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Author of "The Bent Twig," "The Squirrel-Cage," "Hillsboro People," etc.







This book is fiction written in France out of a life-long familiarity
with the French and two years' intense experience in war work in France.
It is a true setting-forth of personalities and experiences, French and
American, under the influence of war. It tells what the war has done to
the French people at home. In a recent letter, the author said, "What I
write is about such very well-known conditions to us that it is hard to
remember it may be fresh to you, but it is so far short of the actual
conditions that it seems pretty pale, after all."


Notes from a French Village in the War Zone

The Permissionaire

Vignettes from Life at the Rear

A Fair Exchange

The Refugee

A Little Kansas Leaven

Eyes for the Blind

The First Time After


A Honeymoon ... Vive l'Amérique!

La Pharmacienne



Perhaps the first thing which brought our boys to a halt, and a long,
long look around them, was the age of the place. Apparently it has - the
statement is hardly exaggerated - always been there. As a matter of
historical fact it has been there for more than a thousand years. On
hearing that, the American boys always gasped. They were used to the
conception of the great age of "historical" spots, by which they meant
cities in which great events have occurred - Paris, Rome,
Stratford-on-Avon, Granada. But that an inconsiderable settlement of a
thousand inhabitants, where nothing in particular ever happened beyond
the birth, life, and death of its people, should have kept its identity
through a thousand years gave them, so they said, "a queer feeling." As
they stood in the quiet gray street, looking up and down, and taking in
the significance of the fact, one could almost visibly see their minds
turning away from the text-book idea of the Past as an unreal, sparsely
settled period with violent historical characters in doublet and ruff or
chain mail thrusting broadswords into one another or signing treaties
which condemned all succeeding college students to a new feat of memory;
you could almost see their brilliant, shadowless, New World youth
deepened and sobered by a momentary perception of the Past as a very
long and startlingly real phenomenon, full, scaringly full of real
people, entirely like ourselves, going about the business of getting
born, being married and dying, with as little conscious regard as we for
historical movements and tendencies. They were never done marveling that
the sun should have fallen across Crouy streets at the same angle before
Columbus discovered America as to-day; that at the time of the French
Revolution just as now, the big boys and sturdy men of Crouy should have
left the same fields which now lie golden in the sun and have gone out
to repel the invader; that people looked up from drawing water at the
same fountain which now sparkles under the sycamore trees and saw
Catherine de Medici pass on her way north as now they see the gray
American Ambulance rattle by.... "And I bet it was over these same
cussed hard-heads!" cried the boy from Ohio, trying vainly to ease his
car over the knobby paving-stones.

"No, oh no," answered the town notary reasonably. "The streets of Crouy
were paved in comparatively recent times, not earlier than 1620."

"Oh, the Pilgrim Fathers!" cried the boy from Connecticut.

"And nothing ever happened here all that time?" queried the boy from
California incredulously.

"Nothing," said the notary, "except a great deal of human life."

"Gee! what a lot o' that!" murmured the thoughtful boy from Virginia,
his eyes widening imaginatively.

After the fact that it had been there so long, they were astonished by
the fact that it was there at all, existing, as far as they could see,
with no visible means of support beyond a casual sawmill or two. "How do
all these people earn their living?" they always asked, putting the
question in the same breath with the other inevitable one: "_Where_ do
the people live who care for all this splendid farming country? We see
them working in the fields, these superb wheat-fields, or harvesting the
oats, but you can drive your car for mile after mile and never see a
human habitation. We thought Europe was a thickly populated place!"

Of course you know the obvious answer. The people who till the fields
all live in the villages. If you inhabit such a settlement you hear
every morning, very, very early, the slow, heavy tread of the big
farm-horses and the rumble of the huge two-wheeled carts going out to
work, and one of the picturesque sights of the sunset hour is the
procession of the powerful Percherons, their drivers sitting sideways on
their broad backs, plodding into the village, both horses and farmers
with an inimitable air of leisurely philosophy; of having done a good
day's work and letting it go at that; of attempting no last nervous
whack at the accumulated pile of things to be done which always lies
before every one; with an unembittered acceptance of the facts that
there are but twenty-four hours in every day and that it is good to
spend part of them eating savory hot soup with one's family. According
to temperament, this appearance, only possible, apparently, when you
have lived a thousand years in the same place, enormously reposes or
enormously exasperates the American observer.

