A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 13

13.1.

One beautiful afternoon toward the end of June 1914, I stopped at the gate of Jacques Blanche’s house at Auteuil. It was a perfect summer day; brightly dressed groups were gathered at tea-tables beneath the overhanging boughs, or walking up and down the flower-bordered turf. Broad bands of blue forget-me-nots edged the shrubberies, old-fashioned corbeilles of yellow and bronze wall-flowers dotted the lawn, the climbing roses were budding on the pillars of the porch. Outside in the quiet street stood a long line of motors, and on the lawn and about the tea-tables there was a happy stir of talk. An exceptionally gay season was drawing to its close, the air was full of new literary and artistic emotions, and that dust of ideas with which the atmosphere of Paris is always laden sparkled like motes in the sun.

I joined a party at one of the tables, and as we sat there a cloud-shadow swept over us, abruptly darkening bright flowers and bright dresses. “Haven’t you heard? The Archduke Ferdinand assassinated . . . at Serajevo . . . where IS Serajevo? His wife was with him. What was her name? Both shot dead.”

A momentary shiver ran through the company. But to most of use the Archduke Ferdinand was no more than a name; only one or two elderly diplomatists shook their heads and murmured of Austrian reprisals. What if Germany should seize the opportunity —? There would be more particulars in next morning’s papers. The talk wandered away to the interests of the hour . . . the last play, the newest exhibition, the Louvre’s most recent acquisitions . . .

I was leaving in a day for a quick dash to Barcelona and the Balearic islands, before going to England, where I had taken a house in the country, carrying out at last my life-long dream of a summer in England. All my old friends had promised to come and stay; we were to motor to Scotland, to Wales, to all the places I had longed to see for so many years. How happy and safe the future seemed!

After some radiant days among the Pyrenees we descended into the burning summer of Catalonia. Even the transparent Spanish air had never seemed so saturated with pure light. I remember a day when we picknicked in the scant shade of a group of cork-trees above a vineyard where an iridescent heat-shimmer hung visibly over the fiery red earth. But at Barcelona we had a disappointment. For three weeks ahead not a berth was to be had on the little boat crossing every night from there to Majorca. The Balearics had not yet been discovered by foreign trippers, but Spanish holiday-makers took possession of the islands in summer. It was too sultry to linger in Barcelona, and the few hotels then existing at Palma were sure to be crammed with excursionists; so we wandered about in the Spanish Pyrenees, and then made for the Atlantic coast at Bilbao. The days were long and shining, the new roads lured us on. We gave little thought to the poor murdered Archduke, and international politics seemed as remote as the moon. My servants had already closed my apartment in Paris, and gone to the house I had taken in England, and I was to follow early in August. Slowly we began to loiter northward.

During the last days in Spain we felt the chill of the same cold cloud which had darkened the Blanches’ garden-party. The belated French newspapers were beginning to be disquieting, and we decided to hasten our return. On July 30th we slept at Poitiers, and all night long I lay listening to the crowds singing the Marseillaise in the square in front of the hotel. “What nonsense! It can’t be war,” we said to each other the next morning; but we started early and rushed through to Paris, where the air was already thick with rumours. Everything seemed strange, ominous and unreal, like the yellow glare which precedes a storm. There were moments when I felt as if I had died, and waked up in an unknown world. And so I had. Two days later war was declared.

13.2.

When I am told — as I am not infrequently — by people who were in the nursery, or not born, in that fatal year, that the world went gaily to war, or when I have served up to me the more recent legend that France and England actually wanted war, and forced it on the peace-loving and reluctant Central Empires, I recall those first days of August 1914, and am dumb with indignation.

France was paralyzed with horror. France had never wanted war, had never believed that it would be forced upon her, had proved her good faith by the absurd but sublime act of ordering her covering troops ten miles back from the frontier as soon as she heard of Austria’s ultimatum to Servia! It may be useless to revive such controversies now; but not, I believe, to put the facts once more on record for a future generation who may study them with eyes cleared of prejudice. The criminal mistakes made by the Allies were made in 1919, not in 1914.

