Constance Elizabeth Maud.

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Rouge Britannique, requesting he would of his
kindness facilitate my mission to that region by
enabling me to see as much as possible the needs
of the hospitals, canteens and inhabitants of the


destroyed and ravaged villages so that the English
funds might go where most needed.

He read with contracted brows twice during
his perusal an orderly came in to announce another
visitor and was dismissed curtly with " qu'il attende."
Three times the telephone's demoniacal little ting-
a-ting forced him to lay down the letter, and so
distracted him by the mental switching off and on
that he began it over again each time.

Finally he looked up and enquired with a worried
look :

" Et dans quel but etes-vous venue ici, Madame ? "
(" With what object are you here ? ")

I repeated the contents of the unhappy letter,
my friend putting in a helping word at intervals.
At last his poor distracted brain having admitted
the new claim on its activity, I am bound to say he
lost no time in setting to work.

Hearing we were at the Hotel, " A real hole " he
pronounced. " I can arrange for you better than
that." Giving us an address for rooms he told us
to call again next morning, and promised to see if
a military car could be put at our disposal to visit
some of the ruined villages where reconstruction was
going on and help needed.

We made our way at once to the address he gave.
It was a dignified little white house, green shuttered,
standing back in its own garden, overshadowed
by the protecting wings of the cathedral. A sort
of Cranford-looking house, with a perfect old French


Cranford couple inside, waited on by a faithful old
bonne twenty-five years in their service.

" Entrez entrez, Mesdames," said the frail little
white-haired lady, opening the doors of the best
salon as we introduced ourselves. " Monsieur le
Capitaine has reason I shall be pleased to receive
these ladies if they will excuse that I give them
but little service, also that I nourish them not. The
coal it is very scarce, and the Boches they have
deprived us of all the gas, even as of the

We agreed to take our repasts out. No one seemed
anxious to supply us with food. The best salon
contained a big Empire bed, also a large armoire
and washstand, while still retaining its character
of best salon, with Louis XVI. canape and fauteuils
in brocaded silk, like the curtains which hung from
the tall French windows. We engaged this and
a room of the same spacious proportions overhead,
and very thankfully moved from the Hotel, willingly
paying for the night we had had the good luck not
to spend there.

" For two years and eight months we had in this
house eight Boches," said the old lady. "The
Boche Colonel he occupied this room he slept in
that bed. The commandant he took the room
adjoining. Three other officers slept in the rooms
upstairs, and besides these we had also to lodge their
three orderlies. They left us but one room for our-
selves. They burrowed in every corner. Ah, but it was


terrible ! You cannot figure to yourselves, Mesdames,
what we endured for those long years never we
thought it would finish waiting, hoping always for
succour which came not ! In the purgatory one could
not suffer more."

We agreed that she would certainly need no further
purgatory after such severe soul discipline.

I looked doubtfully at the bed. " You said the
Boche Colonel slept in that bed ? "

" Ah, but I have had it thoroughly purified," she
hastened to reassure me. ' The mattresses remade.
Have no fear, Mes dames, the entire house has
been cleansed from floor to ceiling. My beds they
remember no more the Boches. Many good French-
men have slept in them since, and this salon where
the dirty Boches they eat it has been cleansed with
the most strong disinfectants. Have no fear."

She spoke the truth. The Boche had been so
effectually obliterated that my dreams were of
old French life in the days of Eugenie Grandet
of peaceful and sunny sleepy days when Monsieur
le Cure's visit for a game of chess in the evening
was the great event of the week. But my first
waking thought was of the Boche, for on the wall
of the salon hung a large engraving in a massive
gilt frame, on which the eye of the successive Boche
Colonels must often have rested in displeasure.
The wonder was that one of them had not sent some
missile flying through the glass, for the subject was
Rouget de Lisle singing "The Marseillaise" to an


applauding audience. You could hear the words
" Qu'un sang impur abreuve nos sillons."

The faithful old bonne Hortense when she brought
my hot water loved to linger and recount her own
personal sufferings under the sales Bodies, whom she
"conspued" with a heartiness worthy of Rouget de
Lisle himself. The orderlies were her special trial.

