“There came one day when he wrote to us saying that he was out behind the trenches waiting for an attack which they were to make in two hours’ time. He had had his breakfast, and was smoking his pipe quite content. There the letter ended, and for three days no letter came from my dear friend. And then my brother-in-law wrote to his officer, and the answer arrived—this, monsieur,” she said, fumbling with shaking fingers in a drawer where all her treasures were, and trying to hide her tears; and handed me a folded piece of paper written on the battlefield.
It was from his captain, and it spoke of the death of as loyal and brave a soldier as ever breathed. He was killed, the letter said, ten yards from the enemy’s trenches.
And it is so in every house that you go into in these villages. When the billeting officer goes round to ask what rooms they have, it is continually the same story. “Room, monsieur—yes, there is the room of my son who was killed in Argonne—of my husband who was killed at Verdun. He is killed, and my father and mother they are in the invaded country, and I know nothing of them since the war.”
[Illustration: Along the road to Lille]
But the road to the invaded country will be opened some day. These people have not a doubt of it. If one thing has struck us more than any other since we came to France, it is the spirit of the French. We came here when the battle at Verdun was at its height; and yet from the hour of landing I have not heard a single French man or woman that was not utterly confident. There is a quiet resolution over this people at present which makes a most impressive contrast to the jabber of the world outside. Whatever may be the case with Paris, these country people of France are one of the freshest and strongest nations on earth.
They are living their ordinary lives right up under the burst of the German shells. Three of them were killed here the other day—three children, playing about one minute at a street corner in front of their own homes before Australian eyes, were lying dead there the next. Yet the people are still there—it is their home, and why should they leave it? An autocracy has no chance against a convinced, united, determined democracy like this. More than anything I have seen it is this surprising quiet resolution of the French which has made one confident beyond a doubt that Frenchmen will pass some day again, by no man’s leave except their own, along the road to Lille.
France, April 25th.
The cottage door is open to the night. The soft air of a beautiful evening following on a glorious day brushes past one into the room. As I stand here the nightingale from a neighbouring garden is piping his long, exquisite, repeated note till the air seems full of it. Far away over the horizon is an incessant flicker like summer lightning, very faint but quite continuous. Under the nightingale’s note comes always a dull grumble, throbbing and bumping occasionally, but seldom quite ceasing. Someone is getting it heavily down there—it is not our Australians; I think I know their direction.