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Willa Cather (1873–1947). One of Ours. 1922.

Book Two: Enid


ENID and Mrs. Royce had gone away to the Michigan sanatorium where they spent part of every summer, and would not be back until October. Claude and his mother gave all their attention to the war despatches. Day after day, through the first two weeks of August, the bewildering news trickled from the little towns out into the farming country.

About the middle of the month came the story of the fall of the forts at Liege, battered at for nine days and finally reduced in a few hours by siege guns brought up from the rear,—guns which evidently could destroy any fortifications that ever had been, or ever could be constructed. Even to these quiet wheat-growing people, the siege guns before Liege were a menace; not to their safety or their goods, but to their comfortable, established way of thinking. They introduced the greater-than-man force which afterward repeatedly brought into this war the effect of unforeseeable natural disaster, like tidal waves, earthquakes, or the eruption of volcanoes.

On the twenty-third came the news of the fall of the forts at Namur; again giving warning that an unprecedented power of destruction had broken loose in the world. A few days later the story of the wiping out of the ancient and peaceful seat of learning at Louvain made it clear that this force was being directed toward incredible ends. By this time, too, the papers were full of accounts of the destruction of civilian populations. Something new, and certainly evil, was at work among mankind. Nobody was ready with a name for it. None of the well-worn words descriptive of human behaviour seemed adequate. The epithets grouped about the name of “Attila” were too personal, too dramatic, too full of old, familiar human passion.

One afternoon in the first week of September Mrs. Wheeler was in the kitchen making cucumber pickles, when she heard Claude’s car coming back from Frankfort. In a moment he entered, letting the screen door slam behind him, and threw a bundle of mail on the table.

“What do you, think, Mother? The French have moved the seat of government to Bordeaux! Evidently, they don’t think they can hold Paris.”

Mrs. Wheeler wiped her pale, perspiring face with the hem of her apron and sat down in the nearest chair. “You mean that Paris is not the capital of France any more? Can that be true?”

“That’s what it looks like. Though the papers say it’s only a precautionary measure.”

She rose. “Let’s go up to the map. I don’t remember exactly where Bordeaux is. Mahailey, you won’t let my vinegar burn, will you?”

Claude followed her to the sitting-room, where her new map hung on the wall above the carpet lounge. Leaning against the back of a willow rocking-chair, she began to move her hand about over the brightly coloured, shiny surface, murmuring, “Yes, there is Bordeaux, so far to the south; and there is Paris.”

Claude, behind her, looked over her shoulder. “Do you suppose they are going to hand their city over to the Germans, like a Christmas present? I should think they’d burn it first, the way the Russians did Moscow. They can do better than that now, they can dynamite it!”

“Don’t say such things.” Mrs. Wheeler dropped into the deep willow chair, realizing that she was very tired, now that she had left the stove and the heat of the kitchen. She began weakly to wave the palm leaf fan before her face. “It’s said to be such a beautiful city. Perhaps the Germans will spare it, as they did Brussels. They must be sick of destruction by now. Get the encyclopaedia and see what it says. I’ve left my glasses downstairs.”

Claude brought a volume from the bookcase and sat down on the lounge. He began: “Paris, the capital city of France and the Department of the Seine,—shall I skip the history?”

“No. Read it all.”

He cleared his throat and began again: “At its first appearance in history, there was nothing to foreshadow the important part which Paris was to play in Europe and in the world,” etc.

Mrs. Wheeler rocked and fanned, forgetting the kitchen and the cucumbers as if they had never been. Her tired body was resting, and her mind, which was never tired, was occupied with the account of early religious foundations under the Merovingian kings. Her eyes were always agreeably employed when they rested upon the sunburned neck and catapult shoulders of her red-headed son.

Claude read faster and faster until he stopped with a gasp.

“Mother, there are pages of kings! We’ll read that some other time. I want to find out what it’s like now, and whether it’s going to have any more history.” He ran his finger up and down the columns. “Here, this looks like business. Defences: Paris, in a recent German account of the greatest fortresses of the world, possesses three distinct rings of defences”—here he broke off. “Now what do you think of that? A German account, and this is an English book! The world simply made a mistake about the Germans all along. It’s as if we invited a neighbour over here and showed him our cattle and barns, and all the time he was planning how he would come at night and club us in our beds.”

Mrs. Wheeler passed her hand over her brow. “Yet we have had so many German neighbours, and never one that wasn’t kind and helpful.”

