MADAME BALLI AND THE "COMFORT PACKAGE"
One of the most striking results of the Great War has been the quickening in thousands of European women of qualities so long dormant that they practically were unsuspected. As I shall tell in a more general article, the Frenchwomen of the middle and lower bourgeoisie and of the farms stepped automatically into the shoes of the men called to the colors in August, 1914, and it was, in their case, merely the wearing of two pairs of shoes instead of one, and both of equal fit. The women of those clearly defined classes are their husbands' partners and co-workers, and although physically they may find it more wearing to do the work of two than of one, it entails no particular strain on their mental faculties or change in their habits of life. Moreover, France since the dawn of her history has been a military nation, and generation after generation her women have been called upon to play their important rôle in war, although never on so vast a scale as now.
Contrary to the prevailing estimate of the French--an estimate formed mainly from sensational novels and plays, or during brief visits to the shops and boulevards of Paris--the French are a stolid, stoical, practical race, abnormally acute, without illusions, and whose famous ebullience is all in the top stratum. There is even a certain melancholy at the root of their temperament, for, gay and pleasure loving as they are on the surface, they are a very ancient and a very wise people. Impatient and impulsive, they are capable of a patience and tenacity, a deep deliberation and caution, which, combined with an unparalleled mental alertness, brilliancy without recklessness, bravery without bravado, spiritual exaltation without sentimentality (which is merely perverted animalism), a curious sensitiveness of mind and body due to over-breeding, and a white flame of patriotism as steady and dazzling as an arc-light, has given them a glorious history, and makes them, by universal consent, preëminent among the warring nations to-day.
They are intensely conservative and their mental suppleness is quite as remarkable. Economy is one of the motive powers of their existence, the solid pillars upon which their wealth and power are built; and yet Paris has been not only the home and the patron of the arts for centuries, but the arbiter of fashion for women, a byword for extravagance, and a forcing-house for a thousand varieties of pleasure. No race is so paradoxical, but then France is the genius among nations. Antiquity, and many invasions of her soil have given her an inviolable solidity, and the temperamental gaiety and keen intelligence which pervades all classes have kept her eternally young. She is as far from decadence as the crudest community in the United States of America.
To the student of French history and character nothing the French have done in this war is surprising; nevertheless it seemed to me that I had a fresh revelation every day during my sojourn in France in the summer of 1916. Every woman of every class (with a few notable exceptions seen for the most part in the Ritz Hotel) was working at something or other: either in self-support, to relieve distress, or to supplement the efforts and expenditures of the Government (two billion francs a month); and it seemed that I never should see the last of those relief organizations of infinite variety known as "oeuvres."
Some of this work is positively creative, much is original, and all is practical and indispensable. As the most interesting of it centers in and radiates from certain personalities whom I had the good fortune to meet and to know as well as their days and mine would permit, it has seemed to me that the surest way of vivifying any account of the work itself is to make its pivot the central figure of the story. So I will begin with Madame Balli.
To be strictly accurate, Madame Balli was born in Smyrna, of Greek blood; but Paris can show no purer type of Parisian, and she has never willingly passed a day out of France. During her childhood her brother (who must have been many years older than herself) was sent to Paris as Minister from Greece, filling the post for thirty years; and his mother followed with her family. Madame Balli not only was brought up in France, but has spent only five hours of her life in Greece; after her marriage she expressed a wish to see the land of her ancestors, and her husband--who was an Anglo-Greek--amiably took her to a hotel while the steamer on which they were journeying to Constantinople was detained in the harbor of Athens.
Up to the outbreak of the war she was a woman of the world, a woman of fashion to her finger-tips, a reigning beauty always dressed with a costly and exquisite simplicity. Some idea of the personal loveliness which, united to her intelligence and charm, made her one of the conspicuous figures of the capital, may be inferred from the fact that her British husband, an art connoisseur and notable collector, was currently reported deliberately to have picked out the most beautiful girl in Europe to adorn his various mansions.
Madame Balli has black eyes and hair, a white skin, a classic profile, and a smile of singular sweetness and charm. Until the war came she was far too absorbed in the delights of the world--the Paris world, which has more votaries than all the capitals of all the world--the changing fashions and her social popularity, to have heard so much as a murmur of the serious tides of her nature. Although no one disputed her intelligence--a social asset in France, odd as that may appear to Americans--she was generally put down as a mere femme du monde, self-indulgent, pleasure-loving, dependent--what our more strident feminists call parasitic. It is doubtful if she belonged to charitable organizations, although, generous by nature, it is safe to say that she gave freely.