I have related, in a little book written during the first two years of the war, the impressions produced by those dark and bewildering days of August 1914, and I will not return to them here, except to describe my personal situation. This was rather absurdly conditioned by the fact that I had no money — a disability shared at the moment by many other foreigners in France. When I reached Paris I had about two hundred francs in my pocket, and was preparing to call at the bank for my usual remittance when I learned that the banks would make no payments. I borrowed a small sum from Walter Berry, who happened to have some cash in hand; but other penniless friends assailed him, and I could not ask for enough to send to my servants in England, who were expecting me to arrive with funds to pay the previous month’s expenses. My old friend Frederick Whitridge was staying at his house in Hertfordshire, close to the place I had hired, and I wired him to give my servants enough to go on with. He replied: “Very sorry. Have no money.” I cabled to my bank in New York to send me at least a small sum, and the bank cabled back: “Impossible.”

At last, after a long delay — I forget how many days it took — I managed to get five hundred dollars from New York, by paying another five hundred for the transmission! To re-transmit to England what remained would have been, if not impossible, at any rate so costly that little would have been left to settle my tradesmen’s bills. I had never had a house in England before, and accustomed to the suspiciousness of French tradespeople I was wondering how much longer my poor servants, who were totally unknown in the neighbourhood, would be able to obtain credit, and I realized that the only thing to do was to get to England myself as quickly as possible — not an easy undertaking either.

As I had no money to pay any more hotel bills I moved back to my shrouded quarters in the rue de Varenne, and camped there until I could get a permit to go to England. At that time it was believed in the highest quarters that the war would be fought out on Belgian soil, that it would last at the longest not more than six weeks, and that one decisive battle might probably end it sooner. My friends all advised me, if I could get to England, to stay there “till the war was over” — that is, presumably, till some time in October; and the first news of the battle of the Marne made it seem for two or three delirious days as though this prediction might come true.

While I was waiting to get to England I was asked by the Comtesse d’Haussonville, President of one of the branches of the French Red Cross (Secours aux Blesses Militaires) to organize a work-room for such work-women of my arrondissement as were not yet receiving government assistance. Almost all the hotels, restaurants, shops and work-rooms had closed with the drafting of the men for the army, and there remained a large number of women and children without means of livelihood, for whom immediate provision had to be made. I was totally inexperienced in every form of relief work, and not least in the management of anything like a work-room for seamstresses and lingeres; and I had no money to do it with! But by this time it was possible for those who had a deposit in a French bank (which at the moment I had not), to draw it out in small amounts, and I assailed all my American friends who were either living in Paris, or still stranded there. I collected about twelve thousand francs (the first of many raids on the pockets of my compatriots), some one lent use a big empty flat in the Faubourg Saint–Germain, and luckily I came across two clever sisters (nieces of Professor Landormy, the well-known musical critic), who gave the aid of their quick wits and youthful energy. All this did not teach me how to run a big work-room, where we soon had about ninety women; but there was an ardour in the air which made it seem easy to accomplish whatever one attempted. There were several skilled lingeres among our workers, and we decided to try for orders for fashionable lingerie, instead of competing with the other ouvroirs by making hospital supplies; and by dint of badgering my friends I extracted from them a rush of orders later supplemented by more from America. Our lingerie soon became well-known, and as I had told my assistants never on any account to refuse an order, whatever might be asked for, we were soon doing a thriving trade in unexpected lines, including men’s shirts (in the low-neck Byronic style) for young American artists from Montparnasse!

This work was barely started when I got my visa for England, and a permit from the French War Office to motor to Calais (trains being slow and uncertain). At Folkestone Henry James met me and took me back to Lamb House for the night; then I hurried on to Stocks, the place I had hired. It was a charming old house in beautiful gardens, belonging at that time to the Humphry Wards. I knew the place well, and had looked forward to seeing all my friends about me in those pleasant rooms. How little could I have imagined in what conditions I was to arrive there! The country was deserted, and I was alone in the big echoing rooms, looking out on gardens radiant with flowers which I had no heart to enjoy. To the honour of the British race let it be recorded that all through those agonizing days Mrs. Ward’s upper housemaid (whom I had taken on with the house) kept every room filled with bowls of flowers arranged with the most exquisite art; also that the local tradesmen had given my butler and cook unlimited credit, and would probably have gone on trusting them to the end of the summer. In what other country could such faith in an unknown customer have been found?

