We Hear The Good News From Alsace
( Originally Published 1915 )
I WAS walking down the "Boul Mich" this morning when I met the Musical Critic, whose pickings are pretty poor these days. He was full of the rumors of a great no, more than that decisive battle in Alsace yesterday.
"It is all up with the Germans, thank God," he cried, dancing on one leg, just as in the old days when he played first base for the Freshman nine. "Now they'll pull in their horns, and call quits. Then the theaters and opera will be opening, and I'll get what I came to Europe this summer for."
"Not so fast," I responded. "I 've been behind the scenes on a newspaper myself, and, although I ought not to presume to give points to a musical critic about well, let us drop into the Johnsonian period and call it prevarication, might I humbly suggest the possibility of the news not being true?"
He looked blank. I hastened to add, "But since you are talking about thanking God, would n't you like to come to the American Church with me this morning?"
That was too much for a musical critic. He bolted.
I walked along the quays to the Grand Palais, where the first British soldiers to arrive in Paris were just being assigned quarters. Such a merry, enthusiastic crowd had gathered to greet them, and such cordiality and sincerity in the greeting. The days of Fashoda and the Boer War are of another generation. How quickly bygones are bygones ! It is fortunate for the human race that it is so.
I passed through the Rue François Premier and the Rue Bayard to reach the Avenue des Champs Elysées. I had a note to leave for the pastor of the Church of Scotland. An elder with a rather worried face met me at the door.
"I am afraid we shall have no service this day," he said. "The minister was in Scotland on his vacation, and I fear me that he has not been able to get back."
"If it is a parson you need," I answered, "and you have a gown that will cover me, I can help you out, if you do not mind having an American Presbyterian."
"And would ye?" he exclaimed.
I did. It was a solemn occasion for that little band of worshipers in a foreign—though now allied land. For this is Scotland's war as well as England's, and it would have seemed a calamity for them not to have had in the national church in Paris the prayers said for the nation on this first Sunday of the war. Life in the living is far more fascinating than in the imagination. It was my lot four years ago to preach here in Paris in the English Wesleyan Church a funeral sermon for King Edward. The man upon whose head the hands have once been placed in ordination finds frequently,and in most unexpected ways that he is turned back, and he sees the handle of the plow. But let me not unweave the spell with words !
After lunch with the Artist, we went to a patriotic service at the Madeleine. The Madeleine, with its columns and solid walls, may evoke the atmosphere of classicism without; but within, when many people gather together on a summer afternoon, it suggests atmosphere in a different and altogether unesthetic sense. So we got out.
As we passed down the broad steps into the Rue Royale, we were stopped by two policemen, who asked if we were mobilisables. It was to me, rather than to the Artist, that they addressed the question. For, when the Artist sports his shapeless London suit, he looks as much like an Englishman as any American could. (There are some Americans who can pass for Englishmen when they are not busy or when they do not open their mouths.) My answer was honest when I said that I was sorry to say that I was not liable for military service in France. If ever I have wanted to go to war since the age limit barred me from getting interned at Camp Alger in 1898, it has been since the present call to arms was posted. Looking on while others go has not always been comfortable these past eight days.
When we reached the Place de la Concorde, the Artist grabbed my arm.
"Look!" he said; "see what they have done to the statue of Strasbourg!"
The large black bow and the draperies of crêpe had disappeared. The mourning wreaths were removed. In her arms Strasbourg now holds the flag and the flowers of France. We started across for a closer inspection.
Just then an infantry division and a battery of artillery came through the Place on the way to the Gare de l'Est.
Although there was no band—music has not been heard in Paris since the mobilization started the coming was sensed. For out of every building and side street people began to gather.
The soldiers had evidently been given a rousing send-off from the Champ de Mars, and had been showered with gifts en route. Each man was a walking florist. There were flowers in the barrels of rifles, tucked in belts, pinned on caps, and peeping out from knapsacks. The gun carriages and ammunition wagons were so covered with flowers that you did not think of them as engines of destruction. After each regiment came wagons piled with loaves of bread. The bread was hardly visible under its covering of flowers, fruits, sundry bottles, packages of chocolate, tins of pâté de foie gras and other delicacies, Frankfurter,excuse me, Touraine—sausages, and hams. The soldiers were not youngsters of the standing army, but men of from thirty to forty, young and gay once more, and with an entrain which made up for their lack of military appearance and military gait. Women were actually marching in the ranks with some of them. But there were no handkerchiefs out among these wives and sweethearts holding on till the last moment.