In that terrible September week of 1914 when the Germans were driving like a hurricane on Paris and its inhabitants were fleeing in droves to the South, Madame Balli's husband was in England; her sister-in-law, an infirmière major (nurse major) of the First Division of the Red Cross, had been ordered to the front the day war broke out; a brother-in-law had his hands full; and Madame Balli was practically alone in Paris. Terrified of the struggling hordes about the railway stations even more than of the advancing Germans, deprived of her motor cars, which had been commandeered by the Government, she did not know which way to turn or even how to get into communication with her one possible protector.
But her brother-in-law suddenly bethought himself of this too lovely creature who would be exposed to the final horrors of recrudescent barbarism if the Germans entered Paris; he determined to put public demands aside for the moment and take her to Dinard, whence she could, if necessary, cross to England.
He called her on the telephone and told her to be ready at a certain hour that afternoon, and with as little luggage as possible, as they must travel by automobile. "And mark you," he added, "no dogs!" Madame Balli had seven little Pekinese to which she was devoted (her only child was at school in England). She protested bitterly at leaving her pets behind, but her brother was inexorable, and when he called for her it was with the understanding that all seven were yelping in the rear, at the mercy of the concièrge.
There were seven passengers in the automobile, however, of which the anxious driver, feeling his way through the crowded streets and apprehensive that his car might be impressed at any moment, had not a suspicion. They were in hat boxes, hastily perforated portmanteaux, up the coat sleeves of Madame Balli and her maid, and they did not begin to yelp until so far on the road to the north that it was not worth while to throw them out.
At Dinard, where wounded soldiers were brought in on every train, Madame Balli was turned over to friends, and in a day or two, being bored and lonely, she concluded to go with these friends to the hospitals and take cigarettes and smiles into the barren wards. From that day until I left Paris on the seventeenth of August, 1916, Madame Balli had labored unceasingly; she is known to the Government as one of its most valuable and resourceful aids; and she works until two in the morning, during the quieter hours, with her correspondence and books (the police descend at frequent and irregular intervals to examine the books of all oeuvres, and one mistake means being haled to court), and she had not up to that time taken a day's rest. I have seen her so tired she could hardly go on, and she said once quite pathetically, "I am not even well-groomed any more." I frequently straightened her dress in the back, for her maids work almost as hard as she does. When her husband died, a year after the war broke out, and she found herself no longer a rich woman, her maids offered to stay with her on reduced wages and work for her oeuvres, being so deeply attached to her that they would have remained for no wages at all if she had really been poor. I used to beg her to go to Vichy for a fortnight, but she would not hear of it. Certain things depended upon her alone, and she must remain at her post unless she broke down utterly.[A]
[A] She is still hard at work, June, 1917.
One of her friends said to me: "Hélène must really be a tremendously strong woman. Before the war we all thought her a semi-invalid who pulled herself together at night for the opera, or dinners, or balls. But we didn't know her then, and sometimes we feel as if we knew her still less now."
It was Madame Balli who invented the "comfort package" which other organizations have since developed into the "comfort bag," and founded the oeuvre known as "Réconfort du Soldat." Her committee consists of Mrs. Frederick H. Allen of New York, who has a home in Paris and is identified with many war charities; Mrs. Edward Tuck, who has lived in and given munificently to France for thirty years; Madame Paul Dupuy, who was Helen Brown of New York and has her own oeuvre for supplying war-surgeons with rubber, oil-cloth, invalid chairs, etc.; the Marquise de Noialles, President of a large oeuvre somewhat similar to Madame Dupuy's; the Comtesse de Fels, Madame Brun, and Mr. Holman-Black, an American who has lived the greater part of his life in France. Mrs. Willard sends her supplies from New York by every steamer.
Madame Balli also has a long list of contributors to this and her other oeuvres, who sometimes pay their promised dues and sometimes do not, so that she is obliged to call on her committee (who have a hundred other demands) or pay the deficit out of her own pocket. A certain number of American contributors send her things regularly through Mrs. Allen or Mrs. Willard, and occasionally some generous outsider gives her a donation. I was told that the Greek Colony in Paris had been most generous; and while I was there she published in one of the newspapers an appeal for a hundred pillows for a hospital in which she was interested, and received in the course of the next three days over four hundred.