You do not see the cows going out to pasture, or coming back at night
through the village streets, because those farmers who have a dairy live
on the outskirts of the town, with their big square courtyards adjacent
to the fields. The biggest farmhouse of this sort in Crouy is lodged in
the remnants of the medieval castle of the old seigneurs (symbol of
modern France!) where at night the cows ramble in peaceably through the
old gate where once the portcullis hung, and stand chewing their cud
about the great courtyards whence marauding knights in armor once
clattered out to rob.

Of course this arrangement whereby country folk all live in villages
turns inside out and upside down most of those conditions which seem to
us inevitable accompaniments of country life; for instance, the
isolation and loneliness of the women and children. There is no
isolation possible here, when, to shake hands with the woman of the next
farm, you have only to lean out of your front window and have her lean
out of hers, when your children go to get water from the fountain along
with all the other children of the region, when you are less than five
minutes' walk from church and the grocery-store, when your children can
wait till the school-bell is ringing before snatching up their books to
go to school.

You do not have to wait for your mail till some one can go to town or
till the R. F. D. man brings it around six hours after it has arrived in
town. The village mail-carrier brings it to you directly it arrives,
just as though you lived in a city. You do not have to wait for your
community news till it filters slowly to your remote door by the
inaccurate medium of the irresponsible grocery-boy. The moment anything
of common interest happens, the town crier walks up your street. At the
sound of his announcing drum or bell you drop your work, stick your head
out of your door, and hear at once, hot off the griddle, as soon as any
one, that there will be an auction of cows at the Brissons on Saturday
next, that poor sick old Madame Mantier has at last passed away, or that
school reopens a week from Monday and all children must be ready to go.
And if one of the children breaks his arm, or if a horse has the colic,
or your chimney gets on fire, you do not suffer the anguished isolation
of American country life. The whole town swarms in to help you, in a
twinkling of an eye. In fact, for my personal taste, I must confess that
the whole town seemed only too ready to swarm in, on any friendly
pretext at all. But then, I have back of me many generations of
solitary-minded farmer ancestors, living sternly and grimly to
themselves, and not a thousand years of really sociable community life.

"But if they are country-people who live in these dry-looking villages,"
asked our American Ambulance boys, "what makes them huddle up so close
together and run the houses into one long wall of buildings that look
like tenement-houses? Why don't they have nice front yards like ours,
with grass and flowers, and people sitting on the front porch, enjoying
life? You can go through village after village here and never see a
thing but those ugly, stony streets and long, high, stone walls, and
bare, stony houses, and never a soul but maybe an old woman with a gunny
sack on her back, or a couple of kids lugging water in a pail."

The best answer to that was to open the door into our own bare, stone
house, which, like all the others on the street, presented to the public
eye an unalluring, long, gray-white, none-too-clean plastered wall,
broken by square windows designed for utility only. The big door opening
showed a stone-paved corridor leading straight to what seemed at first
glance an earthly Paradise of green; an old, old garden with superb
nut-trees, great flowering bushes, a bit of grass, golden graveled
paths, and high old gray walls with grapevines and fruit-trees carefully
trained against them.

Our American visitor stared about him with dazzled eyes. "What a
heavenly place! But who ever would have guessed such a garden was in

"Oh, but this is not one of the really good gardens of the town," we
assured him. "This is a poor old neglected one compared with those all
around us."

"But where _are_ they?" asked our American incredulously, his vision cut
off by the ten-foot wall.

