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My Home In The Field of Honor by Frances Wilson Huard

Part 4 out of 4

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Our spirits sank. Yvonne began to moan with agony, her sciatica had
returned with the dampness, and Nini for some unknown reason, began
sobbing as though her heart would break. I could see the moment not far
distant when our whole party, seized with fear, would become
panic-stricken, and that idea, together with the one of camping in the
sodden fields surrounded by grim death, was anything but reassuring.

"Come on," I urged. "Surely Barcy is not entirely deserted."

What mud! What a road--sometimes entirely gutted, sometimes so
obstructed with gasoline cans, hubs of wheels and scraps of iron, that I
was obliged to lead Cesar by the bridle, while the others would walk
ahead and clear a passage. Their progress was snail-like, for there was
little oil left in our lantern and they hesitated before casting the
refuse into the ditch for fear of profaning some unknown hero's grave.

And so, stumbling and halting, we came into Barcy. As we passed in
front of the battered church we could see the huge bronze bell lying
amid a pile of beams, at the foot of the belfry. The _cadran_ of the
clock tower was midway between the ruins of the edifice itself and those
of what had once been the town hall. Not a living soul was to be seen
anywhere. Stay--yes--there in front of us was a masculine figure.

I called "Monsieur!"

He halted an instant. Then shook his head and skulked away.

Through an oiled paper that had replaced the panes of a shattered window
in a house which no longer had a second story I caught sight of a
flickering light. I boldly knocked on the door.

"_Qui est la?_--" asked a high-pitched, trembling female voice.

"I, Madame H. of Villiers."

"I don't know you--go your way."

"But we are refugees."

"I have nothing left. _Allez-vous-en!_"

That was categorical, to say the least. So on we went, past the charred
ruins of one-time happy homes.

As we rounded a corner our lantern cast a dim glow on to the drawn
shutters of a half-collapsed structure.

"Stop a moment," said Julie; "there's something written on those
blinds."

I approached, and holding the light as close as possible I read the
following sign, chalked in huge white letters:

"Attention. No Loitering. Looters will be shot on the spot!"

That was the last straw, and though it was obvious that the warning was
intended for the troops now miles away, it sent us ahead with uncanny
celerity.

Our advance was short-lived, however, for it soon became evident that
our horses were fagged out. Yet where to go became an agonizing
question, for though we were still within the limits of the village, not
a roof was to be seen. There seemed to be but one thing to do, and so,
halting, I fumbled in the bottom of the cart and brought forth a handful
of dry straw, and my precious bottle of brandy. Thanks to these, a match
and a sheltering wall, a flame managed to blaze up, and from somewhere
in the vicinity Julie procured a bundle of brush and an old broom.

With the heat our spirits rose. The girls dried themselves as best they
could before the welcome fire, and though still awed by our
surroundings, we nibbled a crust of dry bread and some stale cheese.

Then silently Nini and Yvonne crept back into the cart, covered
themselves with hay and a blanket, opened an umbrella above their beads,
and soon were fast asleep. The others begged me to share their bed
beneath the cart, but tormented by the thought of what had become of H.,
racked by the anxiety of what the future held in store, I could not
resign myself to rest, and the first gray streaks of that cool September
dawn found me seated on a stone, staring at the glowing embers of our
watch-fire.

Again the wind shifted in our direction, bringing with it that same
loathsome smell. I shivered and pulled myself together, and after
carefully scrutinizing my road-map, decided that there was just a chance
of reaching Villiers before night, but only if we started at once. This
living in suspense was beginning to tell on my nerves and anything, even
the assurance of dreaded misfortune, would have seemed a relief. After
the state in which we had found Barcy there was little doubt that our
part of the country had been treated the same way. Perhaps it was still
in the Germans' hands; we had no way of knowing to the contrary.

I roused the servants and told them of my intention, and in a few
moments a pot of coffee was boiling on the tripod. In spite of the
early hour I did not hesitate to add a little brandy in each cup, for
after twenty-four hours of continual rain a stimulant was not only
necessary but welcome. I tried to coax the dogs to take some, they
seemed so wet and miserable, but they spurned my offer, and stood
looking at me with most pitiful and mournful eyes.

