Paris And London School Children : The Five Hundred
( Originally Published 1917 )
IT was the longest of trains, the most animated and most amazing of corridor expresses, that left London Bridge station for Folkestone harbour and the Channel, shortly after eight o'clock in the morning on the twenty-fifth of May. In the saloon carriage, reserved for special newspaper correspondents and camera-laden photographers, M. Sire, the white-bearded but ever-youthful representative in London of the French Northern Railway, thus addressed the company : "I should like to say of this expedition to Paris that it is at once refreshing and unique. Unlike official visits-Royal, Parliamentary or Municipal—its character is neither formal nor conventional ; far less does there lurk in it a political significance. It is entirely spontaneous ; it is wholly unsophisticated ; it is innocence itself. In a word, it is human, it is poetical, it--" But here a din of shrill, excited cheering—for which, needless to say, the blasé journalists and photographers were not responsible —interrupted M. Sire's discourse. The din came from without. And, on going to the window, I discovered the heads of children upon children thrust through the innumerable other windows of this interminable train. Not only heads, but hands and arms--and here and there the best part of a body. And the cheers were being raised at the spectacle of a number of peasants at work in a green field ; a sight rarely, if ever, beheld by this trainful of small boys and girls from the back streets of Peckham and Tooting, Brixton and West Kensington, Greenwich and Woolwich. Also from the County Council schools of those districts—five hundred Carries and Cissies and Gerties, and Georges and Jimmies and Willies, in all. Their destination—oh, gracious goodness !—was the boulevards. Nor were they cheap Whitsuntide trippers, but the officially invited guests of the City of Paris, with a leading part to play in the International Musical Festival. Hence the special corridor train. Hence M. Sire's speech. Hence the collection of cameras and journalists and the formidable array of County Council "teachers," guides and nurses in attendance on dingiest London's obscure children—hereafter to be termed, collectively and importantly, the Five Hundred.
Only from France, the country of human sympathies and ideas, could such an invitation " have been extended. On the other hand, only in England do there exist children dauntless and adventurous enough to face, without a qualm, an unknown people in an unfamiliar land. You could never persuade little René and Marguerite of Paris, nor young Hans and Hilda of Berlin, to come publicly to London ; there would be tears, hysterics at the mere suggestion of such a thing. But our Carries and Cissies, and Georges and Jimmies, would embark for anywhere at an hour's notice, and confront and endure the most embarrassing situations with admirable heroism. The sea and her shocks and miseries, for instance. As the train bearing the Five Hundred steamed into Folkestone harbour station, what a cheer for the Channel ! Out of the carriages jumped the children, and, dividing themselves into groups, awaited the orders of their " teachers." Either a red or a white or a blue ribbon around the straw hats of the girls, so that, when assembled, they formed a symbol of the tricolour. The boys in caps, again either blue or white or red ; thus more homage to the French national colours. Then knapsacks and military-looking water-bottles (slung dashingly across them by a strap) for the Georges, and reticules and rush " pilgrim " baskets for the Carries and Cissies. A clapping of hands—the command to proceed—and the Five Hundred, now two abreast, pass gaily along the platform and across the gangway on to the boat. Down they troop into the saloon, where they deposit their luggage. Up they come on to deck, and then do the girls tie handkerchiefs (motor-veil fashion) over their straw hats, whilst the boys perform gymnastics, clamber on to railings and funnels and pay admiring homage to the sailors. But not for long. Behold the Channel becoming choppy, the Channel getting worse, and the Carries and Cissies staggering about and being taken below, and the Georges and Jimmies also disappearing, and the "teachers " and nurses consoling and soothing the Five Hundred. Still, in spite of its suffering, it was an admirable Five Hundred. It neither cried out for mercy nor begged despairingly for death. And how rapidly, how astonishingly it recovered when informed that Boulogne harbour had been entered, and that it was time to line up on deck and make a favourable impression on the crowd assembled on the quays. There stood M. le Maire, with the entire Municipal Council assembled imposingly behind him. Prominent, too, was the Municipal Band, which struck up God Save the King, the very moment the boat, after a last shudder, came to a standstill. After that, the Marseillaise, and next, the Five Hundred's very shrillest cheering. Of course, speeches and toasts and champagne in the buffet, where M. le Maire received the L.C.C. authorities. And whilst he discussed this unique visit with elegance and charm, a group of Boulogne fisherwomen (in their best black dresses and starched, fan-shaped white caps) were presenting the children with tricolour dolls, flags; paper flowers and rosettes. Then a distribution of buns and cakes, an emptying of the military water-bottles and deep draughts of lemonade, and into another special train, en route—oh, dear me !