At this we invited him upstairs to a lofty window at the back of the
house, leaning from which he had a totally new view of the town whose
arid gray streets he had traversed so many times. Back of every one of
these gray-white, monotonously aligned plastered houses stretched a
garden, often a very large one, always a jewel, gleaming, burnished, and
ordered, with high old trees near the house, and flowers and vines; and,
back of this pleasure spot, a great fertile stretch of well-kept
vegetables and fruit. He stared long, our American, reconstructing his
ideas with racial rapidity. On withdrawing his head his first comment
was, usually:

"But for the Lord's sake, how ever do they get the money to pay for
building all those miles of huge stone walls? It must cost every family
a fortune."

Upon learning that those walls had stood exactly there in those very
lines for hundreds of years, requiring only to be periodically kept in
repair, he sank into another momentary reconstructive meditation.

Then came the inevitable American challenge, the brave new note from the
New World which I always rejoiced to hear:

"But what's the _point_ of shutting yourself up that way from your
neighbors and making such a secret of your lovely garden that nobody
gets any good of it but yourself? Why not open up and let everybody who
goes by take pleasure in your flowers and your lawn and see the kids
playing and hear them laughing?"

Of course I always went duly through the orthodox historical and social
explanations. I pointed out that it was only in comparatively late
times - only since that very recent event the French Revolution or the
beginning of our life as a nation - that isolated houses in the fields
would have been safe; that up to that time people were obliged to huddle
together inside the walls of a town at night as a safeguard against
having their throats cut; that an age-old habit of apprehension and
precaution leaves ineradicable marks on life; and that it still seems
entirely natural for French people to conceal their gardens behind
ten-foot stone walls with broken bottles on top, although for
generations the community life has been as peaceful as that of any
drowsy New England village. But, having given this academic explanation,
I went on to hazard a guess that age-old habits of fear leave behind
them more than material marks, like stone walls and broken bottles. They
shape and form human minds into tastes and preferences and prejudices,
the uncourageous origin of which the owners of the minds are far from

"You know," I said to our boy from home, "they can't understand our open
villages with no fences or walls, with everybody's flowers open to
everybody's view, with our pretty girls showing their fresh summer
dresses and bright, sweet faces to the chance passerby as well as to the
selected few who have the countersign to enter. They can't understand
it, and they don't try to, for they don't like it. They don't like our
isolated houses. They, like all Europeans, apparently like the feeling
of having neighbors near so that they can enjoy shutting them out. They
say they like the feeling of 'being all to themselves'; they have a
passion for 'privacy' which often seems to mean keeping desirable things
away from other people; they can't see how we endure the 'staring eyes
of strangers.'"

At this point I was usually interrupted by the boy from home who cried
out hotly:

"Well, I hope _we_ won't ever get so afraid of people we haven't been
introduced to! I guess we can stand it, not being so darned private as
all that! I don't see that you need take any less satisfaction in a
rosebush because it's given pleasure to a lot of work-people going by in
the morning!"

On which proposition we always cordially shook hands.

"And yet, d'you know," added the boy from home, a little wistfully,
looking down into the green, secluded peace of the walled-in garden,
"there _must_ be something kind o' nice about the quiet of it, being
able to do as you please without everybody looking at you. It sort of
makes our front yards seem like a public park, instead of a home,
doesn't it?"

"Yes," I said sadly, "it does, a little."

Oh, Europe, Europe! seductive old Europe, ever up to thine old game of
corrupting the fresh candor of invading barbarians!

"But, anyhow," ended the boy from home bravely, "I don't care. I think
our way is lots the nicest ... for _everybody_!"

Dear boy from home!

Then we went downstairs and visited our modest establishment, typical in
a small way of all those about us, and although made up of the same
essential features as those of a small American town home, differing in
a thousand ways.

"Why, there are apples on this hedge, real apples!" said the American.
"Who ever heard of apples on a little low hedge plant?"