" Ah, the cochons, and each one imagined himself
to be the Kaiser ! Figure to yourself, Madame,
not alone five officers in this unhappy little house
but three soldier servants ! One set they would go,
only to be at once replaced by three worse. They
all treated you as if you were the mat on which
to wipe their great boots. And they dared to seize
for their use all the fine bright saucepans and frying
pans of Madame which never anyone was permitted
to touch. Pouah ! the dirty canaille, and how they
maltreated them with their greasy messes their pigs'
flesh. Ah ! Madame, but their habits and customs
were of the most filthy imaginable words could not
describe it." Nevertheless Hortense made a very
good attempt, and her memory was extraordinarily
faithful for details which made one shudder.

Hortense and her mistress occupied the only room
the family were permitted to retain, and were
graciously accorded the use of the kitchen. Monsieur
Besnard was obliged to live at the house of commerce
on the Place, and see to the business and supervise
the employees young girls apt to have the head
light and get into mischief if left too much alone,


said Hortense. Sharing your kitchen with sales Bodies
is not an easy situation. There were times when
Hortense confessed she was tempted to take up the
long knife even as Charlotte Corday, and finish off
the interlopers with " a good stroke," a deed of which
she would have felt no shame before le bon Dieu
or the Blessed Virgin herself quite the contrary !
But there was her poor little Madame, so delicate,
crippled with the rheumatism, subject very often
to a crisis of the nerves in these terrible days of
horror and violence. Without her old bonne, for of
course they would have shot her on the spot, what
would Madame do ? Hortense who understood all
her little tastes, " also the little tastes of Monsieur
just the turn to his omelette, the degree of heat
for his filet, see you ! "

So Hortense had renounced the heroic role of
Charlotte, with deep regret she had renounced it,
and with a mighty effort at self-control she played
the duller part, enduring the daily insults and coarse
jokes in which men of German Kultur and their
aping menials are past masters, above all when a
woman old, homely and defenceless, is the target.

"Me I understood very well their language,"
said Hortense. "It is not only with the tongue one
speaks the laugh, loud and insulting the grimaces
the gestures, ugh ! But only once did one of
those animals dare to spit on me. They will spit
on the curate. They will strike their mothers who
bore them, those there ! Ah ! but I paid him well.


He was the cook, the fat Hans. His soup just ready
to serve I made to upset. I make pretence it is by
an accident. It flowed on the floor, not a drop was
saved. Me I shriek like a lost one ! The Boche
he stands rooted, the face all purple, spluttering
words terrible to hear. Then he seizes a large frying
pan to strike me, but I save myself and enter quickly
the room of Madame, turning well the key of the door.
For such a thing one would surely have deported
me to Germany, like others never more to be heard
of, had that soup been for the dinner of the officers,
but those gentlemen had fortunately already dined,
it was therefore the soup for the domestics. And
when that cochon he recounts the affair to Monsieur
the Boche Colonel, who demands of him what is the
cause of the tapage, the Colonel and the other officers,
they who had dined and drunk well, they laughed
from a full stomach. It amused them much that
the good bacon-soup of the fat Hans it flows on the
earth, and they chase me not as he desires. But
my poor little Madame she had great fear that those
Boche servants they kill me, and she permits no more
that I shall enter the kitchen. So I make all the
repasts of Madame in the bedroom on a miserable
little stove of oil ; but it tore me the heart to renounce
my kitchen and to know nothing of what that canaille
they made there with my beautiful saucepans ! "

Though our hostess had declined cooking for us,
when we produced our English tea at five o'clock
and begged for boiling water, she hastened to bring


out a delicate little tea-service of First Empire
and all requisites for our indispensable " Fife-
o'cloak," without which she had heard no English
people could endure their lives. Each one to his
taste ! For her own part she took the tea as a
medicine only for which it served well. ' These,"
said Madame, showing off the little urn-shaped
teapot, sugar basin and cups, " were the only things
we contrived to hide from the Boche officers. Every
other article they burrowed out. All we possessed
they took. Argenterie china linen blankets -
covers of embroidery and cushions of lace. All,
all, they seized some to send away to Germany-
great cases full the rest for their use here. But
all they used they quickly destroyed even as vermin
destroy. Only this little tea-service, a wedding
present which I possess now forty years last month
of June this, I vow they shall not take. And I
pray to the good Saint Joseph, he who protects
the houses of all good Catholics who offer to him
a candle on his feast day, and he inspires me with
the happy idea where to hide my Empire cups, so
that never the Boche he shall find them."