—to the boulevards. There were cheers for the French peasantry, French cattle, French cottages, French windmills. More cheers for the Amiens Cathedral, for the vast, vulgar château of the Baron Gustave de Rothschild, for the gas and electrical works of Creil, for the grim chimneys of St-Denis. And what ringing, piercing cheers for the one and only Gare du Nord, where eighteen brand new motor omnibuses were in waiting to transport the flushed and dishevelled Five Hundred to their various school residences in the outlying districts of Auteuil, Neuilly, Passy and Montrouge ! It was five o'clock, the " green hour," and thus the obscure children of dingiest London saw Paris at the most animated and exhilarating time in the day. Hanging out of the omnibus windows, they cheered the crowded terraces of the boulevard cafés, the radiant Champs Élysées, the swift little steamers on the Seine, the students of the Latin Quarter, all the while waving their dolls and small tricolour flags. Not a trace of apprehension, as they trooped into their school residences with their baskets, knapsacks and water-bottles. The great doors closed-to amidst the clamour of shrill voices and the shuffling of feet ; and the admirable Five Hundred had both dined and been put to bed when, at nine o'clock, the Inter-national Musical Festival began with an explosion of fireworks, torchlight processions and stirring military tattoos.
Mercy me, the state of Paris ! No fewer than five hundred musical societies from all parts of the country had invaded the city and taken possession of theatres and halls, public gardens and squares, even of cafés and street corners. Here, a choir from Rheims. Over there, the brassiest of brass bands from Normandy and Brittany. Elsewhere, ear-splitting fanfares from primitive, remote villages. Farther on, a dozen lusty trumpeters. Then the wail of the flute, the crash of the cymbal, the boom of the drum—and every one of these multitudinous performers singing and playing his hardest and loudest. Naturally, cases of jealousy : resulting in stormy scenes between Normans and Bretons, and in one of the remote Village Fanfares threatening to destroy an important Brass Band with its primitive instruments. Nor did the husky old barrel organs of Paris fail to come out ; nor yet the street-singers with their harmoniums, violins and harps, together with beggars, " strong men," wrestlers and roundabouts. Many were the Village Fanfares that got lost in dubious neighbourhoods, and sought refuge in police-stations ; many the Brass Bands that appealed in vain for accommodation, and had to pass the night in the open ; many the Choirs that completely lost their voices from excitement and fatigue. It was amidst all this chaos and din that the eighteen brand new motor omnibuses, containing London's Five Hundred, made what the French journalists termed " a sensational appearance." Never had Paris beheld such a charming collection of blonde little girls, never did small boys excite so much interest and admiration. It was the flaxen hair, it was the military water-bottles, that won the children their first enthusiastic ovation. Then were patriotic French hearts stirred by the tri-colour ribbons and the small national. flags, and the shrill, constant cheering and the cries of " Vive la France," and the singing of the Marseillaise in the shade of the Bois de Boulogne. Sunday afternoon : and so all bourgeois Paris on show in the Bois. M. Dupont smoking a tough demi-londrès cigar ; stout Madame Dupont in black satin, white gloves and a heliotrope bonnet the little Duponts also installed in penny chairs, with orders not to leave them, lest they should stain their tight Sunday clothes. Then all of a sudden, the arrival of the Five Hundred, and (as they say in the Chamber) " mouvements " of the bourgeoisie. " Charmantes, les petites blondes," observed Madame la Bourgeoise. Tu vois, comme ils sont pratiques, les Anglais," remarked the husband, à propos of the water-bottles. Emotion of small René Dupont ; of his little sister, Marguerite. Yes ; what with the blondness of the Cissies and the gallant water-bottles of the Jimmies, the young Duponts of Paris there and then lost their hearts to the fair and heroic Five Hundred. And no wonder ! Peckham swarmed up trees ; Tooting bent down perilously over the edge of the lake"; Brixton almost got splashed by the cascade ; Woolwich was patted on the shoulder by an officer of the Legion of Honour ; West Kensington (in the person of its blondest representative) was presented with a rose by an elegant lady, who at the very least must have been a marquise. " Vas-y, vas-y," assented M. le Bourgeois, when, in spite of their Sunday clothes, little René and Marguerite begged leave to descend from their penny chairs and mix with the Five Hundred. Of course, awkwardness, embarrassment. " Monsieur," said René to Jimmy ; " Madame," said