to Madame le Marquise or M. le Duc ; and it is equally pleasant to behold the quite unlimited hospitality of the owners of the motor cars (many of them prominent members of " le Tout Paris "), who have brought out the convalescents on this joy-ride." After the tea and petits fours, all kinds of ices. Boxes of sweets as well as of cigarettes. Picture post cards of the restaurant, the cascade and the lake. And, all the time, the muffled stumping of the cripples as they visit the different tables—and their chatter and their laughter.
Radiantly the sun shines down upon the blind and the mutilated. From time to time the buzz of an aeroplane. Then the scent of lilac and of pink and white may. Then the belated arrival in the sylvan Bois of the official three-o'clock communiqué, which announces an important capture of German prisoners and trenches. Then, of course, increased chatter and laughter of our battered convalescents.
Let us leave them here, in the green and beflowered garden of fashion, and observe how other wounded soldiers, British this time, command the friendly sympathy and attentions of aristocrats at Versailles.
Versailles ? Before the war the ghosts of old persuasions and of anti-Republican sympathies haunted the place.
Although the palace of the Kings of France has been turned into a show place, and the park of their late illustrious Majesties has also been vulgarly thrown open to the people, and walls and buildings have been indelibly marked with the sinister Republican motto of " Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," and Paris, the Democratic, lies only fourteen miles away—a great number of the residents of Versailles had remained obstinately and incorrigibly Royalist.
Nothing magnificent, however, about their Royalism. Lengthy, highly aristocratic pedigrees, without doubt ; counts by the score, marquises also plentiful, aristocrats in abundance. But, alas ! it is an embarrassed, an even impoverished aristocracy. Not a chateau or a motor ear amongst them. Only plain, moderate-sized villas, and a seedy, pathetic old carriage for Madame la Marquise, and bath-chairs at so much an hour for the dowagers.
Also, apart from the dowagers, it is a superannuated nobility. Sexagenarian counts, septuagenarian marquises, stiff, reserved old gentlemen who only become animated when they get an opportunity of attacking the Republican regime. Plenty of these opportunities : for the Royalists of Versailles frequently meet in one another's drawing-rooms, where a large, handsome photo-graph of the Duke of Orleans holds the place of honour on the mantelpiece, and sometimes the precious portrait has been signed by "Monseigneur's " own hand, and on either side of it is stationed a vase of fresh flowers.
Then in these drawing-rooms (redeemed only from mediocrity by an occasional rare bibelot, a tapestry or two, a wonderful old table or cabinet or chair)—then, whilst the ladies nod approval and the faithful, shabby old man-servant is allowed to lurk and listen admiringly by the door—then, I say, what a hot, what a sultry, what an appallingly scorching time for the Third French Republic !
" A last word," announces M. le Marquis. " As usual, when the next Presidential Election takes place in the Palace of Versailles, we Royalists will pull down the blinds in our homes and remain proudly and disdainfully indoors."
Such (as Anatole France has recorded in M. Bergeret d Paris) was the uncompromising attitude of the Versaillais Royalists—until the outbreak of the war. But when their country was invaded, when their own sons and grandsons hastened off to the front and fought side by side with "rascally " Republicans and " infamous " Socialists—down broke the reserve, away went the prejudices, and warmly and humanely beat the hearts of the once incorrigible old aristocrats.
Indeed, one would not recognise them today in the fourteenth month of the war. No longer do they keep to their small gardens and faded salons; they go into public, they actually salute the Republican Mayor, they positively gossip with tradesmen and policemen and postmen ; and the sexagenarian Comte de Bellevue and the seventy-seven-year-old Marquis de Mô have called in person and together on M. Jules Dubois, a stout Socialist charcutier, to condole with him on the loss of young Ernest his son—" mort glorieuse-ment pour la patrie " . . . decorated heroically with both the Military Cross and the Military Medal.
Admirable old aristocrats of Versailles ! If from time to time the blinds are drawn in their homes, it is not now out of rancour against the Republic : but because Royalism has been stricken, just like Socialist Dubois, the stout ham-and-beef merchant.
Equally transformed, Madame la Marquise, Madame la Comtesse and the abundance of dowagers. I positively know that one of these ladies sold her carriage and horse, both of them the limit of decrepitude and shabbiness, for two hundred francs—yes, eight English pounds—in order that she might subscribe to the " Fund for the Mutilated."
Then dowagers have parted with precious laces, bibelots, and jewels, and if the age of these ladies does not permit them to dispense with bath-chairs, Mesdames les Douairières turn the old chairs to excellent account by appearing in them every fine afternoon in the beautiful park.
An extraordinary occurrence, an incredible event ! For cheap refreshment stalls now stand about in the incomparable grounds of their late illustrious Majesties of France—and the public may wander to and fro as they please—and children play games around the Trianon and the moss-grown but still smiling statues of famous Court beauties : never such sacrilege, such vandalism ! What an unspeakable Republic !