"Those aren't hedge plants," we told him. "Those are real apple-trees,
trained to grow low, cut back year after year, pruned, watched, nipped,
fertilized, shaped, into something quite different from what they meant
to be. They produce a tenth, a twentieth part of what would grow if the
tree were left to itself, but what golden apples of Hesperides they are!
The pears are like that, too. Here is a pear-tree older than I, and not
so tall, which bears perhaps a dozen pears, but _what_ pears! And you
see, too, when the trees are kept small, you can have ever so many more
in the same space. They don't shade your vegetables, either. See those
beans growing up right to the base of the trees."

The chicken-yard was comforting to our visitors because it was like any
chicken-yard; if anything, not so well kept or so well organized as an
American one. But beyond them is a row of twelve well-constructed brick
rabbit-hutches with carefully made lattice gates and cement floors,
before which visitors always stopped to gaze at the endlessly twitching
pink noses and vacuous faces of the little beasts. I hastened to explain
that they were not at all for the children to play with, but that they
form a serious part of the activities of every country family in the
region, supplying for many people the only meat they ever eat beyond the
very occasional fowl in the pot for a fête-day. They take the place, as
far as I could see, of the American farm family's hog, and are to my
mind a great improvement on him. Their flesh is much better food than
the hog's, and since the animal is so small and so prolific, he provides
a steady succession all the year round of fresh meat, palatable and
savory, not smoked and salted into indigestibility like most of our
country pork. In addition, he costs practically nothing to raise. This
is, under the usual conditions of the French countryside, almost
literally true. They are given those scraps from the kitchen and garden
which hens will not touch, the potato and vegetable parings, the
carrot-tops, the pea-vines after they have stopped bearing, the outer
leaves of the cabbages, and, above all, herbage of all sorts which
otherwise would be lost. Every afternoon, the old women of the town,
armed with gunny sacks and sickles, go out for an hour or so of fresh
air and exercise. The phrase is that they _va à l'herbe_ (go for the
grass). It is often a lively expedition, with the children skipping and
shouting beside their grandmother, or one of the bigger boys pushing
the wheelbarrow, cherished and indispensable accessory of French country
life. They take what with us would be a "walk in the country," and as
they pass they levy toll on every sod beside the road, or in a corner of
a wall; on the fresh green leaves and twigs of neglected thickets; on
brambles and weeds - rabbits adore weeds! - on underbrush and vines. Since
seeing these patient, ruddy, vigorous, white-capped old women at their
work I have made another guess at the cause of the miraculously neat and
ordered aspect of French landscapes. It is an effect not wholly due to
the esthetic sense of the nation. Toward twilight, the procession of old
women and children, red-cheeked and hungry, turns back to the village,
with wheelbarrows loaded and sacks bursting with food which otherwise
would have served no human purpose. No need to give the rabbit, as we do
the hog, expensive golden corn, fit for our own food, and which takes
the heart out of the soil which produces it. The rabbit lives, and lives
well, on the unconsidered and unmissed crumbs from Mother Nature's

The rabbit-hutches being near the kitchen, we usually went next into
that red-and-white-tiled room, with the tiny coal-range (concession to
the twentieth century) with the immense open hearth (heritage of the
past) and the portable charcoal-stove, primitive, universal implement.

"But you can't bake your bread in such a play-stove as that," commented
the American.

And with that we were launched into a new phase of Crouy life, the
close-knit communal organization of a French settlement. Since all these
country people live side by side, they discovered long ago that there is
no need to duplicate, over and over, in each house, labors which are
better done in centralized activity. Instead of four hundred cook-stoves
being heated to the baking-point, with a vast waste of fuel and effort,
one big fire in the village _boulangerie_ bakes the bread for all the
community. These French country women no more bake their own bread than
they make their own shoes. In fact, if they tried to they could not
produce anything half so appetizing and nourishing as the crusty,
well-baked loaves turned out by that expert specialist, the village
bakeress; and they buy those loaves for less than it would cost to
produce them in each kitchen.