Presently Tiger disappeared behind the wall, and a second later we heard
a low growl. With childlike temerity Nini jumped up to see what was the
cause of his alarm, and then almost instantly I heard her gasp, "_Un
mort!_"

That brought us to our feet and in a bound I was on the spot just in
time to see her fearlessly approaching the prostrate form of a German
soldier, the upper extremity of whose body was hidden beneath the top of
a tin wash boiler. The child raised the lid, beheld, as we did, a
headless human trunk, and fell into a swoon.

We were well on our road before she came to her senses, and there were
moments when I almost wished she might remain dormant until we had
passed beyond the gruesome plain that stretches between Barcy and
Vareddes--now a historic battlefield.

What a weird and wonderful sight it presented that gloomy September
morning. Behind us Barcy, whose every edifice was decapitated or so
degraded as to look like a gigantic sieve. Around us and on all sides
fields fairly ploughed up by shot and shell, and every fifty yards it
seemed to me rose a freshly covered mound, extending as far as eye could
see. On these new-made graves were piled hundreds of red soldier caps,
and here and there a hastily hewn wooden cross bearing such inscriptions
as these, scrawled in lead pencil on a smooth space whittled by a jack
knife:

_Aux Braves du 248_

When an officer was found and identified, he was buried alone and his
name was carefully written on the cross, but more often we saw graves
marked thus:

-Ici reposent deux offlciers et quarante hommes du 28 ... ieme._

Sometimes the tomb was in the ditch (to save digging) and once we saw
the Parisian _pompiers_ burying some German corpses in the very trench
they had dug and died in.

Overhead tangled electric wires swung dangerously near the road, the
poles shattered or knocked agog, while in the distance the stumps of a
once-majestic row of poplars made the horizon look like a grinning
toothless face.

Time and again we were obliged to leave the road to avoid accident by
passing over unexploded shells, and I shall always recall a gigantic oak
tree which though still standing was cleft in twain by a 77-shell
embedded intact in the yawning trunk; the impact, not the explosion, had
caused the rift.

The farther we advanced the more evident became the signs of recent
conflict. Hay stacks seemed to have been a favorite target as well as
refuge. One we saw was almost completely tunneled through, and the
blood bespattered sides of the opening told that the occupant had been
caught as in a trap. Around these stacks were scattered the remains of
old boots and shoes, scarlet blood-soaked rags, dry beans, bits of soap,
playing cards and songs. Oh, lighthearted sons of France, it can be
truly said that death held no terrors for you, since from Barcy to
Soissons the ground you loved and so valiantly defended was strewn white
with hundreds of thousands of tender ditties and _chansons de route_.

From Vareddes we passed on to Congis, the only living soul we met being
a little old white-haired parish priest, who had set himself the task of
blessing each new-made grave.

"If this rain continues some of them will be so effaced in a fortnight
that we shall never find them. See--this cross is but two bits of
straw, bound together by a shoe string!"

And he held up the fragile ornament for my inspection.

"These are more durable," and he showed another relic made of a bayonet
sheath, crossed on the blade itself!

"And you--Monsieur le Cure--bow is it you are here?"

"Alas--would to God they had taken me in the place of our boys! Seven
of them, Madame, carried off as hostages. I was too old to be of use!"

"And the women?"

The poor little man hung his bead.

"Twere better they had died!"

I understood and shuddered.

"God speed you, my daughter, and never cease to thank Him for preserving
you!"

Again we went our way.

Lizy-sur-Ourq, which we reached in the late forenoon, presented a more
animated, though hardly more pleasing spectacle. On the tracks in front
of the station dozens of flat cars and freight trains had been purposely
run together. Some had telescoped, others mounted high in piles, one
upon the other, their locomotives as well as their contents being
smashed and damaged--the whole scene presenting the aspect of a gigantic
railway wreck.

