from the book 'the Peak of the Load'
'a Visit to Paris'
by Mildred Aldrich, 1918

A Short Impression in Time of War

reading victory communiqués on the streets of Paris


On St. Valentine's Day (1918) I went up to Paris - just to change my ideas. I had not been up since that terribly cold spell which ended early in January. So I had not seen the city since the big air raid. Every one had written me details about the changed appearance of the city - details as often comic as otherwise. I was curious to see for myself. Curiosity killed a cat, you know.

Well, there are changes, of course, but one has rather to hunt for them. Everywhere - if one looks for them - large white cards are hung on doorways. On them are printed in large black letters the words "ABRIS - 60 personnes," or whatever number the cellars will accommodate, and several of the underground stations bear the same sort of sign. These are refuges designated by the police, into which the people near them are expected to descend at the first sound of the sirenes announcing the approach of the enemy's air fleet.

More striking than these signs are the rapid efforts being made to protect some of the more important of the city's monuments. They are being boarded in, and concealed behind bags of sand. You 'd love to see it. Perhaps you have, already, for I am sure that some enterprising photographer is busy preserving the record. Sandbags are dumped everywhere, and workmen are feverishly hurrying to cover in the treasures, and avoid making them look too hideous. They would not be French if they did not try, here and there, to preserve a fine line.

The most important group on the facade of the Opera is thus concealed. You remember it, - on the north-east corner - Carpeaux's "La Danse." Of course you do, because don't you remember we went and looked at it together at the time Helene de Racowitza's suicide recalled the woman who posed for the figure of Apollon in the group - she who caused the duel in which Ferdinand Lasalle was killed, and whose affair with him inspired George Meredith's "Tragic Comedians." Poor Helene, I imagine she was a much more feeble character than Meredith drew her, but she was a beauty of the Third Empire sort, and the shadow of great men fell over her, and made her immortal as an idea, although she outlived husbands, and lover, youth, beauty, and prestige. Still, one cannot pity too much the woman over whom a famous author threw a mantle of greatness during her lifetime. It was unfortunate that she could not have lived up to it. She tried hard at the time that she wrote "Princesse et Comedienne," but the difficulty was that in her memoirs she got herself terribly mixed up with the literary portrait Meredith drew of her.

The Rude group on the Arc de Triomphe, the only real work of art in its ornamentation, has also gone into retirement, and so have the doors on the west front of Notre Dame, and famous equestrian Louis XIV groups from Marly-le-Roi, which adorn the entrance to the Champs-Elysees, and the entrance to the Tuileries garden opposite. The latter have funny little chalets built over them.

You might think that rough work of this sort would disfigure the city we love. But on my word, it does not. I really believe I love it all the better, - dear, menaced Paris. Perhaps it is because it has been and still is, in danger, that we realize anew the immortal charm. I cannot put into words just how I feel about it, but I imagine you will understand. Every one of those hoardings and all these sacks of sand seem like italics to draw my attention to how dear it all is to me. We are so prone to take the beauty we find in life as a matter of course.

Possibly you, who have not seen Paris for four years, might find more changes than I do, who have watched it all the time.

I often wonder how it would look to you, who only knew it in its better days. I have no way to establish a standard. I have seen the change, of course - but only little by little, and never losing any of the charm. If it is really much altered I don't know it. Just as one has to shake one's self hard to realize the slow changes which time brings to the faces of those whom we love, so am I unconscious of the changes the war has brought on Paris. I know that in some parts of the city there are fewer people in the streets. I know that in the centre of the city one finds still much movement, though it has changed its character. The soldiers of all nations have done that. To me it has never looked more beautiful than it does in these days. Its loveliness simply strikes terror to my heart for fear of what might be, now that the Germans are so desperate.

My visit was not altogether a peaceful one.

