Chapter II. Paris At Bay
As the little speck drew straight overhead, these human specks scattered over the Place de la Concorde suddenly realized that they were in the line of fire, and scattered just as people run from a sudden shower. This was the most interesting thing - these helpless little humans scrambling away like ants or beetles to shelter, and that tiny insolent bird sailing slowly far overhead. This was a bit of the modern war one reads about - it was a picture from some fanciful story of Mr. H. G. Wells. They scattered for the arcades, and some, quaintly enough, ran under the trees in the near-by Champs-Elysees. There was a "Bang!" at which everybody shouted "There!" but it was not a bomb, only part of the absurd fusillade that now began. They were firing from the Eiffel Tower, whence they might possibly have hit something, and from roofs with ordinary guns and revolvers which could not possibly have hit anything at all. In the gray haze that hung over Paris the next morning, I wandered through empty streets and finally, with some vague notion of looking out, up the hill of Montmartre. All Paris lay below, mysterious in the mist, with that strange, poignant beauty of something trembling on the verge. One could follow the line of the Seine and see the dome of the Invalides, but nothing beyond. I went down a little way from the summit and, still on the hill, turned into the Rue des Abbesses, crowded with vegetable carts and thrifty housewives. The gray air was filled with their bargaining, with the smell of vegetables and fruit, and there, in front of two men playing violins, a girl in black, with a white handkerchief loosely knotted about her throat, was singing of the little Alsatian boy, shot by the Prussians because he cried "Vive la France!" and threatened them with his wooden gun.
True or not, it was one of those things that get believed. Verses were written about it and pictures made of it all over Paris - presently it would be history. And this girl, true child of the asphalt, was flinging it at them, holding the hearts of these broad-faced mothers in the hollow of her hand. She would sing one verse, pause, and sell copies of the song, then put a hand to her hoarse throat and sing again. The music was not sold with the song, and it was rather difficult - a mournful sort of recitative with sudden shifts into marching rhythm - and so the people sang the words over and over with her until they had almost learned the tune. You can imagine how a Frenchman - he was a young fellow, who lived in a rear tenement over on the other side of Montmartre - would write that song. The little boy, who was going to "free his brothers back there in Alsace" when he grew up, playing soldier - "Joyeux, il murmurait: Je suis petit, en somme, Mais viendra bien le jour, ou je serai un homme, Ardeat! Vaillanti..." - the Prussians - monstres odieux - smashing into the village, the cry "Maman! Maman!" - and after each verse a pause, and slowly and lower down, with the crowd joining in, "Petit - enfant" ("Little boy, close your big blue eyes, for the bandits are hideous and cruel, and they will kill you if they read your brave thoughts") "ferme tes grands yeux bleus."
The violins mixed with the voices of the market-women, crying their artichokes and haricots, and above them rang - "Ardent! Vaillant! ..." Audit might have been the voice of Paris itself, lying down there in her mist, Paris of lost Alsace and hopeless revanche, of ardor and charm crushed once, as they might be again, as the voice of that pale girl in black, with her air of coming from lights and cigarette smoke, and of these simple mothers rose above the noise of the street, half dirge, half battle-cry, while out beyond somewhere the little soldiers in red breeches were fighting, and the fate of France hung in the balance, that morning.