Marguerite to Cissie, by way of introduction. Bong jour," replied London. A twiddling of thumbs, a kicking of heels, heavy breathing, infinite blushing, sly, tentative smiles. " We'd better shake 'ands with them," suggested Peckham. " And after that show 'em the water-bottles." Then a Cockney grip of the hand that made René and Marguerite start ; then the tops of the water-bottles unscrewed, and young, bourgeois Paris staring (one after another) into their mysterious depths ; then naïve French cries of " C'est beau, ça," and London exclamations of " Thought you'd like it—ought to get one yerself—they're the limit—but of course you don't understand wot I'm saying—never mind, can't 'elp it " ; then a handkerchief exchanged sentimentally between the Boulevard Magenta and Sampson Street, Tooting, and then the Five Hundred suddenly called upon by its teachers to give an impromptu rendering of the Marseillaise. --For no singing figured in Sunday's official programme ; it was at the special request of the before-mentioned officer of the Legion of Honour, of Madame la Marquise, of the bourgeoisie, that London's obscure children formed up into a square and chanted the French National Anthem. Shoulder to shoulder they sang—time and tune both perfect, beating the air with their flags and the tricolour dolls ; in their ardour tossing back their blonde hair and shifting the straps of their water-bottles. . . . " Marchong, marchong ! . ." How the Bois echoed with the children's shrill, fervent voices ! How belated Parisians came hastening up to the scene 1 What exclamations of " Bravo " and " Epatants, les petits Anglais," and " Bis, bis," when the Five Hundred had finished ! But—more to follow ; cries of Vive la France " and the eternal shrill cheers, which increased the delight of the Parisians. Breaking the ranks of the Five Hundred, the Duponts and Durands congratulated, caressed and embraced Peckham and Tooting. How did the Five Hundred like France ? What did they think of French cooking ? What had been the state of the " sinister " Channel ? How were the fogs of " la vieille Angleterre " ? All this, most rapidly, in French ! Vague replies, therefore, of, " Yes, mister,'' and " All right, thank you, lady." Young René and small Marguerite edged nearer and nearer to Carrie and Jimmie. Solid Peck-ham hands were clasped by frail Paris hands, and more exchanges of handkerchiefs between the Back Streets of Tooting and Brixton and the Bourgeois Boulevards of Arago, Pasteur and Magenta. A fondling of those gallant, military water-bottles on the part of small Marguerite and René. Audibly and indisputably, a Marguerite kissed by a Jimmie. Nor were Marguerite's parents shocked by the impropriety. Oh, les blondes, they turn one's head ! " exclaimed M. le Bourgeois. " When one is a child, it does not matter. But you, mon cher Hippolyte, are too old to be-come sentimental over blondes—leave that to your son," snapped Madame la Bourgeoise, who was swarthy. It is possible that the Renés and Marguerites, and the Edouards and Cissies, and the Georges and Yvonnes would have wandered away into the depths of the Bois, and there have planned elopements to la vieille Angleterre," had not the L.C.C. authorities called upon the Five Hundred to return to their motor omnibuses. Dolls, caps and flags held up in the air by London's children, as they march two abreast through the wood to their vehicles. Gloom of René and Marguerite when the Five Hundred disappear. Questions of : When shall we see them again ? When may we invite them to tea ? When are you going to give me a water-bottle ? Why should English boys carry water-bottles and French boys have none ? Why should little English girls be allowed to ? " La paix," cries M. le Bourgeois. " It is Sunday and we are in the Bois, so be correct," Madame Dupont commands both her husband and children. " But I want to see les petits Anglais again," sobs Marguerite. " I must have a water-bottle," declares René. So, with their children dissatisfied, rebellious, the Duponts make their long way home to Arago, Pasteur and Magenta. En route, glimpses of the Five Hundred, whose progress in the motor omnibuses had been impeded by the swarms of Brass Bands and Village Fanfares. " There they are again," shout Marguerite and René. Yes, there they were, always cheering, always waving their tricolour presents, always (as a Peckhamite shouted out of the window) " always merry and bright." Alas for the important Brass Bands and those remote Village Fanfares, and for all the rest of the five hundred vocal and instrumental societies come to Paris ! They were eclipsed by London's Five Hundred. They were ordered by the fierce, nervous little Paris policeman to stand back and keep quiet." When they protested, threats of arrest. What were they doing there except making a bear-garden of Paris ? Stand back ! Stand back for the motor buses of the Five Hundred. Way for the Blondes and the Water-bottles ! Place for the English " gosses " who had crossed the sinister Channel to sing in Paris the Marseillaise. And they sang it again shrilly from the windows of the omnibuses, whilst the Brass Bands and the Village Fanfares " stood back," humiliated, ignored.