I went with her one day to one of the éclopé stations and to the Dépôt des Isolés, outside of Paris, to help her distribute comfort packages--which, by the way, covered the top of the automobile and were piled so high inside that we disposed ourselves with some difficulty. These packages, all neatly tied, and of varying sizes, were in the nature of surprise bags of an extremely practical order. Tobacco, pipes, cigarettes, chocolate, toothbrushes, soap, pocket-knives, combs, safety-pins, handkerchiefs, needles-and-thread, buttons, pocket mirrors, post-cards, pencils, are a few of the articles I recall. The members of the Committee meet at her house twice a week to do up the bundles, and her servants, also, do a great deal of the practical work.
It was a long drive through Paris and to the dépôts beyond. A year before we should have been held up at the point of the bayonet every few yards, but in 1916 we rolled on unhindered. Paris is no longer in the War Zone, although as we passed the fortifications we saw men standing beside the upward pointing guns, and I was told that this vigilance does not relax day or night.
Later, I shall have much to say about the éclopés, but it is enough to explain here that "éclopé," in the new adaptation of the word, stands for a man who is not wounded, or ill enough for a military hospital, but for whom a brief rest in comfortable quarters is imperative. The stations provided for them, principally through the instrumentality of another remarkable Frenchwoman, Mlle. Javal, now number about one hundred and thirty, and are either behind the lines or in the neighborhood of Paris or other large cities. The one we visited, Le Bourget, is among the largest and most important, and the Commandant, M. de L'Horme, is as interested as a father in his children. The yard when we arrived was full of soldiers, some about to march out and entrain for the front, others still loafing, and M. de L'Horme seemed to know each by name.
The comfort packages are always given to the men returning to their regiments on that particular day. They are piled high on a long table at one side of the barrack yard, and behind it on the day of my visit stood Madame Balli, Mrs. Allen, Mr. Holman-Black and myself, and we handed out packages with a "Bonne chance" as the men filed by. Some were sullen and unresponsive, but many more looked as pleased as children and no doubt were as excited over their "grabs," which they were not to open until in the train. They would face death on the morrow, but for the moment at least they were personal and titillated.
Close by was a small munition factory, and a large loft had been turned into a rest-room for such of the éclopés as it was thought advisable to put to bed for a few days under medical supervision. To each of these we gave several of the black cigarettes dear to the tobacco-proof heart of the Frenchman, a piece of soap, three picture post-cards, and chocolate. I think they were as glad of the visits as of the presents, for most of them were too far from home to receive any personal attention from family or friends. The beds looked comfortable and all the windows were open.
From there we went to the Dépôt des Isolés, an immense enclosure where men from shattered regiments are sent for a day or two until they can be returned to the front to fill gaps in other regiments. Nowhere, not even in the War Zone, did war show to me a grimmer face than here. As these men are in good health and tarry barely forty-eight hours, little is done for their comfort. Soldiers in good condition are not encouraged to expect comforts in war time, and no doubt the discipline is good for them--although, heaven knows, the French as a race know little about comfort at any time.
There were cots in some of the barracks, but there were also large spaces covered with straw, and here men had flung themselves down as they entered, without unstrapping the heavy loads they carried on their backs. They were sleeping soundly. Every bed was occupied by a sprawling figure in his stained, faded, muddy uniform. I saw one superb and turbaned Algerian sitting upright in an attitude of extreme dignity, and as oblivious to war and angels of mercy as a dead man in the trenches.
Two English girls, the Miss Gracies, had opened a cantine at this dépôt. Women have these cantines in all the éclopé and isolé stations where permission of the War Office can be obtained, and not only give freely of hot coffee and cocoa, bread, cakes and lemonade, to those weary men as they come in, but also have made their little sheds look gaily hospitable with flags and pictures. The Miss Gracies had even induced some one to build an open air theater in the great barrack yard where the men could amuse themselves and one another if they felt inclined. A more practical gift by Mrs. Allen was a bath house in which were six showers and soap and towels.
