The organisation of Soissons for defence is perfect. I may not describe it, but think of whatever would stop and destroy an attacking party or foil the hostile shell. It is there. Men have had nothing else to do and nothing else to think of for two years. I crossed the bridge the English made in the pursuit after the Marne, and went into the first line trenches and peeped towards the invisible enemy. To show me exactly where to look a seventy-five obliged with a shell. In the crypt of the Abbey of St. Medard near by it—it must provoke the Germans bitterly to think that all the rest of the building vanished ages ago—the French boys sleep beside the bones of King Childebert the Second. They shelter safely in the prison of Louis the Pious. An ineffective shell from a German seventy-seven burst in the walled garden close at hand as I came out from those thousand-year-old memories again.
The cathedral at Soissons had not been nearly so completely smashed up as the one at Arras; I doubt if it has been very greatly fired into. There is a peculiar beauty in the one long vertical strip of blue sky between the broken arches in the chief gap where the wall has tumbled in. And the people are holding on in many cases exactly as they are doing in Arras; I do not know whether it is habit or courage that is most apparent in this persistence. About the chief place of the town there are ruined houses, but some invisible hand still keeps the grass of the little garden within bounds and has put out a bed of begonias. In Paris I met a charming American writer, the wife of a French artist, the lady who wrote My House on the Field of Honour. She gave me a queer little anecdote. On account of some hospital work she had been allowed to visit Soissons—a rare privilege for a woman—and she stayed the night in a lodging. The room into which she was shown was like any other French provincial bedroom, and after her Anglo-Saxon habit she walked straight to the windows to open them.
They looked exactly like any other French bedroom windows, with neat, clean white lace curtains across them. The curtains had been put there, because they were the proper things to put there.
“Madame,” said the hostess, “need not trouble to open the glass. There is no more glass in Soissons.”
But there were curtains nevertheless. There was all the precise delicacy of the neatly curtained home life of France.
And she told me too of the people at dinner, and how as the little serving-maid passed about a proud erection of cake and conserve and cream, came the familiar “Pheeee—–woooo—–Bang!”
“That must have been the Seminaire,” said someone.
As one speaks of the weather or a passing cart.
“It was in the Rue de la Bueire, M’sieur,” the little maid asserted with quiet conviction, poising the trophy of confectionery for Madame Huard with an unshaking hand.
So stoutly do the roots of French life hold beneath the tramplings of war.