" Where did you put them ? " I enquired eagerly.

But she shook her wise old head with a secretive
smile, and would reveal no more even to a friendly
ally. Who knows, perhaps lurking deep down was
the nameless dread (prophetic, alas !) that the
enemy hordes might one day return, and that secret
hiding-place, if revealed to another, be wrenched


out under threats of torture. Who could tell ?
Prudent to run no risks.

The Boche appeared to be a very destructive
animal, even when not out on destruction bent.
Everything he had in daily use rapidly " came in
two in his hands " as the breaking servant describes
it. Legs came off tables and chairs, handles off jugs
and cups, towels and tablecloths tore like paper, cigar
ends burnt holes in everything burnable, sheets, bed-
covers, carpets, tablecloths and sofas. The Louis XVI.
furniture had been utterly ruined by the spurs on their
boots ; only that in Madame's own room had survived.

14 The Boche officers have habits altogether gross
and disgusting," said Madame Besnard. "They are
not civilised as we others. Everywhere they have
the custom to spit. Though I place for them four
crachoires in the salon think you that they make
use of them ? Ah, but no, they prefer the carpet
the tablecloth, never mind what. Always after the
dinner of midday it was not as our dejeuner but
a dinner very solid they slept for two hours here
in the salon, installed in the armchairs, the legs
raised on another chair. Thus they reposed them-
selves, pushing forth snores of such a force one could
hear them on the Place. Me, I feared they suffered
from a false digestion by too much eating, till I
found this also it was a custom of Germany. Ah,
mon Dieu ! but to dwell with such animals, and
to see them as the masters in your own house, these
odious enemies of France the desecrators of our


country, of our homes ! Ah, Mesdames, you cannot
imagine to yourselves how it made one bad blood."

Poor little old lady ! Her home had been her
pride and delight. Ever since she came to No yon
as a bride she had dwelt in the dignified little green-
shuttered house. Here her two children had been
born. From this house the daughter Lucette had
married, returning often with her babies to make
the old home blossom with another spring. The
only son also lived there all his life, a day boy in
the town school, later at college, and even making
his military service near by. When he married,
adding another daughter to the happy home circle,
it was only to move to the house on the Place., where
he took over the family business.

All the quiet serene years of happiness and duty,
recording a simple, useful life, were embedded in those
four walls as in a casket. With the Frenchwoman's
genius for home-making she had added year by year
to her stores. Making her little economies to purchase
always what was good and durable, with an eye
to the future when the children would inherit. The
linen, the china, the silver, even the copper stew
pans all were of the best. And then, like a bolt
out of the blue came the war, and before any one
had time to realise what the grim word signified,
like a sea of rushing waters when the dams have
given way, came the enemy the Huns flooding
all the country side, burning, killing, destroying,
SchrecJclichJceit their watchword. " They come !


They come ! " cried the terror-stricken population
as they fled before them, clutching their children
in their arms and dragging with them in handcarts
and barrows anything they chanced to seize in the
hurried departure.

To save the children was the first thought of the
grandparents in the white house. Already Louis,
the son, had been mobilised, leaving his wife and two
little ones at the house on the Place. The train
service was all disorganised, fugitives in every sort
of conveyance streamed along the roads, flying
before the advancing hordes. Hiring a cart and
horse, the poor old grandfather, endowed with a
sudden superhuman strength and energy, packed
in the children and their mother with necessaries
hastily collected for their journey, and sent them
fleeing down the road to Creil. As he returned
home, at the garden gate he found his wife awaiting
him in her wheelchair pushed by the faithful Hortense.
It was piled up with provisions. " Come, my friend,"
she said firmly, " the order has been given by Monsieur
le Maire for all to quit the town without delay."

