VERY afternoon, from four to six o’clock, behold M. Hippolyte Durand, a corpulent, warm-hearted and white-headed Frenchman, established on the terrace of one of the leading boulevard cafés.
Occasionally I join him in these sittings. But whereas in times gone by M. Durand was the most sociable and most garrulous of Parisians, today he shakes one’s hand limply, and frankly confesses himself averse from conversation, so that our meetings on the cafe terrace resolve themselves into a silent inspection of the passers-by.
Straight before him, with strained eyes, looks corpulent M. Durand. Straight in front of me do I also look.- A prolonged silence of twenty minutes, even of half-an-hour. Then, in a thick voice, M. Durand mutters, for at least the thousandth time since the outbreak of war :
” Ah, the brigands ; ah, the bandits “and his eyes fill with tears.
No need to explain that the ” bandits ” and the ” brigands ” are the ” Boches.” As for M. Durand’s tears–well, widows young and old, one after another, yes, widows and widows and widows in the deepest of mourning, their pale faces shrouded by heavy crêpe veils, constitute perhaps the most conspicuous new feature of the boulevards of today.
Then, again and again, “the dull, muffled stump, stump on the pavement of the mutilated soldier on crutches ; the soldier with the empty sleeve ; the soldier with the sunken cheeks and deep and dark red-and-blue scars ; the soldiers with shattered nerves, who wander along vacantly, aimlessly, as though in a dream ; the blind soldier, under the protection of a limping brother soldier, or in the careful, loving charge of his fiancée or mother, who, as she guides him and speaks to him and presses his arm, looks up tenderly and tearfully at the extinguished, devastated eyes that will never see again.”
Although, as I have recorded, the war has almost silenced the once-garrulous M. Durand, still he has been communicative enough to inform me that no fewer than twenty-four of his relatives joined the French colours in the month of August last.
His assembly of four sons. His group of three sons-in-law. His only brother, aged forty-five. Various nephews, cousins of different degrees . . . two sisters, old ladies, shut up in French provinces still in the occupation of the gentle Prussians . . and a favourite, frail aunt, ” la vieille Tante Berthe,” at the mercy of the Germans in Alsace.
Well, of M. Durand’s many gallant relatives, two sons and a son-in-law have been killed ; a second son-in-law ” missing ” since September. Nephews René and Jacques dead, nephew Armand a prisonerimpossible to say where.
And never a syllable (for seven months) from the two sisters, or from frail, charming ” Aunt Bertha.”
” Any news ? ” I ask M. Durand this afternoon on the café terrace.
” No news of any kind,” my companion replies, as he always replies.
Without another word, M. Hippolyte Durand and I resume our inspection of the boulevards.
More widows, more blindness, more empty sleeves, and again that pathetic, muffled stump, stump, stump of crutches on the sunny boulevard pavement. Here and there amongst the passers-by, clasping his mother’s hand, is a small boy dressed up in a miniature imitation of the French soldier’s new bluish-grey uniform. Little Parisiennes wear tricolour ribbons in their hair, and then one beholds the vivid badges of the Red Cross, and the khaki of Old England, and the bright, baggy trousers of the Zouaves, and the rags of the peasant refugees from the French Northern Provinces, and the blue jersey, impertinent cap, and smiling, impudent face of the street gamin of ParisVictor Hugo’s incomparable Gavroche.
Yes, Gavroche from Les Misérablesalert, ” cheeky,” irrepressible, heroicstill survives in this murderous but magnificent year of 1915. Here he is in the boulevards, whistling and grinning and swaggering, with his hands in his pockets, apostrophising the picture post cards displayed on the shutters of the many shops and cafés that have been closed.
” Toi, mon vieux, je te salue,” exclaims Gavroche to the picture post card of General Joffre.
” Tu es chic, foi,” Gavroche is graciously pleased to say to the portrait of General French.
” Assassins of women and children and old men, just let me meet you with a bayonet,” cries the gamin to the photograph of a group of German prisoners.
Ask General Gallieni, Military Governor of Paris, and he will tell you that scores of thirteen-and fourteen-year-old Gavroches have crept out of Paris, with a loaf of bread and a bottle of water, and attempted, by the aid of a newspaper man, to make their way to the trenches.
Inevitably, a hush in the Latin Quarter. Not a student on the Boul’ Mich’, and most of the rackety cafés of yesterday shuttered down ” until the end of the war.” Closed, too, are most of the amphitheatres in the Sorbonne, and the fine, scholarly old professors are to be seen sauntering in the Luxembourg Gardens, or sipping café au lait and reading the newspapers in the few dim and deserted brasseries that still remain open. In one of these brasseries, enclosed in a glass case, I behold bent and battered post cards arrived direct from the trenches. ‘ The post cards of Paul and Pierre, liveliest and most warm-hearted of students, that convey all kinds of gay and ridiculous greetings to their ” dear ” Latin Quarter ; that express sarcastic contempt for ” les Boches ” ; and that invariably conclude with the cry of ” Vive la France I ” Side by side with these post cards there hangs a long roll of parchment, on which are inscribed the names of those students who have died gloriously on the field of honour for their country.” In comparing the parchment with the post cards I find that many of the authors of those confident, light-hearted messages from the trenches are included in the grim, tragical list.