Impossible to record all the cheers, all the doings and adventures of the Five Hundred during its three and a half days' sojourn in Paris.
It went up the Seine on those swift, darting steamboats to St Cloud. It went, with its military water-bottles, to the tomb of Napoleon, and stared down admiringly upon the massive chocolate-coloured sarcophagus and the groups of dim, tattered flags. It went to the Louvre, and was more or less impressed by the gorgeous statue of the Victory, but was confused and embarrassed by the armless state of the Venus de Milo—" becos you can't do nothing if you ain't got any arms, and that's a cert. Any'ow, like that, she don't look like a lidy—but she's got a room all to 'erself—and per'aps she was orl right in her time. . . ." It went to Notre-Dame, in the twilight, and there the Five Hundred beheld, whilst passing up the aisles, candles flickering at the side-altars for the souls of the departed ; bent, bowed-down figures at prayer, or in abject contemplation ; splashes of colour cast here, there, everywhere, from the multitudinously stained-glass windows and then beheld a bare, deal coffin borne hurriedly through the Cathedral by four dingy croque-morts—a pauper's dismal . funeral ; shades of the back streets of Peckham and Tooting ! . . . But the Five Hundred went out into Paris again—always cheering. They were the guests of the City of Paris, and thus had polite and official duties to perform. So they cheered and sang the Marseillaise wherever they went, and eventually, on the vast stage of the Châtelet theatre, where the judges of the Inter national Musical Festival were assembled, the Five Hundred were awarded prizes for their rendering of Charley is My Darling, the seventeenth-century madrigal, How Merrily We Live ! and, above all, the Marseillaise.
I fancy that by now, the third and last day of the Musical Festival, the Brass Bands and Village Fanfares could not bear the sight of the Five Hundred. After the innumerable competitions at the Châtelet they drove about in char-à-banes and motor cabs with their instruments, but again and again did they meet those eighteen brand new omnibuses and suffer the indignity of being " held up " against kerbstones, so that triumph-ant Peckham and Tooting might pass. In fact, the Blondes and the Water-bottles had become the sight of Paris. Their fame had spread to the heights of La Villette and to those vague, desolate neighbourhoods at the foot of the fortifications. Even Messieurs les Apaches--the " Terror of Montparno," " Zizi the Red," " Alexandre the Green-eyed "—and Mesdemoiselles their accomplices, " Henriette the Pale " and " Ernestine the Hollow-faced " — made a point of taking a look at " les gosses." Amongst all those thousands of " musical " competitors only the Five Hundred (none of whom was younger than twelve nor more elderly than fourteen) remained cheerful and fresh, and excited the admiration and sympathy of the Parisians, who had had more than enough of this desperate and delirious festival. " Yes ; there's no doubt abaht it—we're It, that's wot we is," a Water-bottle told me. " Our faces in the papers. People wanting to kiss us. Wot they're going to do when we've gone, goodness only knows." Thus, immodesty, even " swelled head " of Peckham, but none the less the sheer truth. Most certainly, in Paris, the Five Hundred was " It." A rush upon the Tuileries Gardens when it was rumoured that London's children were to sing there, and some-thing like a riot when the report proved to be -false. Excitement on café terraces, enthusiasm at windows and in balconies, more enthusiasts standing on the benches of the boulevards and the Champs Élysées, when the now familiar shrill Cockney cheers announced the approach of the Blondes and the Water-bottles. And, if further proof be required of the terrific popularity of the Five Hundred, behold, on the morning of the 29th May, the keepers of the vast, popular Paris bazaars selling their goods to Peckham and Tooting at cost price. And behold, a few hours later, an enormous crowd assembled outside the Gare du Nord, and platform No. 1, and the engine of the special train drawn up alongside of it, decorated lavishly with the English and French flags. A triumphant departure ! How the spectators outside the station cheered when London's children shook hands with and said good-bye to the motor omnibus drivers, and a chauffeur embraced one of the blondes ! A last answering shrill cheer from the Five Hundred : Way for Peckham and Tooting ; and—yes—Out of the Way with a Band and a Village Fanfare, burdened with brassy instruments and frantic to discover their own particular platforms. But their own platforms, their own slow and common old trains didn't count. Only the decorated platform and the " special " corridor express of the Five Hundred were of importance. Stand back and " Fichez-moi la paix ! " thus crowning, supreme humiliation, of the Brass Bands and Fanfares.