On the steps of the station, seated gun in hand, three soldiers sat
playing a game of cards. Across the street a sentry mounted guard in
front of a large door over which floated a Red Cross flag.

"What's in there?" I asked.

"Prisoners and wounded."

"Can I be of any assistance?"

"Hardly--only flesh wounds."

I peeked into the courtyard.

In one corner lounging upon the ground were a dozen untidy, unshaven
men, whom I recognized by their uniforms to be Germans. One man cast an
insolent glance toward me and turned his back. Two others smiled and
pointed toward the bread they held in their hands. On some straw in a
couple of drays lay five or six individuals, their arms in slings, their
heads bandaged.

"Nothing serious," explained a sergeant. "We're waiting for our men to
clear up the tracks and the _genie_ to throw a bridge across the canal.
Then we'll evacuate them."

He was neither sad nor triumphant.

"Were you in the battle?"

"Rather!"

"How did your regiment come off?"

"We're all that are left--forty-four of us," and he pointed toward the
station where work was rapidly progressing.

From them I procured some _singe_ or army beef, and we halted an hour to
rest the horses and eat our luncheon. We were beginning to reach
familiar territory and the idea of getting home put new life into our
tired limbs, and made each moment of delay seem uselessly long.

From Lizy ours was a straight road and we made rapid progress. The
depressing signs of battle became fewer and fewer. It was evident that
the rush had been northwest, for while we encountered numerous proofs of
the armies' passage, graves and shells, trenches and corpses gradually
began to disappear. At Cocherel, however, the enemy had burned a
grocery shop when they had failed to find what they wanted. The few men
who remained had suffered much from ill treatment and passing by the
open gate of a splendid estate I cast a glance up the long avenue and
saw a sight which gave me a pang at the heart. On the green in front of
the chateau lay a battered billiard table and a grand piano, both turned
on end, and much the worse for having served as a defense against a rain
of shot. Around them were strewn broken furniture, pictures, linen and
bottles in such a sorry mess that I dared not even think what Villiers
might now look like.

Curiosity was quenched. We cast a second glance, and turned our faces
eastward.

The afternoon was well advanced when we reached Montreuil-aux-Lions, our
home country. We found that here less damage had been done from heavy
artillery, but all the edifices had suffered from close-range rifle
fire. An English sentry was pacing up and down in front of the town
hall. Over the entrance was nailed a Turkish towel on which a Red Cross
was stained with human blood!

"Prisoners?" I asked.

"All wounded, thank you," was the courteous reply.

I sought out my friend the inn-keeper who held up his hands in
astonishment, bade us enter and made us partake of a warm meal. The
first we had had since we left home!

"But how did you come to be spared?" I queried.

"Because I was good to them."

"Bah! How could you?"

"I didn't intend to, but, you see, they tricked me. It was early
morning when half a dozen officers on horseback rode up to the door.
'Where are our Allies?' they asked.

"I thought of course they were Englishmen. The uniform was unfamiliar
to me, but they all spoke perfect French. Unwittingly I gave them the
requested information, and they asked me to bring up some good wine.
Then they threw a gold piece on to the table, and when I had poured out
my Burgundy, they begged me to touch glasses with them.

"'Ah, gentlemen, it is a pleasure to offer you the best I have. Thank
God, it is not for German stomachs!'

"To my surprise, an uproarious laugh greeted my statement and brought my
glass down with a shock.

"'Poor fellow!' they tittered. 'Come, drink to our success and the
Kaiser's health!'

"I think they realized my fright and agony. They did not force me--but
laughed anew, drank and were gone."

"What regiments drove them out?"

"The English. _Quels gaillards!_ And clean! Well!"

"What do you mean?"

"Yes, they nearly used up all the water in Montreuil washing!"

"Do you know anything of Villiers?"

"No. I spent most of my time in the cellar during the fight, and since
they've been gone I'm living in terror lest they return."

"Have you seen no one from down there?"

"No, not a soul."

"Do you think Villiers was bombarded?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "I know the English troops that were here
headed in that direction."

This suspense was too agonizing! I fear I so abbreviated my stay at
Montreuil that the good inn-keeper was offended. I jumped on to my
bicycle and knowing that the roads were now familiar to all, abandoned
my little party, bidding them hurry to join me at home.

On, on I sped, through the slippery mud, looking neither right nor left,
but straight ahead in the hope of recognizing a familiar face or form.

Twilight was deepening when I entered Bezu-le-Gury (our nearest home
town), which seemed to show apparently but few signs of pillaging. I
did not even dismount to make inquiries, but pedaled on till I reached
the summit of that long, long hill that leads straight down to my home.
Excitement lent a new impulse to my energy, and my heart thumped hard as
I recognized familiar cottages still standing. This raised my hopes and
sent me rocket-like down that steep incline.

Still not a soul in sight--no noise save that of the guns roaring in the
distance.

But what was that in the semi-darkness ahead of me? A dog? Could it be
true? I back-pedaled and whistled--a long, low, familiar howl greeted my
ears and brought the tears to my eyes.

And then my poor old beagle hound came trotting up the road to welcome
me--his tail wagging joyously and a long frayed cord dangling from his
collar.

This was a relief and somewhat steadied and prepared me for what was to
come. Through a gap in the trees I caught a glimpse of the roofs below.
And so I rounded the corner and started on my last hundred yards.

The broken and tangled grill of our stately gateway told of the
invaders' visit. A few paces further and the chateau come into full
view.

Yes, it was standing, but only the shell of that lovely home I had fled
from but fourteen days before.

Dropping my machine I rushed towards the entrance hall, cast one glance
through the broken panes into the vestibule, and turned away in despair.

All the willful damage that human beings could do had been wrought on
the contents of my home.

The spell was broken. My nerves relaxed and heedless of the filth I
dropped on to the steps and wept.

IX

I think it was the stench from within that first roused me from my grief
and made me realize that this was war and no time for tears. I tried to
comfort myself with the thought that at least I had a roof to cover me,
but this was poor consolation.

Pulling myself together, I started across the lawn towards the village
in search of aid, for a second glance told me that it was useless even
to think of entering the house, so great was the filth and disorder.

Slowly I pushed onward, my head bent, my heart heavy with sorrow and
worry. Twenty paces in front of me I discerned a low mound and then,
horror of horrors, a huge black cross stood forth in the semi-darkness.
A grave--a German grave. Some poor souls interred on my greensward; but
why, since our little cemetery is but a couple of hundred yards up the
road?

Villiers is not a cheerful village even in time of peace, but on this
particular evening (September 14, 1914) it was even darker than ever. My
eyes growing accustomed to the obscurity could see that most of the
houses, though damaged from the battle, were still standing and in one
or two windows the glow of a light gladdened my gaze.

I went straight to the town hall where I pounded on the door and called
my name. A familiar shuffling of feet told me that Monsieur Duguey had
remained faithful to his post as town clerk (the only acting official
since the army was mobilized) and when he opened the door and saw me,
his eyes lit up with joy. Holding a candle high over his head, he smiled
and then his face fell.

"_Pauvre Madame,_" he said. "Have you seen the chateau?"

I nodded.

"Ah, the vandals! Not war, but highway robbery, I call it. We poor
peasants had little to lose, but with you, Madame, it is different."

And then he told me how but a few hours after I had left the Germans
took possession of the chateau and how for five nights and days in a
ceaseless stream the flower of the Prussian army had poured down the
road towards the coveted capital.

At dawn on that eventful September morning an officer had ridden up to
the town hall, called for the mayor or his representative, and on
Monsieur Duguey's appearance, had demanded so much fodder for the
horses, so much champagne for the officers, and Charles Huard!

M. Duguey was taken hostage to respond to the first two demands and on
having sworn on the cross that both my husband and I were absent, he was
ordered to lead the way to our home, where for forty-eight hours he was
detained as prisoner in the kitchen, while a staff of German noblemen
raised riot in our home.