The loneliness of those days at Stocks was indescribable. The wireless was not yet, and for news we had to await the arrival of the London papers, which came late and irregularly. Every day I walked to the village post office to fetch the papers. The hours were endless — for the first time in my life I could not read, and sat unoccupied in Mrs. Ward’s pleasant library. Henry James came to stay for a day or two; so, I think, did Percy Lubbock and Gaillard Lapsley. But no one could bear to remain — it was too far from London and the news, and there was something oppressive, unnatural, in the serene loveliness of the old gardens, the cedars spreading wide branches over deserted lawns, the borders glowing with unheeded flowers. Besides, our separate lonelinesses seemed to merge in one great sense of solitude, of being cut off forever from the old untroubled world we had always known, so that my friends and I felt that our being together was really not much help to any of us.

I had never intended to follow the advice to stay in England “till the end of the war.” I meant to pay my bills, hand back Stocks to its owners, and return immediately to Paris, where I could be of use, and should have the blessed drug of hard work. But suddenly the way back was barred. I went up to London, I saw Mr. Page at our Embassy, and Monsieur Paul Cambon at his, and both could only bid me be patient. For the moment, they told me, even if I succeeded in crossing to Calais I should not be allowed to go a yard farther. There began to be rumours of a big battle — THE decisive battle — not far from Paris. As soon as that was over it might be possible to give me my permit.

My solitude at Stocks became more and more unbearable. Mrs. Ward, who was at her house in London, understood this, and as she, on the other hand, had assumed war duties in the country, she proposed that we should exchange houses, and I gratefully installed myself under her roof in Grosvenor Place. There at least I could see people who fancied themselves well-informed, could pick up scraps of news, and could importune my Embassy and Monsieur Cambon. So the days dragged on, lit up for a moment by the glorious news of the Marne, but darkened again — only too soon — by the indecisive results of an action which was at first believed to have been a final victory. I have but a blurred moment of those weeks of suspense, and recall distinctly only the last days of my stay in England. From the moment when I was summoned by Mr. Page, and told that my return to Paris was authorized, the rushing back and forth to the two Embassies kept me blissfully busy. Ours was crammed with travellers waiting for similar permissions, and it was hard to fix the attention of the over-worked officials. At last one of them told me that I must have myself photographed for my permit (I imagine there were no regular passports as yet). He hurriedly gave me the address of the photographer usually employed by the Embassy, who, he said, being used to the job, would deliver my photograph the same day.

I hastened to the address given — a vague street somewhere in Millbank. The houses were all exactly alike, but on the one bearing the number given me I read the sign “Photographer,” and confidently rang the bell. A small shy man with pale hair and eyes admitted me, and showed me into a parlour furnished with aspidistras and antimacassars. Thence, after a long delay, he summoned me with the request to follow him to the roof. I was slightly surprised, but in those days everything was unexpected, and I climbed obediently up a ladder to the top of an outbuilding behind the house. Here this strange photographer seated me on a kitchen chair, and ducking under his voluminous black draperies took aim. But apparently something did not work, and after repeated duckings, and rumpled reappearances, he said in a tone of apology: “I’m so sorry, madam; but the truth is, I’ve always specialized in photographing wild beasts, and this is the first time I’ve ever done a human being.”

I had evidently come to the wrong address; but there was nothing for it but to receive his excuses with a shout of laughter, and implore him to go on all the same. He did, and the portrait bore painful witness to the truth of his statement; but though it looked like a wild-cat robbed of her young it was sufficiently like to get me safely through to Paris.

13.3.

On leaving Paris I had entrusted all the money I had collected to a young lady recommended to me by the Red Cross for the post of treasurer. During the German advance before the Marne many people had followed the example of the government, and moved rapidly in the direction of Bordeaux. Our treasurer was among them — and in the haste of departure she carried off all our funds! Ready money being still difficult to obtain, or to transmit, long and complicated negotiations were necessary before the Red Cross could recover my capital; and thereafter I acted as my own treasurer. But meanwhile the German advance, which had sent so many rich residents out of Paris, had driven into it the lamentable horde of the Belgian and French refugees. The Red Cross was engrossed by its immense task in the field and in the military hospitals, the government relief services were disorganized and totally unprepared for the sudden influx of refugees, and immediate help had to be given. Charles Du Bos, with a group of French and Belgian friends, had improvised an emergency work called L’Acceuil Franco–Belge, which had already rendered great service, but risked being swamped by the increasing throng of applicants, and the lack of funds. I was asked to form an American committee, and to raise money; I did both, and speedily found myself, inexperienced as I was, unable to carry this new burden as well as my big ouvroir. But friends came to my aid, giving money and time, and before many months the relief work was on a sound basis, though none of us (luckily) foresaw the huge proportions it was to assume, and the repeated appeals for financial aid that our overworked committee would have to make.