The crowd began to cheer lustily, and to sing the Marseillaise. I looked for the line to break when the Strasbourg statue was passed. It did not. Discipline restrained that far. But, with a sudden inspiration such as could come only to the Gallic mind, the first soldiers started to throw their flowers up on the statue.
"Here 's for thee, Strasbourg !" they cried. "Thy daughters will give us more!"
On the way to Marie's, where the Sculptor was waiting for us to dine with him, newsboys began to appear, crying again the incredible news of the battle of Altkirch, and the entry of the French troops into Mulhouse. We stopped to buy a paper. There was a splendid proclamation of General Joffre to the Alsatians. It made our blood tingle. For we have both lived in France long enough to be sentimental about "the Lost Provinces." Was it really coming true, the never old dream of reconquest and la revanche?
The spirit of a fête day was in the air. Every kiosk was besieged by those who were waiting for the Temps and the Journal des Débâts. The one-sou sheets sold by the newsboys do not inspire much faith in the Parisian heart. If news is of little moment, belief from the announcements in the yellow press is easy. But these crowds waiting for the Temps were an indication of how deeply the rumored successes in Alsace had stirred the heart of Paris. When a thing means very much to you, whether of good or bad, you fear to believe it until it is asserted by one in whose word you can trust. I have had occasion to experience myself, and to observe in others, that this fact is more true of good news than of bad news. Is it not a mistake, the proverbial assertion that one refuses to believe bad news? Does it not depend entirely upon how vital that news is? When our heart is in a thing, we I speak of mankind in general—accept much more quickly failure than we do success.
As we crossed the Boulevard Raspail, a bicycle carrier was just arriving at the little shop on the Rue Bréa, diagonally opposite the Café du Dôme. We got there in time to buy a paper; for the Artist and I are both fairly husky.
It was true. The battle of Altkirch, the occupation of Mulhouse and the text of the proclamation of General Joffre were reported in the Temps exactly as given in the yellow papers. What an opportunity is lost by this rigid method of concise official statement ! I could picture myself rushing to the telegraph office and sending off a long account of how frontier posts were torn up and how Alsatian girls were throwing their arms around the necks of the French soldiers, crying tears of joy down their shirtfronts. No, that would not do; the soldiers do not wear shirts, or, if they did, they would not still have had them when they reached Mulhouse. "Upon their manly chests," would be nearer the truth if near at all.
The Sculptor was already there when we reached Marie's. He had saved a table for us on the terrace, where we sat over our honest substantial soup, and our workingmen's portions of boeuf bourguignon, splitting a bottle of extra in celebration of the momentous news. Who has not dined on the terrace of a restaurant frequented by cochers has not tasted to the full the summer life of Paris. You order your portion of fried potatoes. "Fr-r-rites!" ----
Shouts the black- eyed waitress from the sidewalk. Grandfather, washing glasses behind the zinc bar, takes up the cry. "Fr-r-rites!" goes back to the kitchen in his falsetto voice. From the little trap door window, amidst the sputtering noise of hot grease poured into a frying pan, reëchoes the magic word, "Fr-r-rites!" And you lean back in your chair, a deep feeling of wellbeing pulsing through you, as you anticipate the steaming dish of golden brown food for the gods that will soon be placed before you.
This evening Marie told us that the decree for early closing had been modified. It still held true that nothing to drink was to be served after eight o'clock, and that the tables must be removed from the sidewalks, but, inside, one could linger over his meal until half past nine, provided he had entered the restaurant and given his order before eight o'clock. So we moved indoors for coffee, and for the chance to discuss the good news from Alsace with other diners.
In the dim light of the interior (for Marie says that she cannot afford these days to use the gas, and she is very much worried over the rumors that petroleum will give out or soon be sold only at its weight in gold) we sat at the biggest marble topped table in the corner, and talked over the march of events in the Lost Provinces with the Hunchback.
A dear old man the Hunchback is, whose face is marked by lines of sensitive shrinking rather than by the creases of his threescore years and ten. He has the delicacy of perception of the cripple, for whom the strong virile thoughts of manhood must be reflected in the attuning of the chords of the soul rather than in muscular activity.
His winsome expression would have attracted a Michelangelo, in search of a model for an angel. Often have I seen him hold men who have done big things in life with the intense fire of his black eyes, and the almost Russian deepness and sweetness of his speaking voice. His diction is so marvelous that one hesitates to try to reproduce what the Hunchback says, especially in translation. It is so wide of the mark ! But I make the attempt here, while the spell is still upon me, for he spoke as the interpreter of the feeling that must this day be tearing the heart of the lame cobbler of Saverne whom Von Förstner sabered.
