The Book of the Homeless/One Year Later

The Book of the Homeless  (1916) 
Translation: "One Year Later" by Paul Bourget


DURING the first days of August, 1915, I found myself motoring in one of the central provinces of France. I had crossed the same region in the same way just a year before, when the beginning of mobilization was crowding the roads with waggons, with artillery and with marching troops. Only one year! How many men are dead since! But the high resolve of the nation is as firm as it was then, when all through the land there was only one impulse—to go forward. The willingness to fight and to endure has not grown less.

I went into an hotel for luncheon. I know the woman who keeps it, because I always stop there when I go through the little town. I found her dressed in black: she had lost her brother in Alsace. Her husband was waiting to be sent to the front. I asked her if she were doing any business. "Not much," she answered. "Nobody is travelling, and all the mobilized men are gone. The barracks are empty; why, only this morning—""It seems a longtime," I said, to draw her on. "Yes," she said, "but since we must…" and she went back without complaint to the task of writing her bills of fare. There were two maids in the dining-room, one of them also in black. I questioned her and learnt that her husband had been killed on the Yser. Her face was full of sorrow, but like her mistress she blamed no one, and accepted her loss because it "must" be so.

Soon a non-commissioned officer came in, followed by a woman in deep mourning, a little boy, and an elderly man; I learnt afterwards that they were the sergeant's wife, his son, and his father. I saw his profile, and noticed that he seemed to stare fixedly. He declined a place at the back of the room, and came toward the window. "I need plenty of light now," he said in an odd voice. He and his family had just seated themselves when one of the guests at the long table d'hôte rose with an exclamation of surprise and came over to him, saying: "Why, are you out again? How well you look!" "Yes," said the sergeant; "but all the same this one is glass," pointing to his right eye, and in a few words he told how it had been knocked out by a bullet in the Argonne. "It was such a pity," he said, "for we were all so glad when the fighting began, and we got out of the mud and water in the trenches." "You are all just like that in the army!" said his friend, "all so plucky and so simple! We old fellows were only amateurs compared to you! What was the war of 1870 to this one?" This time there will be a different ending." "There must be," said the sergeant, "not only for us but for the Belgians, who gained us so much time." And he repeated, laying his hand on his boy's head, "Yes, for these little chaps also it must be so."

Presently I found a chance to ask the maid what she knew about the soldier who had been speaking. "That sergeant? He is a Paris shopkeeper. His wife's brother has been killed." I watched these people at table, so serious, so sorely tried, but so full of dignity, and the words which the half-blinded man had pronounced seemed to make even his ordinary gestures impressive.

All along the road, for the rest of that journey the "it must be" of the hotel-keeper and the sergeant seemed to be written over the whole country-side. It was harvest-time, and women, lads and little girls were working in the fields, replacing absent husbands, fathers and brothers. They were doing it quite simply, not drawn by any appeal, nor compelled by any order. Every other cart I met was driven by a woman. Women were herding the cattle. There was a woman at the cashier's desk of the bank in the town where I went to get some money changed.

One of my friends, who has large interests in the south of France, told me that his man of business was at the Dardanelles. "His wife looks after my property in his place. She is astonishingly intelligent and capable." Everywhere the same tranquil stoicism, the same entire absence of complaint.

A battalion of territorials marched past. They were not young men. All of them had had fixed duties and habits which were now broken up. Yet they submitted without a murmur, marching along the hot and dusty road with an energy which revealed in them also the same sense of compelling necessity. That, to my mind, gives to this war its pathetic side. It has all the imposing grandeur of the vital forces of nature; it is the heroic movement of a country which defies death, which is not meant to die. Nor will she allow Belgium to die—the Belgium to whom the sergeant paid his tribute, and whose "we must" rang out with such poignant firmness under the German menace. It was not for life alone that Belgium fought, but for honour and for justice. No Frenchman lives who does not feel this, and who does not merge his own cause in that of the indomitable subjects of Belgium's indomitable King.

Paul Bourget
de l' Académie Française