It is unnecessary to chronicle our labours in detail. The Acceuil Franco–Belge (afterward the Acceuil Franco–Americain) was only one among many war-charities created to supplement the inadequate and over-tasked administrative effort; but a few points in its growth and organization are worth recording. When it became necessary to divide the work into separate departments — registration bureau, centre for distribution of clothing, medical dispensary, cheap restaurants, etc., — we installed our central bureau in the large and handsome business offices in the Champs–Elysees which were put at our disposal by the Comtesse de Behague. Here the refugees were registered, and given tickets for food, clothing and lodging; and among the hard-worked functionaries who performed this drudgery were not only Charles Du Bos himself, but Darius Milhaud, the well-known composer, Geoffrey Scott, Andre Gide and Percy Lubbock. These were among our punctual and faithful volunteers; but others — how many! — came and went, speedily overcome by the boredom of the task, or the inability to keep regular hours (and what hours! — our office was often open from 9 a.m. till after midnight).

My greatest difficulty was that of divining beforehand on which of our volunteers we should be able to count. Some would drift in vaguely, saying: “I’ll try for a few days — but don’t expect too much from me,” and would turn out to be the future corner-stones of the building. Others, lucid, precise and self-confident, would point out our deficiencies, offer to remedy them, and fade away after a week. I recall one rich compatriot, long established in Paris, who offered to take over the management of our chaotic clothes-distribution, where, as she pointed out, everything needed sorting, listing and superintending. I was enchanted! Here at last, I thought, is a practical intelligence, some one who knows instinctively all that I am vainly trying to learn. I drew a deep breath of relief, and made an appointment to meet her the next morning at the Vestiaire. She came for about a week, increased the confusion she had offered to dispel — and then disappeared.

Such experiences were discouraging, and I was beginning to fear that my lack of discernment in choosing my helpers, and my innate distaste for anything like “social service,” were a hopeless handicap to my usefulness. But by this time I was President of our committee, and the work had to be kept going.

One day Mrs. Royall Tyler came to see me. I had met her husband before the war at the house of my friend Raymond Koechlin, the distinguished archaeologist and collector, but my acquaintance with her was very slight. Royall Tyler, already an accomplished archivist, was at that time employed by the British Record Office in editing the State Papers bearing on the diplomatic relations between England and Spain in the sixteenth century. Soon after the outbreak of the war he and his wife came to Paris, and Mrs. Tyler called on me, and said simply: “My husband and I want to help you. How can you use us? “I was touched by the offer, but uncertain what to say. I knew them both too little to guess at their capacity, and above all at their staying powers. But I had begun to suspect that intelligence is a valuable asset even in assigning lodgings and food-tickets to refugees, and I liked the simple way in which the offer was made. I “took on” both husband and wife, and Royall Tyler rendered me immense help until our entry into the war enrolled him in the United States Intelligence service; while of his wife I can only say that she found the Acceuil a tottering house of cards, and turned it into solid bricks and mortar. Never once did she fail me for an hour, never did we disagree, never did her energy flag or her discernment and promptness of action grow less through those weary years. The real “Magic City” was that which her inexhaustible resourcefulness raised out of our humble beginnings, and it was thanks to her that each fresh emergency was met by new and far-seeing measures of relief, so that in 1918, when the war ended, we had, in addition to five thousand refugees permanently cared for in Paris, and four big colonies for old people and children, four large and well-staffed sanatoria for tuberculous women and children. The most important of these, La Tuyolle, was handed over in 1920 to the Department of the Seine and is still running under the staff originally selected and trained by Mrs. Tyler; and it still has the reputation of being one of the best sanatoria in France.

More and more funds had to be raised for our ever-growing work, and when the ardour of our supporters began to flag Mrs. Tyler offered to go to America and beg for more. Beg she did, valiantly and successfully, returning with spoils beyond my hopes, and the lasting good-will of the friends to whom I had commended her. Another effort was presently required, and this time it fell to my lot to put together “The Book of the Homeless,” a collection of original poems, articles and drawings, contributed by literary and artistic celebrities in Europe and America. I appealed right and left for contributions, and met with only one refusal — but I will not name the eminent and successful author who went by on the other side.