Her husband would have preferred remaining
to guard his property, but the habit of a lifetime

So the three old people took to the roads. That
night they slept in a barn about three miles from
Noyon. They could go no further.

" During those hours of the night," said Madame
Besnard, " while my husband and the poor Hortense


they slept bruised with fatigue and emotion, me I
reflected. I made my decision. With the daylight
I say to my husband, ' M on ami, you have reason-
it is the folly pure that we leave our house to the
Boche brigands. They occupy the town they invade
our house. Well at least they shall not find it
deserted, left to them to make what they will.'
Hortense, I say, we return even as Monsieur counsels
let us eat at once and depart. So we return to
Noyon, and many also follow our example for
where could we go, everywhere we hear the cry
the Boches come. They arrive ! One cannot go on
foot for ever ! This house we found, thank God,
still as we left it. The Boches were streaming into
the town, but had not yet penetrated every corner.
It was not long they left us in peace however. Every
house was commandeered, and we received our orders
to accommodate the enemy to our utmost possible

For two years and eight months Noyon belonged
to the Germans. Like a great machine working
with the regularity and implacability of factory
wheels the Hun occupation was organised. Monsieur
Besnard came round when he could spare time
to see his wife during the day, but always had to leave
her before seven o'clock curfew rang, after which
no French person might leave their houses or show
a light on pain of heavy penalty and imprisonment.
The business on the Place went on, for a drapery
store had its uses for the Boches, but they paid





only in German paper money which, though it passed
currency at the time, is now valueless. Poor Monsieur
Besnard was left with three thousand francs worth
of their paper on his hands.

On one occasion when Madame Besnard came
to my room for the little talks in which we both
took great pleasure, I asked whether she had ever
had any decent Germans billeted on her, or whether
they were all of the same brand.

She replied that all had a curious similarity of
bearing and manner. "It is a part of the German
uniform," she remarked impartially. " For that
I blame them not, though it is not agreeable. I
have known those who were well conducted and
those also who were badly conducted. The most
of them I will concede were correct that is in this
house they were correct. Only on one occasipn a
Colonel he brought here two women of bad reputa-
tion. Then me when I saw enter those cocottes
I felt all indeed was finished. Never, never would
my poor little house again be clean it was disgraced !
I wept, and my poor Hortense she wept so loud,
the Boche Colonel he sent to enquire if my husband
was deceased. Then I required that he should
come and hear what I should say to him, and very
plainly I told him why I wept. He replied nothing,
but presently I hear from the salon they all laugh
to make crack the ceiling. Nevertheless, they
invited no more those cocottes, and the Colonel he
tried to make amends the day after by offering


me a concert. Yes, he had the cool blood to invite
me to enter my own salon to listen to some music
which an officer would make who was a famous
violinist, said he. Ah ! but I should hear how it
was beautiful the music of Germany ! ' Merci,
Monsieur,' I reply, ' the music of Germany I prefer
never to hear it already I have heard too much
of your music of Germany.' ' As you please,' he
says, and lifts the shoulders as he would say, ' The
old fool ! ' But he determines all the same that
I shall hear his music, for in the evening they open
wide the doors of the salon, and that violinist he
played for more than an hour. I must confess he
played well very well though me I refused to
make attention, for it was the music of Germany.
They called out always, ' Now, Madame, listen
this it is Beethoven ' ' this it is Brahms ' only
when they call, ' this it is the music of Mozart,'
then I permit myself to listen, for Mozart he is a
good Frenchman, our Mozart."

Her face shone with such innocent satisfaction,
I left it at that. After all is there not a long street
in Paris the Rue de Mozart ? And are not all
the great artist-spirits of the nationality of those
who comprehend their language, in whatever country
they may chance to dwell ? In this sense Mozart
is as truly French as German. " La musique n'a
pas de nation, c'est une langue universelle."