Yet . . . there the dowagers are. There, too, are the old counts and the old marquises. Has Royalism in Versailles lost its senses ? It looks like it, when the bath-chair of a dowager stops at one of the vulgar refreshment stalls, and the white-headed lady aristocrat spends two or three francs on biscuits, chocolates, pears, apples and bananas. It more than looks it when, from another plebeian refreshment stall, M. le Comte carries off no fewer than twenty madeleines (a species of sponge-cake) in a low paper bag.
Well, well, the truth is, of course, that the fruit, chocolate and madeleines have been bought for the wounded and mutilated,- and the deaf and blind soldiers who sit about here, there and everywhere in the vast Versailles park every fine afternoon. Pale faces, haunted faces, scarred faces, heavily bandaged faces, but, in spite of all, appetites excellent.
Leaning forward in their bath-chairs, the dowagers hold out, with trembling old hands, their collection of chocolate, biscuits and fruit. " Une madeleine, mes braves," suggests M. le Comte, tearing off the top of his paper bag. "Des cigarettes," announces M. le Marquis, producing a variety of brands. As I have said, most excel-lent appetites. Half an apple in one bite. A madeleine in a mouthful. Banana-eating, extra-ordinary. Deep chocolate-stained lips.
Particularly hearty, I fancy, are the appetites of the British wounded soldiers, for whom, of course, Versailles has provided the most admirable of hospitals. Clumsily, and yet charmingly, does Mr Thomas Atkins bow to the dowagers, but, when questioned by M. le Comte, Mr Atkins, after scratching his head and searching hard for words, desperately replies : " Non parlay beaucoupe. .. . Very 'ot, that's all I knows. . . . Go on, Jim : you talks French : 'ave a go at the old gentleman."
Then, incoherent eloquence of " Jim." Never such awful mutilation of the French language, never in his life has M. le Comte been more bewildered or dismayed.
Not a word does he comprehend. At last he checks " Jim's " incoherencies by shaking hands. A few minutes later, when the sun begins to sink and the chill of autumn falls, the bath-chairs of the dowagers slowly disappear, the old counts and marquises in attendance upon them ; the vulgar refreshment stalls creak and rumble off, and the wounded and mutilated, and the deaf and blind victims of the German Emperor's war make their way back as best they can.
When everyone in France is ready to die for her sake, how should old political prejudices and differences of opinion divide Frenchmen ? Once upon a time the Republic and the Church were bitter antagonists. " Le cléricalisme c'est l'ennemi. . . ." Yes, but now that France is invaded, who is thinking about " Clericalism " ? How heroically has many a French priest given his life for his country ! How devoutly does many an " Anti-Clerical " pour out his hopes and fears to God, in the ancient, historical churches, where his ancestors, in times past, offered up entreaties for the safety and triumph of France in earlier seasons of peril and struggle.
From early morning, until evening fills the aisles with dimness, the Paris churches are crowded, and silent. It is the same in every quarter of the city.
Does this mean a revival of Clericalism ? Victor Hugo was no Clerical, yet he wrote : " Il faut bien ceux qui prient toujours pour ceux qui ne prient jamais." Had he been alive today, the great Romantic, would he not have recognised that when science devotes all its energies to cultivate frightfulness, to fabricate engines for destroying and torturing mankind, and to evolve a superman whose chief virtue is to be a monster incapable of pity, it is time to ask God of His grace to begin to work miracles again : to keep sentiment alive in us, and the love of beauty, and the desire of the strong, not to oppress, but to help the weak—and the humble desire in all of us not to become inhuman monsters, at any cost, nor for any price ?
I would point out that Voltaire, like Victor Hugo, would have sanctioned this petition ; that Voltaire, as well as Victor Hugo, would have shared with sympathy and emotion in the prayer for victory now being offered in French churches over the evil spirits of arrogance, cruelty and rapacity—prayers that, whether the tapers help the case or no, are going to be answered. Let me quote Victor Hugo again as to the present situation, regarded as a religious revival :
" Ne retirons rien à l'esprit humain supprimer est mauvais. Il faut réformer et trans-former. Certaines facultés de l'homme sont dirigeés vers l'Inconnu : la pensée, la rêverie, la prière. . . . La grandeur de la démocratie, c'est de ne rien nier et de ne rien renier de l'humanité. Près du droit de l'homme, au moins à côté, il y a le droit de !'Ame."
Three weeks after the publication of the last sketch he wrote, "The Aristocrats of Versailles" (in "The Evening News," 30th October 1915), John F. Macdonald, who had contracted consumption during the last seven months he spent in France (probably as a result of his assiduity in visiting sick and wounded soldiers in different hospitals), was brought back from Paris to London to die.