Taunted and insulted by the soldiers who mounted guard in the kitchen
where a chef prepared the general's food, he was bid hold his tongue and
his temper by this same chef, who, for eleven years, had cooked at a
well known hotel on the rue de Rivoli! No wonder he spoke good French.

"_Pauvre Madame!_ Perhaps you've come back too soon! If we only knew
they would not return!"

The cannon in the distance shook the house as though to corroborate his
statement.

"Is there anyone left to help me clean place to sleep in?"

"I'll go. There are only one or two women who remained behind, but I
presume sorry they did! What a God-send you got away!"

I understood and was thankful.

Monsieur Duguey put his candle into lantern, shouldered a broom, and
taking blanket, led the way towards the chateau.

Want of words to express our fears and distress sealed our lips as we
picked our way into a filthy, can-strewn, bottle-littered courtyard,
towards a wing of the chateau where I had chosen to sleep.

I hardly know what we plodded through the corridor. My companion pushed
things, into heaps in one corner of the room, and when I saw him sweep
off a mattress and throw his blanket upon it, I realized that my bed was
made.

"You are not afraid, Madame?"

"No."

"Then _a demain_. I will come and help you. I fear, however, that I
must leave you in darkness, for there are no matches in the village. We
have to borrow light for our fires, and our stock of candles is nearly
gone. They are only the butts the Germans left behind!"

Exhausted I fell asleep, to be awakened with a start towards dawn by the
clatter of horses' feet on the paved court beneath my window.

Cavalry?

I listened.

Yes, surely. But what cavalry? Ours?

Curiosity got the better of me, and I put my head out of the empty sash
to behold a most pathetic sight. There in the pouring rain stood some
twenty shivering horses, once fine animals' but now wounded and broken.
The lamentable little group, left-behinds of the invaders, was headed by
my old gray donkey, who had gathered them together and was now leading
them towards warmth and shelter. This sympathy among animals moved me
deeply, and I started down to see what I could do to alleviate their
suffering.

I am ashamed to say, however, that I never reached the stable, for the
sights of filth and horror that I met on the way so distracted me that I
pushed on through the whole house, anxious to see really how much damage
had been done.

I was still making my disheartening rounds when the others drove into
the yard, and the wails of lamentation rose long and loud from their
lips.

How can one describe it? It seems almost impossible. Too much has
already been said, too little is really known, so I shall content myself
with a few brief statements.

Above all I would have it understood that the chateau was first occupied
by General von Muck and his staff. The names crayoned on the doors of
my bedrooms in big red letters bear testimony--as well as some soiled
under-linen and a _glassentuch_ marked v. K.--and numerous papers
stamped with the Imperial seal. These latter are all orders or reports
belonging to the third army corps, and were left behind in the
precipitation of the flight!

As I now am able to see the matter in a cooler frame of mind, I realize
that not only was efficiency carried out in warfare but in looting--for
it seems that everything we possessed was systematically classified as
good, bad or indifferent--the former and the latter being carefully
packed into huge army supply carts, which for five long days stood
backed up against our doorstep, leaving only when completely laden with
spoils.

Then what remained was thrown into corners and willfully soiled and
smeared in the most disgusting and nauseating manner.

A proof of the above-mentioned efficiency can be given in a description
of my husband's studio, where I found all the frames standing empty--the
canvases having been carefully cut from them with a razor, and rolled
for convenience' sake.

Useless to mention that tapestries, silver, jewels, blankets and
household, as well as personal linen, were considered trophies of war.
That to me is far more comprehensible than the fact that our chateau
being installed with all modern sanitary conveniences, these were
purposely ignored, and corridors and comers, satin window curtains and
even beds, were used for the most ignoble purposes.

