Those low-lying hills were France!
They had not lifted into view suddenly, but had rather emerged from the east, solidifying slowly out of a slate-colored blur which to the eyes of unaccustomed voyagers might or might not have been land. There was no ebullition of spirits. The two thousand men and women aboard the vessel crowded to the rail and strained their eyes toward that land in which great events awaited them, for the most part in utter silence. Conversation failed. There was an impressiveness about the moment akin to the impressiveness of entering some great cathedral—there was awe!… There, rising out of the east was France!… France!
The sentiment that stirred them was more profound than a thrill. The day had held its thrill for them—a thrill that for many of them had followed a sleepless night. Those who had slept had done so fully clothed, with life-jackets within instant touch of the hand. For the kindly ocean had been made dangerous, not by the elements, which throughout the voyage had held themselves in restraint, but by men. It had been a morning of mists which lay upon the placid waters and glowed in response to the touch of the rising sun. Then, as the luminous grayness dissipated, there came into view far off to the northward, a spot which grew and approached until it became a grim and business-like French destroyer to be greeted with cheers of relief. It was the convoy. There was a thrill. It spelled safety—that little boat with ready guns—but it spoke of danger as well. The early passengers who watched the approach of the little vessel of war warmed with affection toward it. It was their guardian, come out of nothingness to protect them through the remaining perilous miles of ocean.
In the cabin a little party of women had remained through the night, fearful of the unseen, impressed by the perils which might hide beneath the dark waters which the bow of the vessel turned up into wonderful patterns of phosphorescence. They had grouped together to draw what comfort they could from companionship. Now they emerged on deck relieved, almost jubilant, until one of their number said, suddenly, “I am told it is the last ten miles which is most dangerous.”
The destroyer ran alongside, and a sailor with two little flags waved a long message to the bridge; then she dropped back astern, and with her passed that thrill which had stirred the ship’s company.
No, it was no thrill that moved the passengers on the vessel as the hills of France arose before them; the emotion was more profound, more impressive. To many of them it was the first sight of a foreign shore, but, more than that, it was their first sight of France—of that France which by the greatness of her spirit during three years of peril, of suffering, of horrors, had become not a country, but a symbol.
For the most part the passengers were in uniform. In these days there were no tourists, none who traveled abroad for amusement or recreation or to accomplish that object so dear to Americans—to improve the mind. These voyagers went as servants, to take their part, great or small, in that war which America had come to see at last was her war.
There were many young officers among the first-class passengers, boyish lieutenants proud of unaccustomed uniforms, a little set up because they were not as other men; but all eager to be at their grim work. In a month their swanking would be a thing of the past, for they would have encountered reality, and out of the reality they would emerge as men. There was a captain or so, themselves boyish; there were Red Cross men who, before assuming their uniforms, had been lawyers, merchants, brokers. Older men there were, wearing well-tailored uniforms and carrying themselves with assurance. There was a considerable company of Y. M. C. A. workers, on their way to do what came to hand. They were not certain yet what it was to be, but they would learn. Their uniforms were not so well tailored, their puttees were not of expensive leather like those of the officers and Red Cross men. As one reviewed them he saw that all but a few were not members of the executive class, but workers. They were coming to drive trucks, to sell meager supplies over the makeshift counters of huts and canteens, to serve the soldier in such ways as offered.
And there were women—Red Cross women, Y. M. C. A. women, a few musicians and entertainers come to lighten the tedium of the boys in khaki. There were a few civilians, French people, returning from America for purposes important only to them. And there was a sprinkling of French officers, among them a boyish hero much followed by women’s eyes because he was a handsome boy made more handsome by the splendor of his uniform—trousers of red, long coat of black, and most of all, perhaps, by the cluster of medals upon his breast. He was only a youth, but he was France’s most famous aviator.
There were third-class passengers. Forward were six hundred Poles in vivid red coats, recruited in the United States and Canada for the Polish Legion, going to fight for their country, which could only be a member of the family of nations if the Allies succeeded in crushing the enemy. Aft there were six hundred American boys—machine-gun men and a signal-corps unit.