“The Book of the Homeless,” and the subsequent auction sale in New York of the original manuscripts and sketches, brought us in another large sum; but I ached with the labour of translating (in a few weeks’ time) all but one of the French and Italian contributions! I am at best a slow worker, and with all the other tasks I had shouldered I could have cried for weariness at the mere thought of taking up my pen; but the overwhelming needs of the hour doubled everyone’s strength, and the book was ready on time.

I cannot end this summary of our war-labours without speaking of the response from America which alone made it possible for me to go on with the work. From my cousin Lewis Ledyard and his friend Payne Whitney, whose generosity built for us the sanatorium of La Tuyolle, to the woman doctor who sold her tiny scrap of radium because she had no other means of helping, and the French and English servants in New York who again and again sent us their joint savings, we met on every side with inexhaustible encouragement and sympathy. “Edith Wharton” committees were formed in New York, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and Providence, and friends and strangers worked with me at a distance as untiringly as those who were close at hand. I should like to tell them all now that I have never forgotten what they did.

13.4.

A year or two ago my friend Madame Octave Homberg, President of the Mozart Society of Paris, brought out to dine with me one summer evening that most magical of flute-players, Rene Leroy, and Felix Raugel, the distinguished organizer and conductor of the Mozart Society’s concerts.

Rene Leroy I knew already; Raugel was a stranger, except by reputation, and when he entered the room I had no sense of ever having seen him before. But he came straight up to me with beaming smile and hands outstretched. “Madame! What an age since we last met! Do you remember? It was in August 1915, when you rode up a mountain in the Vosges, astride on an army mule, and suddenly appeared in the camp of the Blue Devils [Chasseurs Alpins] on top of the Col de la Chapelotte!”

I stared at him in wonder; and as he spoke the peaceful room vanished, and the twilight shadows of my suburban garden, and I saw myself, an eager grotesque figure, bestriding a mule in the long tight skirts of 1915, and suddenly appearing, a prosaic Walkyrie laden with cigarettes, in the heart of the mountain fastness held by the famous Chasseurs Alpins, already among the legendary troops of the French army. Seeing Felix Raugel again brought back to me with startling vividness the scenes of my repeated journeys to the front; the scarred torn land behind the trenches, the faces of the men who held it, the terrible and interminable epic of France’s long defence. I remembered the emotion of my arrival at the posts I was permitted to visit, the speechless astonishment of officers and men at the sight of a wandering woman, their friendly greetings, the questions, the laughter, the jolly picnic lunches around boards resting on trestles, the reluctant goodbyes, the burden of messages to wives and mothers with which I returned to the rear . . .

Early in 1915 the French Red Cross asked me to report on the needs of some military hospitals near the front. Common prudence should have made me refuse to beg for more money; but in those days it never occurred to any one to evade a request of that kind. Armed with the needful permits, and my car laden to the roof with bundles of hospital supplies, I set out in February 1915 to inspect the fever-hospital at Chalons-sur-Marne. What I saw there made me feel the urgency of telling my rich and generous compatriots something of the desperate needs of the hospitals in the war-zone, and I proposed to Monsieur Jules Cambon to make other trips to the front, and recount my experiences in a series of magazine articles.

Foreign correspondents were still rigorously excluded from the war-zone; but Monsieur Cambon, after talking the matter over with General Joffre’s chief-of-staff, General Pelle, succeeded in convincing him that, even if in my ignorance I should stumble on some important military secret, there would be little risk of its betrayal in articles which could not possibly be ready for publication until several months later; while the description of what I saw might bring home to American readers some of the dreadful realities of war. I was given leave to visit the rear of the whole fighting line, all the way from Dunkerque to Belfort, and did so in the course of six expeditions, some of which actually took me into the front-line trenches; and, wishing to lose no time in publishing my impressions, I managed to scribble the articles between my other tasks, and they appeared in “Scribner’s Magazine” in 1915, and immediately afterwards in a volume called “Fighting France.”