Everywhere were sickening traces of sodden drunkenness. On the table
beside each bed (most of them now bereft of their mattresses) stood
champagne bottles, and half emptied glasses. The straw-strewn
drawing-room much resembled a cheap beer garden after a Saturday night's
riot, and the unfortunate upright piano was not only decked with empty
champagne bottles but also contained some two to three hundred pots of
jam poured down inside--glass and all, probably just for a joke. Oh,
_Kultur!_

I think that and the fact that most of my ducks and small animals had
been killed and left to lie and rot, were the things that most angered
me, and every time the guns boomed I prayed ardently for revenge!

And 'twas I, who believing in Teuton chivalry, had imagined my
love-letters, protected by my country's emblem, would be respected! My
poor little rosewood desk had been mercilessly jabbed with bayonets, and
its contents strewn from one end of the village to the other. As to the
Stars and Stripes, when we finally disgorged the pipes of certain
sanitary apparatus that one does not usually mention in polite society,
they were found there in a lamentable condition and carried to the
wash-house with a tongs.

What a destitute little village we were. Mine was but the common lot,
for each one had lost in proportion to his fortune. Yet there was no
lamenting. There was work to be done, for the vintage season was coming
on and the vines in most places had been respected. The German officers
had even announced the fact that our country was already annexed, and
that this was to be the champagne to commemorate the triumph of the
Fatherland!

My little servants took hold of their filthy job and worked unceasingly
though it was a thankless task--for soap and soda did not exist, and
food, save the vegetables and a little pork, was hard to get.

A week sped by, and then one afternoon a military auto drove up to the
door. As I saw it enter the yard, I trembled lest it bring bad tidings
of H., but a kindly officer reassured me, by stating that though he
brought only word of mouth, my husband was still in the land of the
living. He also announced that it was his duty to requisition my
property as a French emergency hospital and that he would be obliged if
I would put all the beds I owned at his disposal. A doctor and some
_infirmiers_ would be sent immediately to put the place in working
order. Would I help? And did I know of anyone I would care to have
with me?

"You will be voluntary prisoners, you know, for this is the _zone de
operations_, and you will not be allowed to leave."

I bethought me of Madame Guix. Was she still alive?

My friend said he would be glad to accompany me to Rebais, as that was
as near as any place for recruiting a nurse.

And so again I whisked across the Marne. This time _en grande vitesse_,
and in little over an hour was greeted by the gentle superior who 'mid
the ruins of all the neighboring houses was quietly continuing her work
in the convent.

Yes. Madame Guix was there--a heroine, so I learned, loved and respected
by every soul who had been obliged to remain in that unfortunate town. I
found her ministering to twenty-six severely wounded men--French,
English and Germans--quite alone to do all the work, an eighty-year-old
doctor coming in but once every two days.

"I cannot leave them," said she, pointing to the soldiers, when I asked
her to ally forces in the reconstitution of my hospital. "But just as
soon as they are able to be removed, I will come, I promise."

In the parlour below, the Sister Superior told me of the invasion, while
I waited the return of the military motor which was to bear me home.

"She is wonderful," said Soeur Laurent, referring to Madame Guix.
"Wonderful--afraid of nothing. Once at the beginning of the invasion
she was put against the wall and a brute of a German aimed and pulled
the trigger of a gun he had found in a corner. She had accidentally
covered it with a wounded man's great coat! He accused her of hiding
arms! Then in the thick of the battle, she went out into the German
lines and sought a doctor for our men--feeling herself incompetent. The
whole German medical staff came in and felicitated her on her courage
and devotion, before they left. I tell you all this because she never
will!"

A couple of days later a doctor and the _infirmiers_ arrived, the latter
not picked men, since in ordinary life they are a tax collector, a super
at the Theatre de Belleville, an omnibus painter, a notary's clerk and a
barber! But they are all "good fellows," ready to work with no choice
as to the "job."

Madame Guix duly made her appearance, and our hospital was declared
open.

From loans and requisitions we accumulated a hundred beds, and for
fifteen months now, by begging and strictest economy, we have managed to
keep alive and to care, as best we can and in our primitive way, for all
those of France's brave sons who come to us, sick or wounded. With
God's help, we shall go on doing so until the day of our complete
victory.

The End

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