Paris - False Hopes
( Originally Published 1915 )
THIS is not my title for today's letter. It was given to me by a whole-hearted Frenchwoman who believes that the interests of France, and especially of Paris, are best conserved by a frank knowledge of what the country must face.
It is a painful commentary upon the frailty of human relationships that we all of us grow so far away from things and places and people that have in the past formed a large part of our life. our friends of yesterday ! Not all the graves are in the cemetery. often if we have buried others and others have buried us intentionally I use the strongest figurative expression it is through no tangible cause on either side. How many times I have asked myself why I have drifted away from certain moorings and beyond the sound of certain voices, still respected and sometimes still loved. I find no answer. It is one of the puzzles that, if one were more introspective, would darken the path of life.
On the other hand, there are associations from which one never frees himself; associations, I mean, not necessarily within the circle of intimate friendship, of congenial tastes, or of common interests. Why these are kept up, one can no more satisfactorily explain to himself than he can explain why others are not.
Madame of the Pension (to several score of friends Madame's is always THE Pension, as if there were no other in Paris) is one of the people whom I go to see every so often. I just go. I like her immensely, and I have the habit. The Girl and I, pension-hunting, went into her little office off the dark hallway, altogether by chance, many years ago, carrying a five weeks' old baby, our first,and received the answer, "of course I love babies : the darlings," to our rather faltering and fearful question. our search was at an end. There has never been any other pension in Paris for us since then. Madame (she was Mademoiselle then) has been rewarded by an excellent husband and two children of her own, and I hope that I am not flattering myself by calling it a reward, for my "our" includes the Girl our friendship that has grown with the years.
If you have not lost the thread in this wandering, you may guess that Madame of the pension is the whole-hearted Frenchwoman of whom I spoke above.
I went to the pension for dinner this evening. Madame received me with her usual effusion in the little bureau. She was cheerful, full of life and conversation, unfeignedly glad to see me, ready to ask about my wife and each of my children, and what is more important—to listen to my replies. I must tell all the news of the family, before I have the chance to ask in turn about her husband and the fortunes of the pension.
"Oh, Monsieur was called on the thirteenth day of the mobilization. He went to Alençon. No, I have had no word from him. He was glad to go, and I am happy that I had a husband to send. The pension? There were a lot of Americans, but they have all gone." Then followed the news of the habitués, whom I have known for years. All were gone : the women to their homes in the provinces, and the men to the war. Most anxiously I asked for the Law Student, who, six years ago, used to sit at our table and tell us about his thesis for the doctorate. Later, he was a dinner guest in our several different apartments, and, while we usually had another baby to show him, he was still on that thesis. only two months ago I found him here at the same table, and he gave me the latest news of the thes is it had not yet been finished. Poor boy, he was called on the second day, so Madame tells me, and said goodbye with the presentiment that he would never return. But he had not forgotten to leave a message for the Girl and me. It was there in one of the pigeon-holes over Madame's desk. Will he come back to finish the thesis? or will he, too, be among the sacrificed for no purpose in this horrible holocaust of human lives?
We went into the salle à manger. What a contrast these few weeks have made! Fifty chairs are standing on top of empty tables; only two lights are burning; lacking are the animation, laughter, shrill voices and gruff voices, in several languages, provincial and American,French dominating. Louis, who could balance a dish on each finger of each hand, and serve half a hundred people twice a day without affording any one the opportunity to grumble over delay or cold food; Louis, most skilful of prestidigitateurs and waiters (the terms are generally synonymous) is fighting the Germans to-night instead of the cook. Two tall and gloomy American women of uncertain age, who look as if they held travelers' checks in the Hamburg-America line, are the only guests. Wonder of wonders, I am a clairvoyant. For that is the reason they are still here, Madame says. only the checks are on the North German Lloyd, which is as hopeless these days.
We sit down at Madame's table. Madame's sister, whose husband is at the war; her sister-in-law, whose husband is at the war; Madame, whose husband is at the war; and myself. Because Louis is at the war, the women jump up and down, serving courses in turn. But is there any less of a meal than usual'? Not a bit of it. And are the husbandless Frenchwomen gloomy, like the two moneyless American women? Not a bit of it. Good sports, all of them. We toast the absent loved ones in a dusty bottle of Beaune, and have Three-Star brandy for our coffee.
It is with no somber face that Madame calls the newspaper stories false hopes, and it is without losing their smile that the others agree with her.
Things are not going well. These women you cannot fool. The Battle of Altkirch and the triumphal entry into Mulhouse were the temporary successes of an abortive raid. The French-British forward march into Belgium is not, in their opinion, a forward march at all. For what happened at Charleroi ?
As Madame's personality dominates the group, she is spokeswoman for them.
"We shall win. We shall win!" she cries. Her black eyes shine like her hair. "But many a sad day is coming for France before the victory is ours. The Germans are powerful. We know that. They have been checked at Liége, and we are told that Namur is still holding out. But it is an irresistible tide. For we are not yet prepared. The mobilization is just being completed. Defensive, and not offensive, warfare must be our rôle for the present.
We have to give the Russians time, and we have to give the British time. While we are waiting for them, it is France that will suffer. We women of France are the ones who are making the sacrifice. We are willing to make it. What is more, we know that we have to make it."
The sentences come out, one after the other, crisp and clear, and almost tumbling over each other. I never knew any one to talk as fast as Madame. Her keen mind frequently works faster than the mobile lips. She is the despair of her American clients who are "learning French."
In her excitement, Madame filled up my empty cup with a dose of brandy that would have knocked down a horse, and accentuated her words with the hilt of the breadknife on the table. The sister and sister-in-law got in an occasional parfaitement, bien sur, and très bien. Before I could intersperse even a oui, she would start on the next sentence like an Episcopal parson reading the Psalter.
"It does not make our burden easier but rather harder, to be cradled with illusions, from which the awakening will be rude. I think the glory of our sacrifice is in our readiness to make it. This readiness has been tested. our loved ones have gone. Who dares to say that the women of France need the exaltation of false hopes to sustain them? We are worthy we have proved our worthiness to know the truth. Knowing the truth will help us better to bear our burden."
As I went home I bought a late evening paper. Across the top there was a huge headline.
The Russians, according to the St. Petersburg correspondents, are only five days away from Berlin, and there has been a huge reward offered for the first soldier who enters the German capital. But there is no word from Alsace or from Belgium. our salvation is in the Russians, then'?
What folly has come over our censors and our journalists'? If it is to reassure the women that they commit these bêtises and insult in this way the intelligence and patriotism of their readers, they show a sad insight into feminine psychology. Few women are courageous in anticipation. They shrink from a future evil. But most women are heroines in realization. When the blow falls, they have more than manly strength. There is something of God in them.
So let us know what happens when it happens. The women will take it all right.