Paris - Waiting
( Originally Published 1915 )
I HAVE never seen the garden of the Luxembourg Palace so lovely as it is today. August was hot: so the cultivated wild flowers around the walls of the Palais du Senat are a riot of color. Fountains are playing, and gardeners are turning over the earth with their trowels and tenderly pruning rebel branches.
I am sitting near the waffle-kiosk, trying to read between the lines of the niggardly news dished up to us in the morning papers. The wind is blowing from the east, and I fancy that I hear the rumble of distant cannon. The big battle is being fought out there twenty-five miles away to decide the destiny of the city. Is it not also the destiny of the world that is at stake'?
How beautiful, how inspiring, how soothing, is this brilliant revelation of nature, a few feet from those asphalted streets, canons of man's making, where trees seem exotic and the sky is doled out to the city bred in patches ! It seems incredible, the distant coups de canon, punctuating the sentences as I read, and forming a sinister background to the merry cries of children rolling hoops, sailing boats and playing cache-cache. For the load of anxiety, the terrible dread never absent these days, does not prevent the mothers from bringing their children to play while the fathers are facing death out there in the distance where the cannon are booming.
This is the patriotism that counts, the faith that enables our soldiers to hold the enemy in check today, that will enable them to conquer him tomorrow. If these splendid mothers had taken their children and fled, if all Paris had followed the pampered, the idle, the empty headed, the "despairers of the Republic" on the road to Marseilles, to Bordeaux, to Havre, the city would be an empty shell, an anticipatory reproach to, and confession of lack of belief in, the armies that had not yet made the supreme stand.
"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Here are the treasures, these wives, these children, these babies, who knit and play and babble. They are not afraid. The fathers are out there, and the grown sons are out there. The women hold the fort here. And, because there is knowledge that the fort is being held in perfect loyalty and trust, ordinary men, not soldiers by profession but citizens of the state, are fighting like lions with a superhuman strength to justify the faith of which they are the object. Can this fail to bring victory'?
I hear the children playing soldiers. "Papa Joffre," they say. Papa Joffre there is the secret of the absence of fear. The French army is part of the great family, the stronger part defending the weaker part. "Oncle French," they say. Uncle French the British army are the parents, the cousins, helping to defend the family.
A newspaper man tried to get me to go to Meaux this morning. But I have seen enough of carnage to be cured of curiosity, and enough of military operations to know that what I might hit upon by chance would give me no clue to the ensemble, and be of no benefit to me or to my readers.
I am getting more light into the secret of the French resistance, and more boldness to prophesy success, in the Luxembourg than I would get in dodging and trying to fool sentinels on the road to Meaux.
September ninth, 10 a. m.
The news from the line of battle today is more encouraging than at any time since last Sunday. The allied armies seem to be not only holding their own, but driving back the Germans over the Marne. However, preparations are still being made for a possible siege of 'the city. The number of the German forces is not unknown, and it may be that, in spite of their heroic efforts, the Allies will once more have to fall back before superior numbers.
We received this evening the result of the census that has just been taken. Over two million people are still within the fortified camp of Paris, which includes the nearer suburbs. As the census of last year reported a population of nearly two million nine hundred thousand in the same area, this shows that some eight hundred thousand are away from their homes. The deficit of population is almost wholly due to the war. About half a million Parisians are generally out of the city during the summer months, but this is offset largely by the refugees from Belgium and the invaded departments, and by the moving in of the inhabitants of the outer suburbs. If we take into consideration the fact that two hundred thousand Parisians have been mobilized, it is probable that not more than a hundred and fifty thousand fled from Paris.' These are for the most part of the wealthy class, but there have also been many destitute working people, originally from the provinces, who have been repatriated by their regional associations.
I found out subsequently that I had been wrong in my calculations here. Over four hundred thousand left Paris between August 30th and September 9th.
If the Germans besiege Paris, we have sufficient food supplies to last us for many months, before we need to take a census of the horses and dogs and cats and rats. I doubt if there is any city in the world more abundantly provisioned than is Paris today. Not only are the great warehouses filled to overflowing with dry groceries and canned-goods, but the Government has taken special pains to see that there is fresh meat and fresh milk for invalids and children. The Bois de Boulogne is full of cattle. The city has organized a brigade of dairy workers. Every invalid and baby in this great city has been registered. More than that, late summer and autumn vegetables are being planted in the vacant spaces within the line of the forts.
We are beginning to have a gleam of hope today that the Germans will not be able to come, and that the cannonade from the direction of Meaux is all that we shall hear of actual fighting. Perhaps we are wrong! But we are prepared for the worst.