But, in the radiant Luxembourg Gardens, except for the eternal spectacle of widows, the scene remains unchanged. White-headed old Senators, with heavy portfolios, slowly make their way past the statues of the fountains en route to the dull and drowsy Upper Chamber ; the beating of a drum summons all healthy-minded children to watch the exploits of Guignoland what peals of shrill laughter when grotesque, grinning Punch belabours ” les Boches ! Nor has the war stopped the wooden horses from revolving to the accompaniment of a husky old organ. Very chipped, and scarred, and weather-beaten are the horses, but they nevertheless bear the gallant names of Joffre, Pau and French ; and the small Parisians and Parisiennes who ride them affectionately stroke their shabby, thin manes, and vainly urge them onwards with shrill, eager little exhortations of : ” Avances donc, mon cher Joffre,” and ” There’s a Boche, mon brave Pau.” In his usual old place beside a statue stands the bent and white-headed bird-tamer of the Luxembourg, surrounded by sparrows and faced by a pair of portly pigeons. The sparrows settle on the old gentleman’s fingers and shoulders, but the pigeons remain motionless on the grass. ” Viens, le Général Joffre “and the first pigeon advances, and is presented with crumbs. ” A toi, le Général Pau “and up waddles the second stout pigeon, to receive a similar reward. Any number of nurses with perambulators, and many of the nurses are reading (for the twentieth time, I expect) the printed military post cards which laconically proclaim their fiancés to be ” in good health,” or to be ” slightly ” or ” severely ” wounded, or to be ” missing” since such-and-such a date. . . . Out of the Luxembourg Gardens down to the quays of the Seine ; and here, too, the scene remains unchanged. The same interminable line of battered old bookstalls, and the familiar stooping form of the bookworms hovering about them. However, brand new maps and war books have made their appearance amongst the chaotic collection of scientific, philosophical and historical volumes, as well as caricatures of the Kaiser and recently published poems and songs in honour of the glorious battle of the Marne. Below, on the river-bank, sits the incorrigible, retired bourgeois with his ridiculous fishing-rod. Twenty yards away, a chocolate-coloured poodle is being shaved by one of the professional dog-barbers, who hold a special police permit to pursue their singular profession on the banks of the Seine. ” Sale Boche, veux tu rester tranquille,” cries the barber as the poodle whimpers and struggles. ” I for-bid you to call my dog a Boche,” exclaims the poodle’s devoted mistress. ” C’est bien dit, madame. The lowest of mongrels is worth more than ten Boches,” calls out the incorrigible angler, with enthusiasm. But, as he speaks, a quantity of the poodle’s shorn curls, carried away by the wind, fly straight into his face. Startled and blinded, M. le Bourgeois drops his fishing-rod. It slips into the Seine, it drifts away with the tide whilst M. le Bourgeois gesticulates despairingly, and the dog-barber rocks with laughter. In-creased fury of the bourgeois. Shaking his fist at the barber, he cries out incoherently : ” BocheSpyTraitor-Assassin.” Up walks a police-man. What’s the matter ? ” But just as the bourgeois is about to explain, a French aeroplane appears high up above the river, and M. le Bourgeois, forgetting his grievance, pulls out his handkerchief, waves it wildly at the flying-machine and, putting both hands to his mouth, emotionally and lustily shouts out :
” Vive la France ! Vive la France ! Vive la France ! ”
And now, night-time. Only ten o’clock ; but the cafés have closed their doors, shutters, blinds, and curtains have been drawn, and the streets are plunged into a disconcerting semi-darkness. Far darker than in London.” Far more silent and deserted than London. Far more stricken and wounded than London. For let it again be recorded that every able-bodied Parisian between the ages of nineteen and forty-eight responded loyally and zealously to the call of his country eleven months ago and let it once more be stated that the remaining Parisians, day after day, night after night, are praying in their hearts, if not in the churches, for the souls of the departed, the recovery of the wounded, the security of the ” missing,” the safe return of the uninjured. At night, especially, is the suffering and the anxiety the more acute. Threeinstead of four, or five, or morechairs round the dinner-table. Dinnerhow can you call it dinner when there’s a photograph tied up with a crêpe bow, and a vase of white flowers on either side of it, placed conspicuously on the mantelpiece ? Dinner ?when, in spite of herself, the widow, or the bereaved mother, or the little stricken fiancée, suddenly bursts into tears and hastily and un-steadily leaves the room ! Dinner ?when you have female relatives and dear friends shut up in the ten or twelve French Departments still occupied by the Prussians ! Ask Amélie, the cook, about dinner. ” Mais on ne dine plus à Paris,” she will reply. “One hasn’t got the heart to take dinner. One has other things to think of. One will not dine again until one has driven out les Boches.”