All of them—officers, men, women—knew that those hills concealed something, something tremendous. Resident in each individual was a consciousness that beyond there lay a new world, but how new and how different none was capable of realizing. The old life, the old ways, the accustomed rules of the game of life, had been left behind and few had the vision to perceive that they were left behind forever, that nothing could again be as it had been, and that they were standing poised for a step through a doorway which led into a new era.
They were about to find contact with another civilization, with another philosophy, another method of life. It was not alone that they were to be set down in an alien land, amid a people speaking a tongue which was meaningless to them, and living their lives according to a manner which seemed good to them—and which was good to them and to all who saw it with clear eyes and open mind—but because they were about to become a part of events through which no soul can pass without being so modified and molded as to emerge a different soul, detached, unrelated, cut off by experience and knowledge from the soul that had been.
Behind those low-lying hills lay France…. What was France? It was, for every man and woman aboard that vessel, the great adventure of the soul. Just that. Each one of them was to be born again. With the touch of the soil of France beneath their feet would come a new birth, the entrance into a new life in which each would find much to wonder at, much to admire, much to puzzle over…. But they would find themselves. Moreover they would find a world which had resolved itself into genuineness, a world which was true, because war had stripped it of pretense.
The American soul is a peculiar affair. It is circumscribed by environment, by inherited prejudices. It is, for the most part, incapable of comprehending itself, much less the soul of another people of another temperament and genius, ripened by plenitude of years and by a hundred generations of genius which has studied the art of living. The American soul is a living thing imprisoned in a cage of concealments. It was to come into intimate contact with a people who do not believe in imprisoning the soul, who have sought for and discovered the essentials, and have cut away—perhaps have never found the necessity for cutting away—the shame, the self-deceptions, the glossings-over, the self-imposed blind spots, which make us what we are. The American soul recognizes food and admits it to thought’s decent society, but it declines to recognize the existence of processes of digestion. The French soul knows that food must be digested as well as eaten. To the French soul digestion is respectable.
So the American soul was to meet the French soul—a meeting of the poles. From such a meeting must result something worth while to the world….
From that day, the 18th of May, A.D. 1918, those men and women would calculate the events of their lives. It was the beginning of a new dispensation. As the world dates events as A.D. or B.C., so these Americans would date their events as, “Before I landed in France,” or, “After I landed in France.”
It was from the port side of the vessel that the best view of the now distinct land was to be obtained, and the rail was crowded from end to end of the long deck with men and women who looked and looked as if land were a new and tremendous curiosity, a something which they had never seen before and might miss altogether if their attention wavered for an instant. Tea and wafers had just been served by the deck stewards. Well forward stood a young man with the bars of a captain on his shoulders; he stood back from the rail, alone, looking over the heads of the other passengers, as his height made it practicable for him to do. He held in his right hand a cup of tea and was eating one of a handful of square wafers. Not as a man eats who is dallying with the quaint foreign custom of afternoon tea did he bear himself, but as a young man who is honestly hungry. He addressed himself to those biscuits and washed them down with tea because it had been long hours since the midday meal and because his big young body was demanding food.
In his uniform he presented a figure to admire, as did most of the young officers aboard. His back was broad, his legs straight, and, though not bulky, gave one the impression that he was graciously and strongly made. One may read much from a man’s legs. More especially is this so in uniform and leather puttees. Indications of character are resident in a calf, but more especially in knees and ankles. These things are concealed by the trousers of civilian life. Some day an astute judge of character will write a monograph on masculine legs and revolutionize the appraisal of men. The captain’s legs were a credit to the United States, the army, and himself.
He was not handsome, nor was his face delicate with overmuch intellectual labor. If you had met him in a crowd you would have said immediately that here was a young man who could play a bully game of football. That was the impression his features gave—of ability to play a rough game splendidly. It was not the face of a pugilist nor of a society man. It was the face of an average young American of the class which goes to college, acquires enough education to make him easy in the presence of gentlemen, and upon which to base a greater success in life than had been possible to his father who came before him. When you looked at him you thought in physical terms before you considered his possible mentality. There was nothing dull about him; there were indications of a reasonable amount of good nature, and some intolerance, and much of boyishness. His attention was equally divided between France and biscuits.