Poor little Madame Besnard ! Though her home
is cleansed and purified once more, and she and


her husband dwell again together in the green-
shuttered white house with their faithful bonne,
and the children are re-installed with their mother
on the Place yet they have not yet the security
of peace. Still they take up the daily paper with a
beating heart. Still they dread what the postman
may bring. The number of casualties are never
published in the French papers, but they know
no family in Noyon where death has not claimed
its toll. Lucette's husband has lost a leg thank
God it is no worse. Louis also has been wounded,
yet still spared, but for how long who knows !
Anxiety for him has eaten deep into their hearts.
Through all those years of the occupation no word
reached the parents from the outside. Sometimes
a daring aviator flew over the town and dropped
a newspaper. The penalty for picking it up or
reading it was two months in a prison cell, in solitude
and starvation. But this never prevented it being
seized with alacrity, and passed from one to another
like a loaf among the starving, before any Boche
could prevent it.

The war was very near on every side. Hardly a day
or night that one did not hear the distant boom of
guns. Hardly a day that the call to take cover
did not sound while a Boche machine flew overhead
at that moment only on observation bent, but
the anti-aircraft guns made you pause and gave
you to think, very anxiously to think, with the
little ones over there on the Place.


MONSIEUR L' ADMINISTRATED was true to his promise
to assist us in visiting the devastated regions.

Most gallantly putting himself as well as his car
at our disposal, he took us first to see the village
of Blerancourt, the centre of a work of reconstruction
undertaken by a society of American ladies. We
crossed the river Oise and the canal where the
bridges had been blown up by the Germans when
retiring the previous March and built up again in
three weeks by the French. Occasionally we saw
Boche prisoners, P.G.'s, at work in the fields, or,
with poetic justice rebuilding the not too hope-
lessly shattered houses and barns their own handi-
work of a few months before. For the most part
they were young, ruddy and sturdy-looking, well
fed and well clothed, but like those at Boulogne
by no means of an amiable countenance. They
saluted our Captain very promptly seemed aware
of his presence through the backs of their heads
I expect it was woe betide them if they didn't. These
men knew better than to beguile the days of their
captivity with " Songs of Hate," and " Deutschland
iiber Alles," for the benefit of their French captors,
as did their brothers in England. Neither were



they provided with motor lorries to drive them to
their work. Even a walk of two miles was only
regarded as salutary.

" If they desire to eat well, must work well, ces
Messieurs Id," remarked the Administrator drily.
" As soon would we give them champagne for break-
fast as waste petrol to conduct them to their work."

This remark was called forth by my Croix Rouge
friend having said that when in England she had
seen the Germans from the camp on Salisbury Plain
driving daily to their work, jeering as they passed the
foot passengers and lifting the while their cheerful
voices in songs of Hun triumph. To her French
ears it had struck a jarring note on the morning air.

Though I assured Monsieur 1'Administrateur there
were also English ears which suffered acutely from
the curious phenomenon of this jarring note, I could
see he was not prepared to regard me as wholly
blameless in the matter. Studiously polite, there
was, nevertheless, a chill in the atmosphere. His
conversation showed him as a man of highly-strung
nerves and of a fierce patriotism. Talking with him
even as an ally strengthened by the bonds of cordial
understanding was like stepping delicately, Agag-
wise, from one red-hot brick to another. It is not
an easy position to find yourself held answerable
for the policy of twenty-two members of a
Government you have had no choice in appoint-
ing yet unable to repudiate any of their deeds
lest one should be deemed lacking in patriotism.


Scylla and Charybdis are a reposeful alternative in

We found the Settlement of American ladies
busily at work giving out boots and clothes at
their depots for relief, stocked with shiploads from
America. They had taken over a number of villages
in the devastated regions of this part, and as the
inhabitants flocked back to the ruined homes from
which they had been driven by the Huns, they
helped them to start life again. In their well-
tailored uniforms of the French " horizon bleu,"
short skirts, high boots and blue felt hats, they
looked both smart and business-like, with due regard
to losing none of their feminine charm, as was evident
by the complete capture of the heart of the gallant
Military Administrator.

" They are not only charming women they are
also real great ladies " (de males grandes dames),
said he in a burst of enthusiasm. "Their dashing

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Online LibraryConstance Elizabeth MaudMy French year → online text (page 3 of 17)