"I was a boy in an Alsatian village," he said, "in the old days. There were reasons, not unconnected with me, why my family felt it best to become expatriates after the Treaty of Frankfurt. I have lived ever since in Paris.
"I would to God that my father and mother could read the newspapers this evening. For, instead of dying as they did without hope, they could have gone like Simeon with a Nunc Dimittis on their lips.
"I could hear you talking on the terrace outside. You were discussing that famous cartoon of Hansi, Ceux Qui N'Oublient Pas, which we have seen these last days in every bookseller's window. It is only the ignorance of youth that thinks a soul wound can be healed. A sorrow in connection with one's country is like a sorrow in connection with one's family. What one has truly loved, when lost, one never ceases to mourn. If one ceases to mourn, it shows that love for that which has been lost never truly dominated the whole being.
"The cartoon of Hansi is absolutely true to life. There are those, for the scythe of the Reaper has not yet taken them all, who do not forget.
"Just the other day I was reading in a newspaper a story which may not be true, but it might have been true, and so it is the same thing. Let me repeat it to you as I remember it, and then perhaps you will understand.
"As the hopeless years of the German occupation rolled on, there were those whose business interests influenced them to take as inevitable what a greater faith and a higher ideal would have enabled them to continue to regard as transitory. They accepted the Germans, entered into business relations with them, and allowed their children to grow up as Germans.
It is not for me to judge. They are receiving their punishment now.
"The story goes that among the Irreconcilables was an abbé, who played the organ in the cathedral at Strasbourg. Like all abbés, he had a family by adoption. Among his intimate friends was a widower with a baby girl. The abbé used to go there every Sunday night for supper. He gave his heart to that baby. But his friend became reconciled to the Germans. The abbé never spoke to him again.
"Years passed, and both men began to feel the weight of them. There never was any attempt on the abbé's part to bridge the gulf, and he was not one of the kind to whom overtures could be made. One day, his former friend met him in the street, and stopped. He grabbed the abbé's arm.
"It is years since you have acknowledged my greeting. But to-day you must listen to me. For the sake of the past, I have a favor to ask of you for my little girl. She is little no longer, but she, who knew no mother, has never forgotten you. She is to be married in the cathedral next week, and she has asked me to go to you and tell you that she wants you to play the organ at her wedding. My doing her bidding is all the more difficult when I say that she is marrying a Prussian officer.'
"There was a moment's pause. The friend could not read behind the mask of the abbé's face. He waited.
" 'So be it,' answered the abbé simply; 'I shall be at the organ on that day.'
"The nuptial mass attracted to the cathedral a great crowd, not only because of the interest in the wedding, but because the whole city knew the estrangement between the abbé and his friend, the reason for it, and that now the abbé had consented to play at this wedding.
"After a nuptial mass, you know, the bride and groom receive, before the signing of the register, the congratulations of their friends. It was at this moment that the abbé began to improvise upon the great organ. Suddenly, mixed with the hymeneal melodies, one began to hear the notes of Die Wacht am Rhein. Every one was glad,that is, of the bridal party for it seemed to be a delicate way of signifying forgiveness after years of bitter silence. But the triumphal notes of the German marching air did not last long. It was merely a suggestion. Petrified, the audience began to distinguish in the distance the coming of the Marseillaise, that great hymn born in Strasbourg in the soul of one of her children. As Die Wacht am Rhein faded away, the Marseillaise grew stronger and stronger, until the cry of the abbé's soul echoed and reëchoed to the vaults of the cathedral.
"When they recovered from their stupefaction at the insult to the groom and the daring of the high treason, members of the wedding party hurried to the organ loft to stop the organist. They burst in upon the abbé. His head was bent over the instrument, and his hands were not faltering. But, before they could reach him, the crash of a body falling across the keyboard caused the music to cease. The soul had gone out with the music. There was one who did not forget."
Our glasses were untouched. Marie had sat down with us, and she was gazing at the Hunch-back with parted lips. If her eyes were like mine, and I am sure they were, she was gazing at him through a mist of tears.
Suddenly Marie looked at the clock. She sprang up with a start.
"Mon Dieu!" she cried. "I have forgotten the regulation. The police will come to fine me ! You must all go home right away. Georgine, bring the lamp from the window."
We went out into the night.