A young woman just in front of him turned and looked up at him. “Here comes something,” she said, pointing.
“Dirigible,” he replied, following the direction of her finger.
The dirigible buzzed out to the vessel, looked it over, and evidently with satisfied mind turned and hurried away toward shore again….
“There’s a convoy or something,” said the young woman.
The captain was interested. “Probably coastwise ships coming down from England. Six of them, aren’t there?… And see all those other little boats in there. Must be close to the harbor.”
“We’re slowing down…. See, there’s that little boat like a tug with a cannon up in front. It’s signaling us.”
The vessel lost headway and everybody watched the pilot come aboard as if it were some strange phenomenon—as it was to all but a few.
“I wonder if we’ll be allowed to cable home that we have arrived?… What do you think, Captain Ware?”
“Haven’t the least idea in the world. Don’t see why not, though, Miss Knox…. War Department ’tends to it for us.”
“My people will be terribly worried until they hear I am safe, and then they’ll keep on being worried until I’m back in New York again…. I’m going to sit down. Come on.”
Maude Knox’s tone approached the proprietary, not that she had asserted any permanent claim to Captain Ware, but only those property rights in transitu which arise even in war-time aboard a transatlantic liner. She had promenaded with him, had played bridge with him, and had sat out on deck—the lightless decks—with him as other young men and women aboard ship had embarked on friendly alliances for the voyage. These two had talked, or rather Miss Knox had talked and Captain Ware had listened, and rather liked each other—that was all. There had been nothing sentimental in their relations, even under the moon and in the not unromantic precautionary darkness enforced by the peril of the submarine. They were recognized by the passengers as having paired off, just as a dozen other young couples were similarly indulgently recognized. It was youth making the best of its every moment. That was all.
“I simply can’t imagine what it is going to be like—living over here,” she said. “It must have been terribly interesting for an American to live in France before the war—but now, with all the effects of war to see, it will be like living in a thrilling book, don’t you think?”
Ware had thought of France mostly in terms of war, of ruined villages, lines of trenches, strategic positions. The romance of going to war in France had not missed him; he felt it, but he felt it with a vagueness, an ignorance of what he was to find, and a chaotic conception of the French people that, perhaps, but made the adventure the more romantic to him. He was aware that something great, something that was going to interest him as he had never been interested before, was about to happen to him. But what it would be like he could not picture, did not try to picture. He knew he wanted to see Paris, because he had heard tales of Paris. Most of them he was inclined to discount, but enough remained to make him feel that the city was well worth his investigation. That is as far as he had thought of civilian France…. What his thoughts and sensations were, now that he was nearing those shores, he was unable to put into words, and if he had been able the natural reticence of the young man afraid of appearing sentimental would have caused him to remain silent. Not so Maude Knox.
Maude was the daughter of a professor of philosophy in a Mid-Western university. From her babyhood she was accustomed to the dissection of souls. She had seen her own soul on her father’s mental operating-table, and, somehow, the reserves which are inherent in the common run of girls seemed to be what she called piffle. She had grown up with her father and a housekeeper, and theories and philosophies and iconoclasms had been the commonplace staple of her mental diet. A great many of them, too, she catalogued in her small head as piffle. On the whole, she was a bit queer, or so her girl friends said, but by no means unwomanly or otherwise than girlish. She had a way of liking to look facts in the face, and of discussing them critically. That made her queer. She liked to talk about things, and inquire into things, and was fairly capable of analysis. She fancied she knew a great deal about life and the complexities of human conduct—because she had heard them discussed and had discussed them herself. Actually she was an exceedingly unworldly young person, with more than the usual amount of tolerance for the peculiarities of other folks…. She was rather small, with hair that crinkled close to her head and which no amount of breeze seemed ever to disarrange; her eyes, when she laughed, closed to twinkling slits, and tiny wrinkles ran out from their corners in a droll sort of way; her cheek-bones were high, and her cheeks not at all rounded. She was pretty, but she was also undoubtedly chic and agreeable-looking…. She wore a leather coat, and when she walked she thrust her hands into the side pockets and strode with a swing of the shoulders from side to side that was almost a boyish swagger. One might have been excused for concluding that she had only recently emerged from tomboyhood. She had a certain confidence of bearing that was at once attractive and a safeguard. There was something about her which seemed to say to young men who looked at her with interest, “No nonsense here.”