It was a dirty yard we stood in this time, handing out gifts, and when I saw Mrs. Allen buying a whole wheelbarrow-load of golden-looking doughnuts, brought by a woman of the village close by, I wondered with some apprehension if she were meaning to reward us for our excessive virtue. But they were an impromptu treat for the soldiers standing in the yard--some already lined up to march--and the way they disappeared down those brown throats made me feel blasée and over-civilized.
I did not hand out during this little fête, my place being taken by Mrs. Thayer of Boston, so I was better able to appreciate the picture. All the women were pretty, and I wondered if Madame Balli had chosen them as much for their esthetic appeal to the exacting French mind as for their willingness to help. It was a strange sight, that line of charming women with kind bright eyes, and, although simply dressed, stamped with the world they moved in, while standing and lying about were the tired and dirty poilus--even those that stood were slouching as if resting their backs while they could--with their uniforms of horizon blue faded to an ugly gray, streaked and patched. They had not seen a decent woman for months, possibly not a woman at all, and it was no wonder they followed every movement of these smiling benefactresses with wondering, adoring, or cynical eyes.
But, I repeat, to me it was an ill-favored scene, and the fact that it was a warm and peaceful day, with a radiant blue sky above, merely added to the irony. Although later I visited the War Zone three times and saw towns crowded with soldiers off duty, or as empty as old gray shells, nothing induced in me the same vicious stab of hatred for war as this scene. There is only one thing more abominable than war and that is the pacificist doctrine of non-resistance when duty and honor call. Every country, no doubt, has its putrescent spots caused by premature senility, but no country so far has shown itself as wholly crumbling in an age where the world is still young.
A few days later I went with Madame Balli and Mr. Holman-Black to the military hospital, Chaptal, devoted to the men whose faces had been mutilated. The first room was an immense apartment with an open space beyond the beds filled to-day with men who crowded about Madame Balli, as much to get that personal word and smile from her, which the French soldier so pathetically places above all gifts, as to have the first choice of a pipe or knife.
After I had distributed the usual little presents of cigarettes, chocolate, soap, and post-cards among the few still in bed, I sat on the outside of Madame Balli's mob and talked to one of the infirmières. She was a Frenchwoman married to an Irishman who was serving in the British navy, and her sons were in the trenches. She made a remark to me that I was destined to hear very often:
"Oh, yes, we work hard, and we are only too glad to do what we can for France; but, my God! what would become of us if we remained idle and let our minds dwell upon our men at the Front? We should go mad. As it is, we are so tired at night that we sleep, and the moment we awaken we are on duty again. I can assure you the harder we have to work the more grateful we are."
She looked very young and pretty in her infirmière uniform of white linen with a veil of the same stiff material and the red cross on her breast, and it was odd to hear that sons of hers were in the trenches.
After that nearly all the men in the different wards we visited were in bed, and each room was worse than the last, until it was almost a relief to come to the one where the men had just been operated on and were so bandaged that any features they may have had left were indistinguishable.
For the uncovered faces were horrible. I was ill all night, not only from the memory of the sickening sights with which I had remained several hours in a certain intimacy--for I went to assist Madame Balli and took the little gifts to every bedside--but from rage against the devilish powers that unloosed this horror upon the world. One of the grim ironies of this war is that the Hohenzollerns and the junkers are so constituted mentally that they never will be haunted with awful visions like those that visited the more plastic conscience of Charles IX after St. Bartholomew; but at least it will be some compensation to picture them rending the air with lamentations over their own downfall and hurling curses at their childish folly.
It is the bursting of shrapnel that causes the face mutilations, and although the first room we visited at Chaptal was a witness to the marvelous restorative work the surgeons are able to accomplish--sometimes--many weeks and even months must elapse while the face is not only red and swollen, but twisted, the mouth almost parallel with the nose--and often there is no nose--a whole cheek missing, an eye gone, or both; sometimes the whole mouth and chin have been blown away; and I saw one face that had nothing on its flat surface but a pipe inserted where the nose had been. Another was so terrible that I did not dare to take a second look, and I have only a vague and mercifully fading impression of a hideousness never before seen in this world.
On the other hand I saw a man propped up in bed, with one entire side of his face bandaged, his mouth twisted almost into his right ear, and a mere remnant of nose, reading a newspaper with his remaining eye and apparently quite happy.
