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Mildred Aldrich.

A hilltop on the Marne, being letters written June 3 - September 8, 1914 online

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Figur0j rtf4r t* ;

I. Po»ltion of an Eagli«l> battery Sepi

J to 7.
1. Limit of retreat of iin Engliib dlvliion,

Sept. 1.
]. Big railroad bridge near Chalifert al

junction of Mameand Caaal,dcittroyed

by Eoglish, Sept. 4.

4. Ctiateau de la Haute Maison, Moniry ;
Jcenc of interview betwe»a Bismarck
and julea Favre, 1870.

5. Towna l>ombarded, Sept. j,

6. Destroyed, Sept. 5-6.

7. Where ihe dead were buried in (L.-
wheat fields; cemetery here the »*.

of stirring fighting.
3. Here British ]rd Division blTouacked

afUrnoon of Sept. 4. Ordered to morch

an hour after by aeroplane despatch.
9. Couiommiers where Von Kluck biroii-

acked night of Sept. 4.
10. The Uhlans captured here by French

cavalry, Sept. 7.
I J. St. Fiacre to which marched the Kr.-

whohadbivoQaclcedatHuiry,Sep(.
ri. Lizy-sur-Oarcq.

13. Font-.'iux-Dames, Coqnelin'i Ma
de Retraite, where my ambulance br

14. Dcmi-Lune.



SCALE



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9)

CQULOMMIEV.



A HILLTOP ON THE MARNE



PROM A MEDALLION BY THEODORE SPICER-SIMSON)
Size of original j^ inches in diameter



A HILLTOP ON
THE MARNE

BEING LETTERS WRITTEN
JUNE 3 SEPTEMBER 8, I914

BY

Mildred Aldrich

■V




BOSTON AND NEW YORK
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY



COPYRIGHT, 1915, BY THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1915, BY MILDRED ALDRICH

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Published October iQts



NINETEENTH IMPRESSION, NOVEMBER I917



TO MY GRANDMOTHER
JUDITH TRASK BAKER

THAT STAUNCH NEW ENGLANDER AND

PIONEER UNIVERSALIST

TO THE MEMORY OF WHOSE COURAGE

AND EXAMPLE I OWE A DEBT

OF ETERNAL GRATITUDE



Note to Tenth Impression

The author wishes to apologize for the
constant use of the word English in speak-
ing of the British Expedition to France.
At the beginning of the war this was a
colloquial error into which we all fell over
here, even the French press. Everything
in khaki was spoken of as "English," even
though we knew perfectly well that Scotch,
Irish, and Welsh were equally well repre-
sented in the ranks, and the colors they
followed were almost universally spoken of
as the "English flag." These letters were
written in the days before the attention of
the French press was called to this error of
speech, which accounts for the mistake's
persisting in the booL

La Creste, Huiry,

France, February, igi6.



ILLUSTRATIONS

Medallion Portrait of the Author by

Theodore Spicer-Simson Frontispiece

The House on the Hilltop 8

The Salon from the Front Door 1 6

A Part of the Panorama from the Lawn 102

The Road to the Marne 134

Taken from the point where the author stopped with
the captain of the bicycle corps

Map of the Surrounding Country End paper



A HILLTOP ON THE MARNE



A HILLTOP ON
THE MARNE



June 3, 1914

We3.l, the deed is done. I have not
wanted to talk with you much about it
until I was here. I know all your objections.
You remember that you did not spare me
when, a year ago, I told you that this was
my plan. I realize that you — more ac-
tive, younger, more interested in life, less
burdened with your past — feel that it is
cowardly on my part to seek a quiet ref-
uge and settle myself into it, to turn my
face peacefully to the exit, feeling that the
end is the most interesting event ahead of
me — the one truly interesting experience
left to me in this incarnation.

I am not proposing to ask you to see it
from my point of view. You cannot, no
matter how willing you are to try. No two
people ever see life from the same angle.
There is a law which decrees that two ob-

[ 3 ]



A Hilltop on the Marne

Jects may not occupy the same place at the
«ame time — result: two people cannot see
things from the same point of view, and the
slightest difference in angle changes the
thing seen.