There are girls who are advertised by their appearance as amenable to shaded porches, moonlit nights, and sentimental interludes. Maude Knox was not one of these. Yet she did not impress one as being exempt from emotions and sensations; she gave no warning that one must expect no warmth. It was rather that emotions, sensations, warmth were there, but surely controlled, not to be manifested lightly or frivolously. Somehow it was easier to think of her as a wife than as a sweetheart….
Ware was thinking how his father would enjoy all this, the arrival in a strange land, the sights, the anticipation of events to come. His mother would not have enjoyed it. There was too much bustle and confusion for her, too much to upset the nerves. In all likelihood she would be confined to her cabin with one of those nervous headaches…. But his father—his father was one of those men who never grow beyond their enthusiasms nor beyond naïve manifestations of their enthusiasms.
“Yes,” he said, in answer to Miss Knox, “the folks will worry, of course…. Dad won’t worry so much, but mother’ll be in a stew. She’s usually in a stew.”
“I had a time to get father to let me come. He said a war was no place for a young lady…. But this seems to be a different kind of a war, doesn’t it. Women are going to it.”
“I can understand nurses….” he said, hesitatingly.
“But not the rest of us. That’s because you’re old-fashioned and Middle-Western…. The army wouldn’t let us come if we weren’t useful.”
“What, exactly, are you going to do?”
“Why, … something—something useful.”
“There’s that girl that plays the harp, and a choir-singer, and a couple of actresses. I can understand them more or less, but you … I really don’t. You’re not a stenographer, nor anything like that, nor an entertainer, nor a nurse, nor an ambulance-driver.”
“Maybe I’ll be a chaperon,” she said, taking refuge in lightness, for she really did not know what she was going to do. She was classified as a canteen worker. Her uniform was that of the Y. M. C. A., and she had remarked with feeling that the hat was already beginning to fade….
“I presume you know as much about it as any of us do…. I wish you could hear dad on the war and on Germany. He reads the papers to the last punctuation mark, but, somehow, he never seems to grasp it. Possibly most folks are that way, but father always says what he thinks, and goes ahead pronouncing the names of French towns, and has opinions about everything. He gets excited and pounds on the table…. Dad’s all right. We’ve always done things together since I was a kid. He’s that kind.”
She was able to see that a very real affection for his father was stated in those phrases. She wondered about the father—if he resembled his son in appearance or character…. He did not. The father was a middle-sized man of no education except what an undirected reading of many books had given him. He was a great reader of novels, especially of historical romances, and his knowledge of the past of the nations came from these.
His idea of France was Athos, Porthos Aramis, and d’Artagnan, with Miladi and a few cardinals and intriguing duchesses thrown in…. He owned a grocery in Detroit which did moderately well. His soul was filled with admiration and love for his son. He had a temper given to sudden, brief flashes … and he had no bad habits except that he chewed tobacco surreptitiously. People liked him, especially children. He was good personally, but had no vindictive attitude toward evil. Every Sunday he went to church without complaint and without thought of it; though he would have enjoyed himself much more in a boat with a fish-line. When Captain Ware was younger and got into difficulties which his mother magnified into crimes and wept and foresaw disgrace, Mr. Ware would say, “Now don’t you worry, mother; that boy’s coming out all right….”
“Mother’s more worried about my coming to wicked France than about my being shot up,” he said, presently, and smiled.
His mother was the dominant member of the family. She was the last word in orthodoxy and was stubbornly dogmatic. She was religious after the manner of a zealot, but in her life economy took place just before religion. One had to save money and be economical to enter the kingdom of heaven; she could even overlook a few moral lapses in an individual who was frugal and laid by systematically for a rainy day…. All his life Captain Ware had been afraid of pulling down on his head what he privately called his mother’s “tantrums.” These were hysterical outbursts following some escapade of his, or possibly following a mere argument in which economy or religion was mentioned. She could cast stinging darts with her tongue, and when she was opposed, it did not much matter where, she was reckless in dispensing them. Anybody who stood near was likely to be wounded.