September ninth, 10 p. m.
Is it the thunder showers and the gloomy skies, or the sickening anxiety over the fate of our army in the battle that is still raging near Paris'? A sudden change has come over the soul of this great city. This morning it was sunshine and smiles: this evening it is the deepest sort of gloom. 'We see no more soldiers. Even the few regiments which guarded the public buildings and the famous Garde Républicaine, pride of Paris, have disappeared.'
The distant cannonade seems to have ceased. But a nearer and louder boom tells us that they are dynamiting the houses near the forts, and that the final arrangements are being made to receive the Germans, should they come. Should they come. There 's the rub ! It is not the fact of victory or defeat which wears, it is not the test of life or death, it is the uncertainty that wears upon Parisian nerves.
"Give us some news, anything but the same old story of the Russians marching on Berlin, and the panic and high price of food in Vienna !" is the cry of Paris waiting. We do not know whether to hope or despair; but we want to do one or the other.
There have been three ominous signs today, if we have to judge by signs. The public schools, which were reopened, have been closed again. The train service in all directions has been temporarily suspended "to allow the military government to keep in touch with the outer forts." The police have come to take a census of the provisions we have in store.
The spirit is not worry. Paris is incapable of that sensation. Nor is it fear. The frightened have already left. It might rather be called sulkiness, this spirit which makes so unnaturally for gloom. I say unnaturally, for gloom and Paris are words that do not go together But what can we expect when the Government has run away and left us, when our best newspapers have gone to Bordeaux, when our streets are not lighted brilliantly of an evening, when we cannot sit down in front of a café for our after dinner coffee'? No music or theaters since the war began, no open air life, no drives in the Bois, no business, no money, no news, no more German aeroplanes even to break the monotony !
One really feels now that there would be bitter disappointment and disgust if the Germans did not try after all to come to Paris. For we have suffered much inconvenience on account of them. To be without diversion is the acme of suffering for Paris. And, now that we have prepared our minds for an attack, and have made every preparation to give the Germans a warm reception at our forts, even at the inner obsolete fortifications, if it has been for nothing we shall feel like the hostess who prepares an elaborate meal and waits in vain for her guests.
I have never had the good fortune to come across charming ladies taking an afternoon sunbath under birch trees on a grassy and flowered couch. But I know a man who has. Else how could he have put on canvas the contrasts of flesh and sunlight and shadow spots that have brought him fame, if not yet fortune? I had heard that he was in town, and was going to see him this afternoon to talk things over. For he is interested in more than his paints and brushes, and I find his comments on Parisian character as keenly analytical as they are delightfully appreciative.
On the Boulevard Raspail, at the corner of the Rue du Cherche Midi, they are building a new apartment house. The work has gone on steadily, day after day, through this week of crisis. There is a slender, graceful crane (can the French put up an ugly thing, even when it is a question of a utilitarian machine?) whose mobile arm floats a hundred and fifty feet over the lot on which the building is rising. The huge stones are lifted from the ground and put in place as easily as I lift my baby to her high chair at the table. This operation never fails to fascinate passers-by. I always stop, for I am as interested in the budding stories of that apartment house as is the owner, perhaps more so. For I do not have to pay the bills, and I do not have to worry over whether the completed apartments will bring in the exorbitant rentals dreamed of, as the reward of courage in diverting money to a venture of faith that might have been placed in the new issue of five per cent. Argentines, six per cent. waterworks bonds of Seattle or Saskatchewan, or that attractive Peruvian railway, which offers the chance of drawing a gros lot of five hundred thousand francs.
The work has stopped today,Thursday half holiday,but high up there on the crane in the little box where the levers are manipulated, I see a man planting a row of geraniums. The red flowers are outlining the edge of the wooden box against the sky. The Germans may have turned away at Meaux for good, or they may not. But the flowers must be planted. I suppose they were cheap at the market, and they are very pretty. A shell from a German "420" may bring down this crane next week; God only knows that. Today the crane is there, and the workman will be happier for his flowers. He is a Parisian.
The painter of siesta taking ladies has gone to the Club. I shall see him there later. In the meantime, I take a turn through the Bon Marché and through Sadla's near by, at the corner of the boulevard and the Rue de Sèvres. These are reliable barometers of how Paris is feeling and going to feel. The aisles of the Bon Marché show plenty of buyers. At Sadla's, good things displayed in their usual profusions, dry groceries and canned goods, fresh meats and vegetables, fish and game, cheese and pastry make me look at my watch to see if dinner hour is near.
The barometers register fair weather. No storms for Paris.