I did not decide to come away into a
little corner in the country, in this land in
which I was not born, without looking at
the move from all angles. Be sure that I
know what I am doing, and I have found
the place where I can do it. Some time you
will see the new home, I hope, and then you
will understand. I have lived more than
sixty years. I have lived a fairly active
life, and it has been, with all its hardships
— and they have been many — interest-
ing. But I have had enough of the city —
even of Paris, the most beautiful city in
the world. Nothing can take any of that
away from me. It is treasured up in my
memory. I am even prepared to own that
there was a sort of arrogance in my per-
sistence in choosing for so many years *the
most seductive city in the world, and say-
ing, "Let others live where they will —
here I propose to stay." I lived there until
I seemed to take it for my own — to know
it on the surface and under it, and over it,
and around it; until I had a sort of mor-

[ 4 I



A Hilltop on the Marne

bid jealousy when I found any one who
knew it half as well as I did, or presumed to
love It half as much, and dared to say so.
You win please note that I have not gone
far from it.

But I have come to feel the need of calm
and quiet — perfect peace. I know again
that there Is a sort of arrogance in expect-
ing it, but I am going to make a bold bid
for it. I will agree. If you like, that it is
cowardly to say that my work is done. I
will even agree that we both know plenty of
women who have cheerfully gone on strug-
gling to a far greater age, and I do think It
downright pretty of you to find me younger
than my years. Yet you must forgive me
if I say that none of us know one another,
and, likewise, that appearances are often
deceptive.

What you are pleased to call my "pride"
has helped me a little. No one can decide
for another the proper moment for striking
one's colors.

I am sure that you — or for that mat-
ter any other American — never heard of
Hulry. Yet it is a little hamlet less than
thirty miles from Paris. It is in that dis-
trict between Paris and Meaux little known
to the ordinary traveler. It only consists of

[ 5 ]



A Hilltop on the Marne

less than a dozen rude farm-houses, less
than five miles, as a bird flies, from Meaux,
which, with a fair cathedral, and a beau-
tiful chestnut-shaded promenade on the
banks of the Marne, spanned just there by
lines of old mills whose water-wheels churn
the river into foaming eddies, has never
been popular with excursionists. There
are people who go there to see where Bos-
suet wrote his funeral orations, in a little
summer-house standing among pines and
cedars on the wall of the garden of the
Archbishop's palace, now, since the "sepa-
ration," the property of the State, and
soon to be a town museum. It is not a very
attractive town. It has not even an out-
of-doors restaurant to tempt the passing
automobilist.

My house was, when I leased it, little
more than a peasant's hut. It is consider-
ably over one hundred and fifty years old,
with stables and outbuildings attached
whimsically, and boasts six gables. Is it
not a pity, for early association's sake, that
it has not one morcf*

I have, as Traddles used to say, "Oceans
of room, Copperfield," and no joking. I
have on the ground floor of the main build-
ing a fair sized salon, into which the front

[ 6 ]



A Hilltop on the Marne

door opens directly. Over that I have a
long, narrow bed-room and dressing-room,
and above that, in the eaves, a sort of
attic work-shop. In an attached, one-
story addition with a gable, at the west of
the salon, I have a library lighted from
both east and west. Behind the salon on
the west side I have a double room which
serves as dining- and breakfast-room, with
a guest-chamber above. The kitchen, at
the north side of the salon, has its own
gable, and there is an old stable extending
forward at the north side, and an old grange
extending west from the dining-room. It
is a jumble of roofs and chimneys, and
looks very much like the houses I used to
combine from my Noah's Ark box in the
days of my babyhood.

All the rooms on the ground floor are
paved in red tiles, and the staircase is built
right in the salon. The ceilings are raft-
ered. The cross-beam In the salon fills my
soul with joy — it is over a foot wide and
a foot and a half thick. The walls and the
rafters are painted green, — my color, —
and so good, by long trial, for my eyes and
my nerves, and my disposition.

But much as I like all this, it was not
this that attracted me here. That was the

I 7 1



A Hilltop on the Marne

situation. The house stands in a small gar-
den, separated from the road by an old
gnarled hedge of hazel. It is almost on the
crest of the hill on the south bank of the
Marne, — the hill that is the water-shed
between the Marne and the Grand Morin.
Just here the Marne makes a wonder-
ful loop, and is only fifteen minutes walk
away from my gate, down the hill to the
north.

From the lawn, on the north side of the
house, I command a panorama which I
have rarely seen equaled. To me it is more
beautiful than that we have so often looked
at together from the terrace at Saint-Ger-
main. In the west the new part of Esbly
climbs the hill, and from there to a hill at
the northeast I have a wide view of the val-
ley of the Marne, backed by a low line of
hills which is the water-shed between the
Marne and the Aisne. Lr>w down in the
valley, at the northwest, lies lie de Ville-
noy, like a toy town, where the big bridge
spans the Marne to carry the railroad into
Meaux. On the horizon line to the west
the tall chimneys of Claye send lines of
smoke into the air. In the foreground to
the north, at the foot of the hill, are the
roofs of two little hamlets, — Joncheroy

[ 8 1



A Hilltop on the Marne

and Volsins, — and beyond them the trees
that border the c^nal.

On the other side of the Marne the un-
dulating hill, with its wide stretch of fields,
is dotted with little villages that peep
out of the trees or are silhouetted against
the sky-line, — Vignely, Trilbardou, Pen-
chard, Monthyon, Neufmortier, Chauco-
nin, and in the foreground to the north, in
the valley, just halfway between me and
Meaux, lies Mareuil-on-the-Marne, with
its red roofs, gray walls, and church spire.
With a glass I can find where Chambry and
Barcy are, on the slope behind Meaux,
even if the trees conceal them.

But these are all little villages of which
you may never have heard. No guide-
book celebrates them. No railroad ap-
proaches them. On clear days I can see the
square tower of the cathedral at Meaux,
and I have only to walk a short distance
on the route nationale, — which runs from
Paris, across the top of my hill a little to
the east, and thence to Meaux and on to
the frontier, — to get a profile view of it
standing up above the town, quite de-
tached, from foundation to clock-tower.

This is a rolling country of grain fields,
orchards, masses of black-currant bushes,

I 9 1



A Hilltop on the Marne

vegetable plots, — It Is a great sugar-beet
country, — and asparagus beds; for the
Department of the Seine et Marne Is one
of the most productive In France, and
every inch under cultivation. It Is what
the French call tm paysage riant, and I as-
sure you. It does more than smile these
lovely June mornings. I am up every morn-
ing almost as soon as the sun, and I slip my
feet Into sabots, wrap myself In a big cloak,
and run right on to the lawn to make sure
that the panorama has not disappeared in
the night. There always lie — too good
almost to be true — miles and miles of
laughing country, little white towns just
smiling In the early light, a thin strip of
river here and there, dimpling and danc-
ing, stretches of fields of all colors — all so
peaceful and so gay, and so "chummy"
that it gladdens the opening day, and
makes me rejoice to have lived to see it. I
never weary of it. It changes every hour,
and I never can decide at which hour it Is
the loveliest. After all, it Is a rather nice
world.

Now get out your map and locate me.
You will not find Hulry. But you can find
Esbly, my nearest station on the main line
of the Eastern Railroad. Then you will find

[ lo ]



A Hilltop on the Marne

a little narrow-gauge road running from
there to Crecy-k-Chapelle. Halfway be-
tween you will find Couilly-Saint-Germain.
Well, I am right up the hill, about a third
of the way between Couilly and Meaux.

It is a nice historic country. But for that
matter so is all France. I am only fifteen
miles northeast of Bondy, in whose forest
the naughty Queen Fredegonde, beside
whose tomb, in Saint-Denis, we have often
stood together, had her husband killed,
and nearer still to Chelles, where the Mer-
ovingian kings once had a palace stained
with the blood of many crimes, about
which you read, in many awful details, in
Maurice Strauss's "Tragique Histoire des
Reines Brunhaut et Fredegonde," which I
remember to have sent you when it first
came out. Of course no trace of those days
of the Merovingian dynasty remains here
or anywhere else. Chelles is now one of the
fortified places in the outer belt of forts
surrounding Paris.

So, if you will not accept all this as an
explanation of what you are pleased to call
my "desertion," may I humbly and reluc-
tantly put up a plea for my health, and
hope for a sympathetic hearing?

If I am to live much longer, — and I am

[ II 1



A Hilltop on the IMarne

on the road down the hill, you know, — I
demand of Life my physical well-being. I
want a robust old age. I feel that I could
never hope to have that much longer in
town, — city-born and city-bred though I
am. I used to think, and I continued to
think for a long time, that I could not live
if my feet did not press a city pavement.
The fact that I have changed my mind
seems to me, at my age, a sufficient excuse
for, as frankly, changing my habits. It
surely proves that I have not a sick will —
yet. In the simple life I crave — digging
m the earth, living out of doors — I expect
to earn the strength of which city life and
city habits were robbing me. I believe I
can. Faith half wins a battle. No one ever
dies up on this hill, I am told, except of
hard drink. Judging by my experience
with workmen here, not always of that. I
nevei>/saw so many very old, very active,
robust people in so small a space in all my
life as I'liave seen here.

Are you answered.''

Yet if, after all this expenditure of
words, you still think I am shirking —
well, I am sorry. It seems to me that, from
another point of view, I am doing my duty,
and giving the younger generation more

[ 12 ]



A Hilltop on the Marne

room — getting out of the lime-light, so to
speak, which, between you and me, was
getting trying for my mental complexion.
If I have blundered, the consequences be
on my own head. My hair could hardly be
whiter — that 's something. Besides, re-
treat is not cut off. I have sworn no eter-
nal oath not to change my mind again.

In any case you have no occasion to
worry about me : I 've a head full of memo-
ries. I am going to classify them, as I do
my books. Some of them I am going to
forget, just as I reject books that have
ceased to interest me. I know the latter is
always a wrench. The former may be im-
possible. I shall not be lonely. No one
who reads is ever that. I may miss talk-
ing. Perhaps that is a good thing. I may
have talked too much. That does happen.

Remember one thing — I am not in-
accessible. I may now and then get an
opportunity to talk again, and in a new
background. Who knows? I am counting
on nothing but the facts about me. So
come on, Future. I 've my back against the
past. Anyway, as you see, it is too late to
argue. I've crossed the Rubicon, and can
return only when I have built a new bridge.



II

June 1 8, 1 91 4.

That's right. Accept the situation.
You will soon find that Paris will seem the
same to you. Besides, I had really given
all I had to give there.

Indeed you shall know, to the smallest
detail, just how the material side of my
life is arranged, — all my comforts and
discomforts, — since you ask.

I am now absolutely settled into my
little "hole" in the country, as you call it.
It has been so easy. I have been here now
nearly three weeks. Everything is in per-
fect order. You would be amazed if you
could see just how everything fell into
place. The furniture has behaved itself
beautifully. There are days when I won-
der if either I or it ever lived anywhere
else. The shabby old furniture with which
you were long so familar just slipped
right into place. I had not a stick too lit-
tle, and could not have placed another
piece. I call that "bull luck."

I have always told you — you have not

I 14 ]



A Hilltop on the Marne

always agreed — that France was the
easiest place in the world to live in, and
the love of a land in which to be a pauper.
That is why it suits me.

Don't harp on that word "alone." I
know I am living alone, in a house that
has four outside doors into the bargain.
But you know I am not one of the "afraid"
kind. I am not boasting. That is a char-
acteristic, not a quality. One is afraid or
one is not. It happens that I am not.
Still, I am very prudent. You would laugh
if you could see me "shutting up" for the
night. All my windows on the ground floor
are heavily barred. Such of the doors as
have glass in them have shutters also.
The window shutters are primitive affairs
of solid wood, with diamond-shaped holes
in the upper part. First, I put up the shut-
ters on the door in the dining-room which
leads into the garden on the south side;
then I lock the door. Then I do a similar
service for the kitchen door on to the front
terrace, and that into the orchard, and
lock both doors. Then I go out the salon
door and lock the stable and the grange
and take out the keys. Then I come into
the salon and lock the door after me, and
push two of the biggest bolts you ever saw.

[ 15 1



A Hilltop on the Marne

After which I hang up the keys, which are
as big as the historic key of the Bastille,
which you may remember to have seen
at the Musee Carnavalet. Then I close
and bolt all the shutters downstairs. I do
it systematically every night — because I
promised not to be foolhardy. I always
grin, and feel as if it were a scene in a play.
It impresses me so much like a tremendous
piece of business — dramatic suspense —
which leads up to nothing except my going
quietly upstairs to bed.

When it is all done I feel as I used to in
my strenuous working days, when, after
midnight, all the rest of the world — my
little world — being calmly asleep, I cud-
dled down in the corner of my couch to
read; — the world is mine!