But she loved her son savagely and jealously, and lived her life and practised her economies for him. Anything which appertained to the perpetuation of the species was somehow abhorrent to her. Here, as everywhere, she was an extremist. Before her son was ten years old she was already in a state of mind, and embarrassed him so that he exerted himself to avoid being alone with her, by questioning him and by very frank warnings…. At ten she gave him a book to read entitled Plain Facts. She worked as she thought, frantically, without sparing herself or anybody else … and the result was that she was burning herself out…. She was a remarkable woman, sometimes a lovable and companionable woman, but so intense, so intolerant of any belief which did not agree perfectly with hers, that people always felt the necessity of being on their guard with her so as not to “set her off.”
It was from these parents that Captain Ware inherited, and he was like neither of them…. But traces of both were easy to find in him. When one looks for explanations of his acts, one would do well to study his parents and to see if his acts did not spring from inherited characteristics and tendencies, or were not the result of a revulsion against parental characteristics which had irked him as a boy.
Now, for the first time in his life—and he was twenty-six years old—he was cutting loose from family contacts, and cutting loose in this total and revolutionary manner. His first adventure in freedom was into a new world which would not understand him and which he was not equipped to understand himself…. He had always lived at home, except for his four years in college, and his mother’s figure had been always present, for she had made it her business to keep it ever present…. In a few hours he would set his foot on the soil of France…. With one sudden wrench, war had snatched him from an environment dominated by his mother—and set him down in France.
“I wonder if we’ll get ashore to-night,” said Miss Knox.
That question presently answered itself. After a short progress up the river, the vessel dropped her anchor, there to remain until morning…. That night Captain Ware sat late on deck with Maude Knox, watching the strange river thick with anchored craft which busied themselves by sending flashing signals to each other—mysterious signals that seemed to say: “You have arrived at the war. We are busy about the war….”
The Polish volunteers forward sang the weird songs of their land; the Americans aft manifested their relief at a safe arrival by wildly cheered boxing-bouts followed by enthusiastic, if somewhat ragged, singing of many popular songs…. There was a preference for that sentimental type of song which had to do with weeping sweethearts left standing on the pier, and with mothers dedicating their boys to death for the flag….
In the morning came the distress of customs examination and the woes of finding and identifying baggage. Ware assisted Miss Knox as other young officers were assisting their partners of the voyage…. The vessel tied up to the dock. Miss Knox shook hands and said good-by, marching down the steep incline of the gangplank with the members of her party.
“I wonder if I’ll ever see him again?” she thought.
As for Captain Ware, the girl passed completely from his mind. He had other things to think about and a great curiosity to satisfy…. So far as he was concerned, she had passed out of his life.
He stood at the rail, looking down upon the wharf. Below him an American soldier thrust his head out of a port-hole, looked about him sternly, and then demanded of a Frenchman below, “Say, mister, where’s all this trouble, anyhow?”
His attitude was typical of those boys. There was trouble some place and they wanted to get to it and settle it with promptness. It was the attitude of a policeman a little late at the scene of a fight….
Kendall Ware arrived in Paris early on the evening of May 19th and alighted from the crowded train in the Gare d’Orléans. He was excited. It was impossible that he should actually be in Paris, but he was unmistakably there. It rather astounded him and he wanted to rush out of the gray old station to see it at once…. To arrive in Paris was a fitting climax for such a day as he was completing, a day that had given him his first glimpses of beautiful France, glimpses from a rapidly moving train that had caused him to say to himself, “It’s no wonder the French will fight for such a country.” Already he was impressed by France; already admiration for it was beginning to grow within him…. That beautiful, smiling, rich, clean expanse of hills and fields and vineyards, punctuated by little red-tiled villages and by ancient sprawling stone farm buildings, had touched the sentimental in him. He thought he understood why Frenchmen love their land … but he had not scratched the outer husk of that reason yet. It would require weeks for him to discover that it was not the material, not land nor soil nor the structures reared by men, that caused the Frenchman’s passionate love; it was, he would discover, the imponderables, the immaterial—it was the soul that resided in the material….