Perhaps I never told you that one of my Paris friends, whenever she thinks I am staying away from town too long, has a habit of writing to me, and promising that if I will come up to town they will try and arrange an air raid for me. I never had hap- pened to be there during one. She used to say, " You really have seen so much, that it would be a pity not to be in one of these raids before the war ends." Of course, that was before the attack of January. Since then, there has been no need to arrange such a thing merely as experience. I have had it.

All the same; they brought it off on Sunday night - the 17th. Thank you, I did not enjoy it at all. It was an absolutely ineffective raid, as far as doing any damage went. But we did not know that while it was going on. I would not have believed that so much noise could do so little harm.

Of course the papers tell you how calm Paris is. It is. But don't let that lead you to suppose that an air raid is anything but a very nasty experience. I imagine that very few people are afraid of death to-day. Few as the air raids have been, Parisians have already learned that the guns for the defence make most of the noise. The explosion of the bombs, if rarer, is a more terrible sound. But what is hard to bear, is the certainty that, although you are safe, some one else is not.

I suppose that if I don't tell you what we did and how we passed the night, you'll ask me later, and then I may have forgotten, or had first impressions overlaid by other events.

Well, Sunday evening we had just gone to bed. It was about ten o'clock. I was read- ing quietly when I heard a far-off wailing sound. I knew at once what it was. My hostess and I tumbled out of our beds, unlatched the windows so that no shock of air expansion might break them, switched off all the lights and went on the balcony just in time to see the firemen on their auto as they passed the end of the street, sounding the "Gare a vous," on their sirenes, - the most awful, hair-raising wail I have ever heard - like a host of lost souls. Ulysses need not have been tied to the mast to prevent his following the song of this siren!

We were hardly on the balcony, when, in an instant, all the lights of the city went out, and a strange blackness settled down and hugged the housetops and the very sidewalk. At the same instant the guns of the outer barrage began to fire, and as the night was cold, we went inside to listen, and to talk.

I wonder if I can tell you - who are never likely to have such an experience - how it feels to sit inside four walls, in absolute darkness, listening to the booming of the defence, and the falling of bombs on an otherwise silent city, wakened out of its sleep.

It is a sensation to which I doubt if any of us get really accustomed - this sitting quietly while the cannon boom, and now and then an avion whirs overhead, or a venturesome auto toots its horn as it dashes to a shelter, or the occasional voice of a gendarme yells angrily at some unextinguished light, or a hurried footstep on the pavement tells of a passer in the deserted street, braving all risks to reach home.

I assure you that the hands on the clock-face simply crawl. An hour is very long. This raid of the 17th lasted only three quarters of an hour. It was barely half-past eleven when the berloque sounded from the hurrying firemen's auto - the B-flat bugle singing the "all clear," - and, in an instant, the city was alive again,-noisily alive. Even before the berloque was really audible in the room where we sat, I heard the people hurrying back from the abris, - doors opened and banged, windows and shutters were flung wide, and the rush of air in the gas pipes told that the city lights were on again.

I don't find that the people are at all panic-stricken. Every one hates it. But every one knows that the chances are about one in some thousands, - and takes the chance. I know of late sitters-up, who cannot change their habits, and who keep right on playing bridge during a raid. How good a game it is I don't know. Well, one kind of bravado is as good as another. Among many people the chief sensation is one of boredom - it is a nuisance to be wakened out of one's first sleep; it is a worse nuisance to have proper saut de lit clothes ready; and it is the worst nuisance of all to go down into a damp cellar and possibly have to listen to talk. But, oh my! what a field for the farce-comedy writer of the days after the war. It takes but little imagination to conjure up the absurdities of such a situation that the play-maker can combine in the days when these times can be looked at from a comic point of view.

I came back from town on the 18th. I found everything quiet here. The only news is that my hens are beginning to lay - but so are every one's. While my hens did not lay eggs went up to fifteen cents a piece. To-day, when I get three dozen a week, I can buy them, two for five cents. The economics of farming get me. There must be a way of making hens lay all the year round. It is to be one of my jobs next year to learn the trick.


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