So, back to dingiest London and obscurity. Past Creil and Amiens Cathedral, past French peasantry, cows and cottages once again, but in different, adverse circumstances. Paris far behind ; the back streets of Peckham and Tooting ahead. No more wonderful French soup ; those equally wonderful Gallic stews but a memory ; the vast, comfortable dormitories in the Paris school residences, a dream ; the eighteen brand new motor omnibuses, terrific things of the past ; no longer was one " It." However, souvenirs remained—all those multitudinous articles acquired that morning in the Paris bazaars at cost (I believe, at less than cost) price. But the souvenirs the Five Hundred had not bought for themselves, but for their mothers and fathers, and sisters and brothers, of those dingy and tragical streets in obscure London. As the train dashed along, the Jimmies and Georges (in whose compartment I travelled) produced from their pockets shaving-brushes, tobacco pouches, corkscrews, ash-trays, braces " for Dad " ; pin-cushions, hair-nets, thimbles and—yes—bottles of eau-de-Cologne for " muvver " ; picture post cards, sweets and ribbons for their sisters, and pen-knives and whistles and pocket-books for their brothers. They were proud of their purchases : Peckham's ladies perfumed with eau-de-Cologne, "Dad " in his shirt-sleeves on Sunday, with a new pair of braces ! But the grim fact remained, one was no longer " It." No Mayor, no Municipal Council and Band at Boulogne. But, as a compensation, the Channel was calm, and the stewards in the boat's first-class dining saloon literally gave away handsome, huge apples at a penny apiece, and obligingly changed the few remaining French sous of the Five Hundred into England's own coppers. At Folkestone, how-ever, a band and an ovation. It was to the strains of See the Conquering Hero Comes that the steamer took up her moorings. Then the Marseillaise and God Save the King, and cheers from the crowd assembled on the pier, to which the children always cordially and shrilly responded. England once again, and thick slices of bread and butter, slabs of yellow seed cake handed into the children's compartments before the train left for London... . All over ! Eight o'clock, Wednesday night, the 29th May—and the end. Wistfulness and sadness of the Cissies and Carries ; apprehension and gloom of the Jimmies and Georges. The blonde hair limp, out of curl ; the water-bottles discarded —even kicked beneath the seats. How the train shook and swayed, what steamy, ear-splitting shrieks from the engine, as the Five Hundred returned to dingiest London ! All over the end of it all; nothing but memories ; no longer " It.'' One had become plain, obscure Carrie and Jimmy again. Already, out of the windows and through the darkness of the night, one could discern a shadowy clothes'-line stretched across a bit of back garden ; rows of brick houses ; candles burning behind the mean windows of musty, ill-kept little rooms. Then, as the train clashed mercilessly onwards, the glare of public-houses, that cast light upon loafers with clay pipes, bloated, monstrous women in shawls, barrows of winkles and whelks, the pawnbroker's sign. Increasing wistfulness, dejection and gloom of the Five Hundred. The end of it all ; the inevitable painful reaction and awakening. It was back to poverty after a short spell of paradise. It was back to realities after freedom and exhilaration. It was back to side streets and inky schoolrooms, to sharp words and coarse food, perhaps to threats, blows and tears. But, when the very End of It All was reached at London Bridge station, the Five Hundred faced the future with characteristic resolution and courage. There, on the platform, with baskets, knapsacks and water-bottles ; pale, dishevelled, fatigued ; blinking and starting at the magnesium flashes and explosions of the photographers ; there, on the threshold of dingiest London and on the point of being restored to its mustiness and meanness ; there, with so much to look back upon and so little to look forward to—there the Five Hundred shrilly and heroically sang Home, Sweet Home.