In addition to the _boulangerie_ where you buy your bread, there is in
Crouy (and in all other French towns of that size) another shop kept by
a specially good cook among the housewives, where you can always buy
certain cooked foods which are hard to prepare at home in small
quantities. Ham, for instance. In American towns too small to have a
delicatessen shop, how many of us quail before the hours of continuous
heat needed to boil a ham, and the still more formidable enterprise of
getting it all eaten up afterward without a too dreary monotony! I have
known American villages where people said the real reason for church
suppers was that they might taste boiled ham once in a while. In Crouy,
backward, primitive, drainageless community that it is, they cater to
the prime necessity of variety in diet with a competence like that with
which the problem of good bread is solved all over France. Every
Wednesday morning you know that Madame Beaugard has a ham freshly
boiled. You may buy one slice, just enough to garnish a cold salad, or
ten slices to serve in a hot sauce for dinner. On Saturdays she has a
big roast of beef, hot and smoking out of her oven at a quarter of
twelve, and a family or two may thus enjoy this luxury without paying
the usual Anglo-Saxon penalty of eating cold or hashed beef for many
days thereafter. On another day she has beans, the dry beans which are
such a bother to prepare in small quantities and such an admirable and
savory food. She is the village fruit-seller, and when you go to buy
your fruit in her little shop, which is nothing more or less than her
front parlor transformed, you are sure to find something else appetizing
and tempting. Note that this regular service not only adds greatly to
the variety and tastefulness of the diet of the village, but enables
Madame Beaugard to earn her living more amply.

In another big operation of housekeeping the simplest French country
community puts its resources together, instead of scattering them. On
wash days there is no arduous lifting and emptying out of water, no
penetrating odor of soapsuds throughout all the house, no waste of fuel
under hundreds of individual wash-boilers, no solitary drudging over the
washtubs. The French country housekeeper who does her own washing brings
around to the street door her faithful steed, the wheelbarrow, and
loads it up; first the big galvanized boiler full of soiled clothes,
then a wooden box open at one side, filled with clean straw, then the
soap, a flat, short-handled wooden paddle, and a stiff scrubbing-brush.
Leaving the children not yet at school in the charge of a neighbor - for
whom she will perform the same service another day of the week - her head
done up in a kerchief, her skirts kilted high to let her step free, she
sets off down the road for the _lavoir_. I use the French word because
the institution does not exist in English.

This is usually a low stone building, with an open place in the roof,
either covered with glass or open to the air. In the center is a big
pool of water, constantly renewed, which gushes in clean and eddies out
soapy, carrying with it the impurities of the village linen. Here our
housewife finds an assortment of her friends and neighbors, and here she
kneels in the open air, in her straw-filled box, and soaps, and beats,
and rinses, and scrubs at the spots with her scrubbing-brush (they never
use a rubbing-board), and at the same time hears all the talk of the
town, gets whatever news from the outer world is going the rounds, jokes
and scolds, sympathizes and laughs, sorrows with and quarrels with her
neighbors, - gets, in short, the same refreshing and entire change from
the inevitable monotony of the home routine which an American housewife
of a more prosperous class gets in her club meeting, and which the
American housewife of the same class gets, alas! almost never.

And, yes, the clothes are clean! I know it runs counter to all our fixed
ideas and what we are taught in domestic-science classes. I don't
pretend to explain it but the fact remains that clothes soaped and
beaten and rinsed in cold water, boiled in a boiler over the open fire
and dried on the grass, are of the most dazzling whiteness. It is just
another wholesome reminder that there are all kinds of ways to kill a
cat, and that our own, natural and inevitable as it seems to us, may not
even be the most orthodox.

Another such reminder is the fashion in which they manage baths in
Crouy. There are not (you can hear, can't you, the supercilious
Anglo-Saxon tourist saying, "_Of course there are not_"?) any bathrooms
in the houses, nor in the one little inn. And yet the people take plenty
of baths, and in big porcelain bathtubs too, bigger and deeper and

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Online LibraryDorothy Canfield FisherHome fires in France → online text (page 1 of 19)