Never in my life — anywhere, under
Any circumstances — have I been so well
taken care of. I have afemme de menage — •
a sort of cross between a housekeeper and a
maid-of-all-work. She is a married woman,
the wife of a farmer whose house is three
minutes away from mine. My dressing-
room window and my dining-room door
look across a field of currant bushes to her
house. I have only to blow on the dog's
whistle and she can hear. Her name is

I i6 ]



A Hilltop on the Marne

Amelle, and she is a character, a nice one,
but not half as 'much of a character as her
husband — her second. She is a Parisian.
Her first husband was a jockey, half
Breton, half English. He died years ago
when she was young: broke his neck in a
big race at Auteuil.

She has had a checkered career, and
lived in several smart families before, to
assure her old age, she married this gentle,
queer little farmer. She is a great find for
me. But the thing balances up beauti-
fully, as I am a blessing to her, a new in-
terest in her monotonous life, and she
never lets me forget how much happier
she is since I came here to live. She is very
bright and gay, intelligent enough to be a
companion when I need one, and well-bred
enough to fall right into her proper place
when I don't.

Her husband's name is Abelard. Oh,
yes, of course, I asked him about Heloi'se
the first time I saw him, and I was stag-
gered when the little old toothless chap
giggled and said, "That was before my
time." What do you think of that? Every
one calls him "Pere Abelard," and about
the house it is shortened down to "Pere."
He is over twenty years older than Amelia

[ 17 ]



A Hilltop on the Marne

' — well along in his seventies. He Is a na**
tlve of the commune — was born at Pont«
aux-Dames, at the foot of the hill, right
next to the old abbaye of that name. He
is a type familiar enough to those who
know French provincial life. His father
was a well-to-do farmer. His mother was
the typical mother of her class. She kept
her sons under her thumb as long as she
lived. Pere Abelard worked on his father's
farm. He had his living, but never a sou in
his pocket. The only diversion he ever had
was playing the violin, which some passer
in the commune taught him. When his
parents died, he and his brothers sold the
old place at Pont-aux-Dames to Coquclin,
who was preparing to turn the historic old
convent into a maison de retraite for aged
actors, and he came up here on the hill and
bought his present farm in this hamlet,
where almost every one is some sort of a
cousin of his.

Oddly enough, almost every one of these
female cousins has a history. You would
not think it, to look at the place and the
people, yet I fancy that it Is pretty univer-
sal for women In such places to have "his-
tories." You will see an old woman with a
bronzed face — sometimes still handsome,

I i8 ]



A Hilltop on the Marne'

often the reverse — in her short skirt, her
big apron tied round where a waist is not,
her still beautiful hair concealed in a col-
ored handkerchief. You ask the question
of the right person, and you will discover
that she is rich; that she is avaricious; that
she pays heavy tazes; denies herself all but
the bare necessities; and that the founda-
tion of her fortune dates back to an affaire
du coeur, or perhaps of interest, possibly of
cupidity; and that very often the middle-
aged daughter who still "lives at home
with mother," had also had a profitable
affaire arranged by mother herself. Every-
thing has been perfectly convenahle. Every
one either knows about it or has forgotten
it. No one is bothered or thinks the worse
of her so long as she has remained of the
"people" and put on no airs. But let her
attempt to rise out of her class, or go up to
Paris, and the Lord help her if she ever
wants to come back, and, French fashion,
end her days where she began them.
This is typically, provincially French.
When you come down here I shall tell you
tales that will make Balzac and De Mau-
passant look tame.

You have no idea how little money these
people spend. It must hurt them terribly

I 19 1



A Hilltop on the Marne



to cough up tlieir taxes. They all till the
land, and eat what they grow. Amelie's
husband spends exactly four cents a week
— to get shaved on Sunday. He can't
shave himself. A razor scares him to death.
He looks as if he were going to the guillo-
tine when he starts for the barber's, but
she will not stand for a beard of more than
a week's growth. He always stops at my
door on his way back to let his wife kiss his
clean old face, all wreathed with smiles —
the ordeal is over for another week. He
never needs a sou except for that shave.
He drinks nothing but his own cider: he
eats his own vegetables, his own rabbits;
he never goes anywhere except to the
fields, — does not want to, ■ — unless it is
to play the violin for a dance or a fete.
He just works, eats, sleeps, reads his news-
paper, and is content. Yet he pays taxes
on nearly a hundred thousand francs' worth
of real estate.

But, after all, this is not what I started
to tell you — that was about my domestic
arrangements. Amelie does everything


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