When the book was published it was not permissible to give too precise details about places or people, and I have sometimes thought of bringing out a new edition in which the gaps should be filled in with more personal touches: such as the moment when I was received at La Panne, in a little wind-rocked sand-girt villa, by the Queen of the Belgians, who had summoned me to talk of the Belgian child-refugees committed to our care; or the day when Monsieur Paul Boncour (afterward French Minister of Foreign Affairs), in a particularly impeccable uniform, escorted me to the first-line trenches in Alsace; or the other when Monsieur Henry de Jouvenel (lately French Ambassador to Italy), receiving at Sainte Menehoulde my request to go on to Verdun, at first positively refused, and then, returning from a consultation with the General of the division, said with a smile: “Are you the author of ‘The House of Mirth’? If you are, the General says you shall have a pass: but for heaven’s sake drive as fast as you can, for we don’t want any civilians on the road today.” (It was on February 28, 1915, the day the French re-took the heights of Vauquois, on the road to Verdun; and, as I have related in my book, we actually witnessed the victorious assault from a cottage garden at Clermont-en-Argonne.)

In Lorraine I was guided by an old friend, Raymond Recouly, then on the staff of General Humbert, one of the heroes of the Marne; and it was thanks to Recouly’s disobedience of his chief’s orders that we had a risky and exciting hour at Pont-a-Mousson, then close under the German guns, and rigorously closed to civilians. Nor, if I am giving thanks, must I omit to record my gratitude to another friend, Jean–Louis Vaudoyer, the well-known poet and novelist, whom I had already visited somewhere in a shelter at the rear of the front lines, I think in Alsace. On our return to Chalons-sur-Marne, after a second trip to Verdun, it chanced that we found Vaudoyer on the staff of the General in command in that region. It was a bitter winter evening when we arrived at Chalons, where we were to spend the night before returning to Paris. To our dismay we found the place thronged with troops, and were not surprised to hear, on applying at the hotel of the Haute Mere Dieu, the only one open, that there was not a single room free. We insisted, and the landlady at last replied: “We are under military orders always to keep two rooms at the disposal of staff-officers. If they are not required tonight you may induce the General in command to let you have them.”

At Headquarters, in the stately Prefecture of Chalons, we found the great hall and monumental staircase swarming with officers, messengers and orderlies, and in spite of our high recommendations we were told that the rooms were not available, and that probably we should not find one in all Chalons. The only alternative was to sleep in the motor on a night of bitter frost (as my good chauffeur eventually did), for no civilian car was allowed on the roads after dark, and we were prisoners till the next day. Never shall I forget the relief of running across Jean–Louis Vaudoyer at the very moment when we were disconsolately leaving the Prefecture, and hearing him hurriedly whisper: “I know what has happened, and I can lend you my little lodging for the night, for I’m on duty here at Headquarters. You ought not to be in the streets at this hour, but I’ll give you the password. If you can manage to wake up the landlady she’ll let you in; if you can’t — well,” his shrug seemed to say, “there is really nothing else that I can do for you.”

We did get to the door of his lodgings unchallenged, we did rouse the landlady without making too much noise; and oh, the sight of those peaceful rooms, the clean sheets, the warm stove! I don’t think I ever slept as deeply and completely as that night in Vaudoyer’s blessed bed.

The noting of my impressions at the front had the effect of rousing in me an intense longing to write, at a moment when my mind was burdened with practical responsibilities, and my soul wrung with the anguish of the war. Even had I had the leisure to take up my story-telling I should have had no heart for it; yet I was tormented with a fever of creation.

After two years of war we all became strangely inured to a state which at first made intellectual detachment impossible. It would be inexact to say that the sufferings and the suspense were less acutely felt; but the mysterious adaptability of the human animal gradually made it possible for war-workers at the rear, while they went on slaving at their job with redoubled energy, to create within themselves an escape from the surrounding horror. This was possible only to real workers, as it is possible for a nurse on a hard case to bear the sight of the patient’s sufferings because she is doing all she can to relieve them. All the pessimism and the lamentations came from the idlers, while those who were labouring to the limit possessed their souls, and faced the future with confidence.

Gradually my intellectual unrest sobered down into activity. I began to write a short novel, “Summer,” as remote as possible in setting and subject from the scenes about me; and the work made my other tasks seem lighter. The tale was written at a high pitch of creative joy, but amid a thousand interruptions, and while the rest of my being was steeped in the tragic realities of the war; yet I do not remember ever visualizing with more intensity the inner scene, or the creatures peopling it.