“I know it. Everything Mrs. Erlich ever told me about Germany made me want to go there. And the people that sing all those beautiful songs about women and children went into Belgian villages and—”

“Don’t, Claude!” his mother put out her lands as if to push his words back. “Read about the defences of Paris; that’s what we must think about now. I can’t but believe there is one fort the Germans didn’t put down in their book, and that it will stand. We know Paris is a wicked city, but there must be many God-fearing people there, and God has preserved it all these years. You saw in the paper how the churches are full all day of women praying.” She leaned forward and smiled at him indulgently. “And you believe those prayers will accomplish nothing, son?”

Claude squirmed, as he always did when his mother touched upon certain subjects. “Well, you see, I can’t forget that the Germans are praying, too. And I guess they are just naturally more pious than the French.” Taking up the book he began once more: “In the low ground again, at the narrowest part of the great loop of the Marne,” etc.

Claude and his mother had grown familiar with the name of that river, and with the idea of its strategic importance, before it began to stand out in black headlines a few days later.

The fall ploughing had begun as usual. Mr. Wheeler had decided to put in six hundred acres of wheat again. Whatever happened on the other side of the world, they would need bread. He took a third team himself and went into the field every morning to help Dan and Claude. The neighbours said that nobody but the Kaiser had ever been able to get Nat Wheeler down to regular work.

Since the men were all afield, Mrs. Wheeler now went every morning to the mailbox at the crossroads, a quarter of a mile away, to get yesterday’s Omaha and Kansas City papers which the carrier left. In her eagerness she opened and began to read them as she turned homeward, and her feet, never too sure, took a wandering way among sunflowers and buffaloburrs. One morning, indeed, she sat down on a red grass bank beside the road and read all the war news through before she stirred, while the grasshoppers played leap-frog over her skirts, and the gophers came out of their holes and blinked at her. That noon, when she saw Claude leading his team to the water tank, she hurried down to him without stopping to find her bonnet, and reached the windmill breathless.

“The French have stopped falling back, Claude. They are standing at the Marne. There is a great battle going on. The papers say it may decide the war. It is so near Paris that some of the army went out in taxi-cabs.”

Claude drew himself up. “Well, it will decide about Paris, anyway, won’t it? How many divisions?”

“I can’t make out. The accounts are so confusing. But only a few of the English are there, and the French are terribly outnumbered. Your father got in before you, and he has the papers upstairs.”

“They are twenty-four hours old. I’ll go to Vicount tonight after I’m done work, and get the Hastings paper.”

In the evening, when he came back from town, he found his father and mother waiting up for him. He stopped a moment in the sitting-room. “There is not much news, except that the battle is on, and practically the whole French army is engaged. The Germans outnumber them five to three in men, and nobody knows how much in artillery. General Joffre says the French will fall back no farther.” He did not sit down, but went straight upstairs to his room.

Mrs. Wheeler put out the lamp, undressed, and lay down, but not to sleep. Long afterward, Claude heard her gently closing a window, and he smiled to himself in the dark. His mother, he knew, had always thought of Paris as the wickedest of cities, the capital of a frivolous, wine-drinking, Catholic people, who were responsible for the massacre of St. Bartholomew and for the grinning atheist, Voltaire. For the last two weeks, ever since the French began to fall back in Lorraine, he had noticed with amusement her growing solicitude for Paris.

It was curious, he reflected, lying wide awake in the dark: four days ago the seat of government had been moved to Bordeaux,—with the effect that Paris seemed suddenly to have become the capital, not of France, but of the world! He knew he was not the only farmer boy who wished himself tonight beside the Marne. The fact that the river had a pronounceable name, with a hard Western “r” standing like a keystone in the middle of it, somehow gave one’s imagination a firmer hold on the situation. Lying still and thinking fast, Claude felt that even he could clear the bar of French “politeness”—so much more terrifying than German bullets—and slip unnoticed into that outnumbered army. One’s manners wouldn’t matter on the Marne tonight, the night of the eighth of September, 1914. There was nothing on earth he would so gladly be as an atom in that wall of flesh and blood that rose and melted and rose again before the city which had meant so much through all the centuries—but had never meant so much before. Its name had come to have the purity of an abstract idea. In great sleepy continents, in land-locked harvest towns, in the little islands of the sea, for four days men watched that name as they might stand out at night to watch a comet, or to see a star fall.