He climbed the stairs from the train-shed into the station proper, and paused a moment to regard with boyish interest the crowd composed of women and soldiers, of poilus carrying full equipment—sturdy little men whose age seemed greater than it was by reason of four years given to such affairs as Verdun, the Marne, the battles in the Champagne. These men had been in it. They had heard cannon roar with deadly intent; they had taken part in charges and in retreats; the trench and the dugout were more their homes to-day, through years of custom, than their own farms or cottages…. They were soldiers, and they looked to be soldiers.
There were uniforms of other nationalities, too: of the British, the brown and tasseled caps of the Belgians, the gray and peaked caps of the Italians—and the khaki of Americans. There was a boy with an arm-band bearing the letters M P, with which he was to become very familiar—the everywhere present and remarkably efficient military police of the American Army….
Presently he was in the dark street. The darkness came as a surprise to him until he recalled that Paris nights slept under the constant threat of German Gothas. The street lights—casting a dim-blue glow—were shaded above so that no light might rise to tell hostile raiders that a great city lay here…. Strain his eyes as he would, he could not see Paris, only a vague hint of buildings that might be palaces or warehouses, for all that he could see…. He looked for a taxicab.
Then it occurred to him that when he found a conveyance he had scant language with which to direct the chauffeur. He was going to the University Union, once the Palais Royal Hôtel, now taken over by American universities and colleges as both club and hotel for American university men in the army…. A tiny taxicab rattled up to the curb—all Paris taxicabs rattle in this way—and he approached it with some embarrassment.
“University Union,” he said to the chauffeur.
“U-ni-versity Union,” said Kendall, speaking very slowly and distinctly.
“Comment?” repeated the chauffeur, waggling his head.
Out of the crowd stepped a Frenchman, smiling. “What is it monsieur desires? May I be of assistance to monsieur?”
“I want to go to the University Union, and I don’t know how to tell this man.”
“The University Union? I do not know it. Is it that it is an hotel, monsieur? Do you know its location?”
Kendall searched for a note-book and read the address. “Number eight rue Richelieu,” he said.
“Huit rue Richelieu,” the Frenchman said to the chauffeur.
“Thank you,” Kendall said, and took the hand which the Frenchman extended cordially.
“It makes nothing, monsieur. I am delighted to serve Monsieur l’Officier Américain…. Bon soir, monsieur! Bonne chance!”
Kendall’s heart was warmed by the little courtesy. It was a sort of welcome to him. It surprised him, rather, for in America one does not expect assistance to leap to one from a crowd of strangers. He was soon to learn that it was different in France; that all Paris seemed to be on the lookout to be of service to American soldiers, on the lookout almost to the point of embarrassment. He was to discover that the heart of France had a very special niche set aside for Americans. Even though it had already a saying, “Tous les Américaines sont fous,” it loved them for their very madness….
The little taxi rattled and strained at breath-taking speed around the corner, across the Pont Royale, under the arches which allow a street to pass through the Louvre (though he did not know it was the Louvre), past the Comédie Française, and finally brought up with a lurch before the building that had been the Palais Royal Hôtel before the coming of the Americans.
Here he registered, passed through a lobby filled with American officers and sergeants and corporals and privates—for in this one spot in all France military rank ceases to exist and men are not soldiers, but university men—and up-stairs to the Bureau of the University of Michigan…. In half an hour he was in a comfortable room with windows which opened upon a balcony facing toward the east…. He stepped out upon it and gazed into the darkness. Scarcely a hundred feet away, across a narrow street, was the dark bulk of a mammoth building, and the black silhouettes of a multitude of quaint chimney-pots…. It was the ancient Royal Palace. Kendall did not realize this, nor that his eyes were gazing at a spot rich in history, in intrigue, in romance—and not unbaptized with blood…. But one thing he knew—at last he was in the heart of Paris….
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