Many women with whom I was in contact during the war had obviously found their vocation in nursing the wounded, or in other philanthropic activities. The call on their co-operation had developed unexpected aptitudes which, in some cases, turned them forever from a life of discontented idling, and made them into happy people. Some developed a real genius for organization, and a passion for self-sacrifice that made all selfish pleasures appear insipid. I cannot honestly say that I was of the number. I was already in the clutches of an inexorable calling, and though individual cases of distress appeal to me strongly I am conscious of lukewarmness in regard to organized beneficence. Everything I did during the war in the way of charitable work was forced on me by the necessities of the hour, but always with the sense that others would have done it far better; and my first respite came when I felt free to return to my own work.

Such freedom was seldom to be achieved during those terrible years, and between 1914 and 1918 I had time only for “Fighting France,” “Summer,” a short tale called “The Marne,” and a series of articles, “French Ways and Their Meaning,” which I was asked to write after our entry into the war, with the idea of making France and things French more intelligible to the American soldier. These articles appeared in a volume in 1919.

In 1917 I had my only real holiday. General Lyautey, then Resident General in Morocco, had held since 1914, in one or another of the Moroccan cities, an annual industrial exhibition, destined to impress upon France’s North African subjects the fact that the war she was carrying on in no way affected her normal activities. The idea was admirable, the result wholly successful. To these exhibitions, which were carried out with the greatest taste and intelligence, the Resident annually invited a certain number of guests from allied and neutral countries. I was among those who were asked to visit the exhibition at Rabat; and General Lyautey carried his kindness to the extent of sending me on a three weeks’ motor tour of the colony. The brief enchantment of this journey through a country still completely untouched by foreign travel, and almost destitute of roads and hotels, was like a burst of sunlight between storm-clouds. I returned from it to the crushing gloom of the last dark winter, to the night which was not to lift again until the following September, and I had no time to set down the story of my wonderful journey until 1920, when it appeared in a volume called “In Morocco.”

13.5.

One evening at the end of July 1918 Royall Tyler and I were sitting in my drawing-room in the rue de Varenne. He had been staying with me for a few days; and I suppose that as usual we were talking of the war, though his responsible position in our Paris Intelligence Bureau made confidential communications impossible. At any rate, as we sat there our talk was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a distant cannonade. We broke off and stared at each other.

Four years of war had inured Parisians to every kind of noise connected with air-raids, from the boom of warning maroons to the smashing roar of the bombs. The rue de Varenne was close to the Chamber of Deputies, to the Ministries of War and of the Interior, and to other important government offices, and bombs had rained about us and upon us since 1914; and as we were on Big Bertha’s deathly trajectory her evil roar was also a well-known sound.

But this new noise came neither from maroon, from aeroplane nor from the throat of the dark Walkyrie; it was the level throb of distant artillery, a sound with which my expeditions to the front had made me painfully familiar. And this was the first time I had heard it in Paris! The firing along the front was often distinctly audible on the south coast of England, and sometimes, I believe, at certain points in Surrey; but though familiar to dwellers in the south-western suburbs of Paris, it had never before, to my knowledge, reached the city itself. My guest and I sprang up and rushed to a long window opening on a balcony. There we stood and listened to that far off rumour, relentless, unbroken, portentous; and suddenly Tyler turned to me with an illuminated face. “It’s the opening of Foch’s big offensive!”

Some three months later, on a hushed November day, another unwonted sound called me to the same balcony. The quarter I lived in was so quiet in those days that, except for the crash of aerial battles, few sounds disturbed it; but now I was startled to hear, at an unusual hour, the familiar bell of our nearest church, Sainte Clotilde. I went to the balcony, and all the household followed me. Through the deep expectant hush we heard, one after another, the bells of Paris calling to each other; first those of our own quarter, Saint Thomas d’Aquin, Saint Louis des Invalides, Saint Francois Xavier, Saint Sulpice, Saint Etienne du Mont, Saint Severin; then others, more distant, joining in from all around the city’s great periphery, from Notre Dame to the Sacre Coeur, from the Madeleine to Saint Augustin, from Saint Louis-en-l’Ile to Notre–Dame de Passy; at first, as it seemed, softly, questioningly, almost incredulously; then with a gathering rush of sound and speed, precipitately, exultantly, till all their voices met and mingled in a crash of triumph.

We had fared so long on the thin diet of hope deferred that for a moment or two our hearts wavered and doubted. Then, like the bells, they swelled to bursting, and we knew the war was over.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/backward_glance/chapter13.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30