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Ch. 12: Madame Camille Lyon

MADAME CAMILLE LYON

 

 

Madame Lyon committed on my behalf what for her was a tremendous breach of the proprieties: she called upon me without the formality of a letter of introduction. No American can appreciate what such a violation of the formalities of all the ages must have meant to a pillar of the French Bourgeoisie. But she set her teeth and did it. Her excuse was that she had read all my books, and that she was a friend of Mlle. Thompson, at whose École Hôtelière I was lodging.

I was so impressed at the unusualness of this proceeding that, being out when she first called, and unable to receive her explanations, I was filled with dark suspicion and sought an explanation of Mlle. Jacquier. Madame Lyon? Was she a newspaper woman? A secret service agent? Between the police round the corner and Mlle. Jacquier, under whose eagle eye I conformed to all the laws of France in war time, I felt in no further need of supervision.

Mlle. Jacquier was very much amused. Madame Lyon was a very important person. Her husband had been associated with the Government for fourteen years until he had died, leaving a fortune behind him, a year before; and Madame Lyon was not only on intimate terms with the Government but made herself useful in every way possible to them. She was one of the two ladies asked to cooperate with the Government in their great enterprise to wage war on tuberculosis--Le Comité Central d'Assistance aux Militaires Tuberculeux; and was to open ateliers to teach the men how to learn new trades by which they might sit at home in comfort and support themselves.

And she had her own ouvroir--"L'Aide Immédiate"--for providing things for the permissionnaires, who came to the door and asked for them. She ran, with a committee of other ladies, a café in Paris, where the permissionnaires or the réformés could go and have their afternoon coffee and smoke all the cigarettes that their devoted patrons provided. One hundred poilus came here a day, and her ouvroir had already assisted eighteen thousand. And----

But by this time I was more interested to meet Madame Lyon than any one in Paris. As I have said before, a letter or two will open the doors of the noblesse or the "Intellectuals" to any stranger who knows how to behave himself and is no bore, but to get a letter to a member of the bourgeoisie--I hadn't even made the attempt, knowing how futile it would be. If one of them was doing a great work, like Mlle. Javal, I could meet her quite easily through some member of her committee; but when Frenchwomen of this class, which in its almost terrified exclusiveness reminds me only of our own social groups balancing on the very tip of the pyramid and clutching one another lest some intruder topple them off, or cast the faintest shadow on their hard-won prestige, are working in small groups composed of their own friends, I could not meet one of them if I pitched my tent under her windows.

Madame Lyon gave me a naïve explanation of her audacity when we finally did meet. "I am a Jewess," she said, "and therefore not so bound down by conventions. You see, we of the Jewish race were suppressed so long that now we have our freedom reaction makes us almost adventurous."

Besides hastening to tell me of her race she promptly, as if it were a matter of honor, informed me that she was sixty years old! She looked about forty, her complexion was white and smooth, her nose little and straight, her eyes brilliant. She dressed in the smartest possible mourning, and with that white ruff across her placid brow--Oh là là!

She has one son, who was wounded so terribly in the first year of the war, and was so long getting to a hospital where he could receive proper attention, that he was gangrened. In consequence his recovery was very slow, and he was not permitted to go again to the trenches, but was, after his recovery, sent up north to act as interpreter between the British and French troops. He stood this for a few months, and Madame Lyon breathed freely, but there came a time when M. Lyon, although a lawyer in times of peace, could not stand the tame life of interpreter. He might be still delicate, but, he argued, there were officers at the front who had only one arm. At the present moment he is in the stiffest fighting on the Somme.

I saw a great deal of Madame Lyon and enjoyed no one more, she was so independent, so lively of mind, and so ready for anything. She went with me on two of my trips in the War Zone, being only too glad of mental distraction; for like all the mothers of France she dreads the ring of the door-bell. She told me that several times the ladies who worked in her ouvroir would come down with beaming faces and read extracts from letters just received from their sons at the Front, then go home and find a telegram announcing death or shattered limbs.

Madame Lyon has a hôtel on the Boulevard Berthier and before her husband's death was famous for her political breakfasts, which were also graced by men and women distinguishing themselves in the arts. These breakfasts have not been renewed, but I met at tea there a number of the political women. One of these was Madame Ribot, wife of the present Premier. She is a very tall, thin, fashionable looking woman, and before she had finished the formalities with her hostess (and these formalities do take so long!) I knew her to be an American. She spoke French as fluently as Madame Lyon, but the accent, however faint--or was it a mere intonation,--was unmistakable. She told me afterward that she had come to France as a child and had not been in the United States for fifty-two years!

One day Madame Lyon took me to see the ateliers of Madame Viviani--in other words, the workshops where the convalescents who must become réformés are learning new trades and industries under the patronage of the wife of the cabinet minister now best known to us. Madame Viviani has something like ten or twelve of these ateliers, but after I had seen one or two of the same sort of anything in Paris, and listened to long conscientious explanations, and walked miles in those enormous hospitals (originally, for the most part, Lycées) I felt that duplication could not enhance my knowledge, and might, indeed, have the sad effect of blunting it.

Madame Lyon said to me more than once: "Ma chère, you are without exception, the most impatient woman I have ever seen in my life. You no sooner enter a place than you want to leave it." She was referring at the moment to the hospitals in the War Zone, where she would lean on the foot of every bed and have a long gossip with the delighted inmate, extract the history of his wound, and relate the tale of similar wounds, healed by surgery, time and patience--while I, having made the tour of the cots, either opened and shut the door significantly, or walked up and down impatiently, occasionally muttering in her ear.

The truth of the matter was that I had long since cultivated the habit of registering definite impressions in a flash, and after a tour of the cots, which took about seven minutes, could have told her the nature of every wound. Moreover, I knew the men did not want to talk to me, and I felt impertinent hanging round.

But all this was incomprehensible to a Frenchwoman, to whom time is nothing, and who knows how the French in any conditions love to talk.

However, to return to Madame Viviani.

After one futile attempt, when I got lost, I met Madame Lyon and her distinguished but patient friend out in one of the purlieus of Paris where the Lycée of Arts and Crafts has been turned into a hospital for convalescents.

Under the direction of a doctor each convalescent was working at what his affected muscles most needed or could stand. Those that ran sewing-machines exercised their legs. Those that made toys and cut wood with the electric machines got a certain amount of arm exercise. The sewing-machine experts had already made fifty thousand sacks for sand fortifications and breastworks.

From this enormous Lycée (which cost, I was told, five million francs) we drove to the Salpêtrière, which in the remote ages before the war, was an old people's home. Its extent, comprising, as it does, court after court, gardens, masses of buildings which loom beyond and yet beyond, not only inspired awed reflections of the number of old that must need charity in Paris but made one wonder where they were at the present moment, now that the Salpêtrière had been turned into a hospital. Perhaps, being very old, they had conveniently died.

Here the men made wooden shoes with leather tops for the trenches, cigarette packages, ingenious toys--the airships and motor ambulances were the most striking; baskets, chairs, lace.

The rooms I visited were in charge of an English infirmière and were fairly well aired. Some of the men would soon be well enough to go back to the Front and were merely given occupation during their convalescence. But in the main the object is to prepare the unfortunates known as réformés for the future.

Since the fighting on the Somme began Madame Lyon has gone several times a month to the recaptured towns, in charge of train-loads of installations for the looted homes of the wretched people. In one entire village the Germans had left just one saucepan. Nothing else whatever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton