Chapter V. Paris Again - And Bordeaux: Journal of a Flight from a London Fogs
These notes began in a London fog and ended in the south of France. I had hoped, on reaching Calais, to work in toward the fighting along the Yser, but, finding it impossible, decided to turn about and travel away from the front instead of toward it - down to see Bordeaux while it was still the temporary capital, and to see what life might be like in the French provincial towns in war time.
It was not, so the young woman at the hotel desk in London said, what you would call a fog, because she could still see the porter at the street-door - yet day after day the same rain, smoky mist, and unbroken gloom.
One breakfasted and tramped the streets by lamplight, as if there were no such thing as sun - -recalled vaguely a world in which it used to be - woods with the leaves turning, New York on a bright autumn morning, enchanted tropical dawns.
Through this viscous envelope - a sort of fungi thrown off by it - newspapers kept appearing - slaughter and more slaughter, hatred, the hunt for spies, more hysterical and shrill. One looked for fairness almost as for the sun, and, merely by blackguarding long enough men who could not answer back and, after all, were flinging their lives away bravely over there in France, one ended by giving them the very qualities they were denied.
They faded out as one picture on a stereopticon screen fades into another - even as one read "Huns" for the thousandth time the Huns turned into kindly burghers smoking pipes and singing songs. In the same way the England of tradition - Shakespeare, Dickens, Meredith, jolly old rumbling London, rides 'cross country, rows on the river - faded into this nightmare of hate and smoky lamplight. The psychology was very simple, but too much, it seems, for censors and even editors. And, unfortunately, at a time like this not the light-hearted, sportsmanlike fighting men at the front, nor sober people left behind in homes, but newspapers are likely to be an outsider's most constant companions.
A sort of spiritual asphyxiation overtook one at last, in which the mere stony Briticism of the London hotel seemed to have a part. If you awoke again into that taste of soft-coal smoke, went down to another of those staggering lamp-lit breakfasts. But why staggering? "Can you not take coffee and rolls in London as well as in some Paris cafe"? It would seem so, yet it cannot be done. The mere sight and sound - or lack of sound - of that warm, softly carpeted breakfast-room, moving like some gloomy, inevitable mechanism as it has moved for countless years, attacks the already weakened will like an opiate. At the first bewildering '"Q?" from that steely-fronted maid the ritual overpowers you and you bow before porridge, kippers, bacon and eggs, stewed fruit, marmalade, toast, more toast, more marmalade, as helpless as the rabbit before the proverbial boa - except that in this case the rabbit swallows its own asphyxiator.
Another breakfast like this, another day of rain and fog, another '"Q?" - it was in some such state of mind as this that I packed up one night and took the early train for Folkestone.
Sunshine at last - a delicious autumn afternoon - clean air, quiet, and the sea. Far below the cliff walk, trawlers crawling slowly in; along the horizon a streak of smoke from some patrolling destroyer or battleship. And all along this cliff walk, Belgians - strolling with their children, sitting on the benches, looking out to sea. Just beyond that hazy white wall to the east - the cliffs of France - the fight for Calais is being fought - they can almost hear the cannon.
In the stillness, as they drift by, you catch bits of their talk:
"It was two o'clock in the morning when we left Antwerp."
"And imagine - it was not three metres from our doorstep that the shell burst."
"We walked forty kilometres that night and in the morning - - - -"
On the balcony of some one's summer-house, now turned into a hospital, four Belgian soldiers, one with his head bandaged, are playing cards - jolly, blond youngsters, caps rakishly tipped over one ear, slamming the cards down as if that were the only thing in the world. In the garden others taking the sunshine, some with their wheel-chairs pushed through the shrubbery close to the high iron fence, to be petted by nurse-maids and children as if they were animals in a sort of zoo.
The Belgians strolling by on the cliff walk smile at this quaint picture, for sun and space and quiet seem to have wiped out their terror - that passed through is as far away as that now hidden in the east. Is it merely quiet and sun? Perhaps it is the look of a "nice little people" who know that now they have a history. "Refugees," to be sure, yet one can fancy them looking back some day from their tight little villages, canals, and beet-fields, on afternoons like this, as on the days of their great adventure - when they could sit in the sun above the sea at Folkestone and look across the Channel to the haze under which their sons and husbands and brothers and King were fighting for the last corner of their country.