The infirmière told me that sometimes the poor fellows would cry--they are almost all very young--and lament that no girl would have them now; but she always consoled them by the assurance that men would be so scarce after the war that girls would take anything they could get.
In one of the wards a young soldier was sitting on the edge of his cot, receiving his family, two women of middle age and a girl of about seventeen. His face was bandaged down to the bridge of his nose, but the lower part was uninjured. He may or may not have been permanently blind. The two older women--his mother and aunt, no doubt--looked stolid, as women of that class always do, but the girl sat staring straight before her with an expression of bitter resentment I shall never forget. She looked as if she were giving up every youthful illusion, and realized that Life is the enemy of man, and more particularly of woman. Possibly her own lover was in the trenches. Or perhaps this mutilated boy beside her was the first lover of her youth. One feels far too impersonal for curiosity in these hospitals and it did not occur to me to ask.
Madame Balli had also brought several boxes of delicacies for the private kitchen of the infirmières, where fine dishes may be concocted for appetites still too weak to be tempted by ordinary hospital fare: soup extract, jellies, compotes, cocoa, preserves, etc. Mr. Holman-Black came staggering after us with one of these boxes, I remember, down the long corridor that led to the private quarters of the nurses. One walks miles in these hospitals.
A number of American men in Paris are working untiringly for Paris, notably those in our War Relief Clearing House--H.O. Beatty, Randolph Mordecai, James R. Barbour, M.P. Peixotto, Ralph Preston, Whitney Warren, Hugh R. Griffen, James Hazen Hyde, Walter Abbott, Charles R. Scott, J.J. Hoff, Rev. Dr. S.N. Watson, George Munroe, Charles Carroll, J. Ridgeley Carter, H. Herman Harges--but I never received from any the same sense of consecration, of absolute selflessness as I did from Mr. Holman-Black. He and his brother have a beautiful little hôtel, and for many years before the war were among the most brilliant contributors to the musical life of the great capital; but there has been no entertaining in those charming rooms since August, 1914. Mr. Holman-Black is parrain (godfather) to three hundred and twenty soldiers at the Front, not only providing them with winter and summer underclothing, bedding, sleeping-suits, socks, and all the lighter articles they have the privilege of asking for, but also writing from fifteen to twenty letters to his filleuls daily. He, too, has not taken a day's vacation since the outbreak of the war, nor read a book. He wears the uniform of a Red Cross officer, and is associated with several of Madame Balli's oeuvres.
A few days later Madame Balli took me to another hospital--Hôpital Militaire Villemin--where she gives a concert once a week. Practically all the men that gathered in the large room to hear the music, or crowded before the windows, were well and would leave shortly for the front, but a few were brought in on stretchers and lay just below the platform. This hospital seemed less dreary to me than most of those I had visited, and the yard was full of fine trees. It was also an extremely cheerful afternoon, for not only was the sun shining, but the four artists Madame Balli had brought gave of their best and their efforts to amuse were greeted with shouts of laughter.
Lyse Berty--the most distinguished vaudeville artist in France and who is certainly funnier than any woman on earth--had got herself up in horizon blue, and was the hit of the afternoon. The men forgot war and the horrors of war and surrendered to her art and her selections with an abandon which betrayed their superior intelligence, for she is a very plain woman. Miss O'Brien, an Irish girl who has spent her life in Paris and looks like the pictures in some old Book of Beauty--immense blue eyes, tiny regular features, small oval face, chestnut hair, pink-and-white skin, and a tall "willowy" figure--was second in their critical esteem, because she did not relieve their monotonous life with fun, but sang, instead, sweet or stirring songs in a really beautiful voice. The other two, young entertainers of the vaudeville stage, were not so accomplished but were applauded politely, and as they possessed a liberal share of the grace and charm of the Frenchwoman and were exquisitely dressed, no doubt men still recall them on dreary nights in trenches.
I sat on the platform and watched at close range the faces of these soldiers of France. They were all from the people, of course, but there was not a face that was not alive with quick intelligence, and it struck me anew--as it always did when I had an opportunity to see a large number of Frenchmen together at close range--how little one face resembled the other. The French are a race of individuals. There is no type. It occurred to me that if during my lifetime the reins of all the Governments, my own included, were seized by the people, I should move over and trust my destinies to the proletariat of France. Their lively minds and quick sympathies would make their rule tolerable at least. As I have said before, the race has genius.
After we had distributed the usual gifts, I concluded to drive home in the car of the youngest of the vaudeville artists, as taxis in that region were nonexistent, and Madame Balli and Mr. Holman-Black would be detained for another hour. Mademoiselle Berty was with us, and in the midst of the rapid conversation--which never slackened!--she made some allusion to the son of this little artist, and I exclaimed involuntarily:
"You married? I never should have imagined it."
Why on earth I ever made such a banal remark to a French vaudevilliste, whose clothes, jewels, and automobile represented an income as incompatible with fixed salaries as with war time, I cannot imagine. Automatic Americanism, no doubt.
Mlle. Berty lost no time correcting me. "Oh, Hortense is not married," she merely remarked. "But she has a splendid son--twelve years old."
Being the only embarrassed member of the party, I hastened to assure the girl that I had thought she was about eighteen and was astonished to hear that she had a child of any age. But twelve! She turned to me with a gentle and deprecatory smile.
"I loved very young," she explained.
Chaptal and Villemin are only two of Madame Balli's hospitals. I believe she visits others, carrying gifts to both the men and the kitchens, but the only other of her works that I came into personal contact with was an oeuvre she had organized to teach convalescent soldiers, mutilated or otherwise, how to make bead necklaces. These are really beautiful and are another of her own inventions.
Up in the front bedroom of her charming home in the Avenue Henri Martin is a table covered with boxes filled with glass beads of every color. Here Madame Balli, with a group of friends, sits during all her spare hours and begins the necklaces which the soldiers come for and take back to the hospital to finish. I sat in the background and watched the men come in--many of them with the Croix de Guerre, the Croix de la Legion d'Honneur, or the Medaille Militaire pinned on their faded jackets. I listened to brief definite instructions of Madame Balli, who may have the sweetest smile in the world, but who knows what she wants people to do and invariably makes them do it. I saw no evidence of stupidity or slackness in these young soldiers; they might have been doing bead-work all their lives, they combined the different colors and sizes so deftly and with such true artistic feeling.
Madame Balli has sold hundreds of these necklaces. She has a case at the Ritz Hotel, and she has constant orders from friends and their friends, and even from dressmakers; for these trinkets are as nearly works of art as anything so light may be. The men receive a certain percentage of the profits and will have an ample purse when they leave the hospital. Another portion goes to buy delicacies for their less fortunate comrades--and this idea appeals to them immensely--the rest goes to buy more beads at the glittering shops on the Rue du Rivoli. The necklaces bring from five to eight or ten dollars. The soldiers in many of the hospitals are doing flat beadwork, which is ingenious and pretty; but nothing compares with these necklaces of Madame Balli, and some of the best dressed American women in Paris are wearing them.
On the twentieth of July (1916) Le Figaro devoted an article to Madame Balli's Réconfort du Soldat, and stated that it was distributing about six hundred packages a week to soldiers in hospitals and éclopé dépôts, and that during the month of January alone nine thousand six hundred packages were distributed both behind the lines and among the soldiers at the Front. This may go on for years or it may come to an abrupt end; but, like all the Frenchwomen to whom I talked, and who when they plunged into work expected a short war, she is determined to do her part as long as the soldiers do theirs, even if the war marches with the term of her natural life. She not only has given a great amount of practical help, but has done her share in keeping up the morale of the men, who, buoyant by nature as they are, and passionately devoted to their country, must have many discouraged moments in their hospitals and dépôts.
Once or twice when swamped with work--she is also a marraine (godmother) and writes regularly to her filleuls--Madame Balli has sent the weekly gifts by friends; but the protest was so decided, the men declaring that her personal sympathy meant more to them than cigarettes and soap, that she was forced to adjust her affairs in such a manner that no visit to a hospital at least should be missed.
It is doubtful if any of these men who survive and live to tell tales of the Great War in their old age will ever omit to recall the gracious presence and lovely face of Madame Balli, who came so often to make them forget the sad monotony of their lives, even the pain in their mutilated limbs, the agony behind their disfigured faces, during those long months they spent in the hospitals of Paris. And although her beauty has always been a pleasure to the eye, perhaps it is now for the first time paying its great debt to Nature.
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