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Ch. 6: Madame Pierre Goujon

MADAME PIERRE GOUJON

I

 

 

Madame Pierre Goujon is another young Frenchwoman who led not only a life of ease and careless happiness up to the Great War, but also, and from childhood, an uncommonly interesting one, owing to the kind fate that made her the daughter of the famous Joseph Reinach.

M. Reinach, it is hardly worth while to state even for the benefit of American readers, is one of the foremost "Intellectuals" of France. Born to great wealth, he determined in his early youth to live a life of active usefulness, and began his career as private secretary to Gambetta. His life of that remarkable Gascon is the standard work. He was conspicuously instrumental in securing justice for Dreyfus, championing him in a fashion that would have wrecked the public career of a man less endowed with courage and personality: twin gifts that have carried him through the stormy seas of public life in France.

His history of the Dreyfus case in seven volumes is accepted as an authoritative however partisan report of one of the momentous crises in the French Republic. He also has written on alcoholism and election reforms, and he has been for many years a Member of the Chamber of Deputies, standing for democracy and humanitarianism.

On a memorable night in Paris, in June, 1916, it was my good fortune to sit next to Monsieur Reinach at a dinner given by Mr. Whitney Warren to the American newspaper men in Paris, an equal number of French journalists, and several "Intellectuals" more or less connected with the press. The scene was the private banquet room of the Hotel de Crillon, a fine old palace on the Place de la Concorde; and in that ornate red and gold room where we dined so cheerfully, grim despots had crowded not so many years before to watch from its long windows the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

I was the only woman, a whim of Mr. Warren's, and possibly that is the reason I found this dinner in the historic chamber above a dark and quiet Paris the most interesting I ever attended! Perhaps it was because I sat at the head of the room between Monsieur Reinach and Monsieur Hanotaux; perhaps merely because of the evening's climax.

Of course we talked of nothing but the war (one is bored to death in Paris if any other subject comes up). Only one speech was made, an impassioned torrent of gratitude by Monsieur Hanotaux directed at our distinguished host, an equally impassioned "Friend of France." I forget just when it was that a rumor began to run around the room and electrify the atmosphere that a great naval engagement had taken place in the North Sea; but it was just after coffee was served that a boy from the office of Le Figaro entered with a proof-sheet for Monsieur Reinach to correct--he contributes a daily column signed "Polybe." Whether the messenger brought a note from the editor or merely whispered his information, again I do not know, but it was immediately after that Monsieur Reinach told us that news had come through Switzerland of a great sea fight in which the Germans had lost eight battleships.

"And as the news comes from Germany," he remarked dryly, "and as the Germans admit having lost eight ships we may safely assume that they have lost sixteen." And so it proved.

The following day in Paris was the gloomiest I have ever experienced in any city, and was no doubt one of the gloomiest in history. Not a word had come from England. Germany had claimed uncontradicted an overwhelming victory, with the pride of Britain either at the bottom of the North Sea or hiding like Churchill's rats in any hole that would shelter them from further vengeance. People, both French and American, who had so long been waiting for the Somme drive to commence that they had almost relinquished hope went about shaking their heads and muttering: "Won't the British even fight on the sea?"

I felt suicidal. Presupposing the continued omnipotence of the British Navy, the Battle of the Marne had settled the fate of Germany, but if that Navy had proved another illusion the bottom had fallen out of the world. Not only would Europe be done for, but the United States of America might as well prepare to black the boots of Germany.

When this war is over it is to be hoped that all the censors will be taken out and hanged. In view of the magnificent account of itself which Kitchener's Army has given since that miserable day, to say nothing of the fashion in which the British Navy lived up to its best traditions in that Battle of Jutland, it seems nothing short of criminal that the English censor should have permitted the world to hold Great Britain in contempt for twenty-four hours and sink poor France in the slough of despond. However, he is used to abuse, and presumably does not mind it.

On the following day he condescended to release the truth. We all breathed again, and I kept one of my interesting engagements with Madame Pierre Goujon.

 

 

 

 

II

 

 

This beautiful young woman's husband was killed during the first month of the war. Her brother was reported missing at about the same time, and although his wife has refused to go into mourning there is little hope that he will ever be seen alive again or that his body will be found. There was no room for doubt in the case of Pierre Goujon.

Perhaps if the young officer had died in the natural course of events his widow would have been overwhelmed by her loss, although it is difficult to imagine Madame Goujon a useless member of society at any time. Her brilliant black eyes and her eager nervous little face connote a mind as alert as Monsieur Reinach's. As it was, she closed her own home--she has no children--returned to the great hôtel of her father in the Parc Monceau, and plunged into work.

It is doubtful if at any period of the world's history men have failed to accept (or demand) the services of women in time of war, and this is particularly true of France, where women have always counted as units more than in any European state. Whether men have heretofore accepted these invaluable services with gratitude or as a matter-of-course is by the way. Never before in the world's history have fighting nations availed themselves of woman's co-operation in as wholesale a fashion as now; and perhaps it is the women who feel the gratitude.

Of course the first duty of every Frenchwoman in those distracted days of August, 1914, was, as I have mentioned before, to feed the poor women so suddenly thrown out of work or left penniless with large families of children. Then came the refugees pouring down from Belgium and the invaded districts of France; and these had to be clothed as well as fed.

In common with other ladies of Paris, both French and American, Madame Goujon established ouvroirs after the retreat of the Germans, in order to give useful occupation to as many of the destitute women as possible. But when these were in running order she joined the Baroness Lejeune (born a Princess Murat and therefore of Napoleon's blood) in forming an organization both permanent and on the grand scale.

The Baroness Lejeune also had lost her husband early in the war. He had been detached from his regiment and sent to the Belgian front to act as bodyguard to the Prince of Wales. Receiving by a special messenger a letter from his wife, to whom he had been married but a few months, he separated himself from the group surrounding the English Prince and walked off some distance alone to read it. Here a bomb from a taube intended for the Prince hit and killed him instantly.

Being widows themselves it was natural they should concentrate their minds on some organization that would be of service to other widows, poor women without the alleviations of wealth and social eminence, many of them a prey to black despair. Calling in other young widows of their own circle to help (the number was already appalling), they went about their task in a business-like way, opening offices in the Rue Vizelly, which were subsequently moved to 20 Rue Madrid.

When I saw these headquarters in May, 1916, the oeuvre was a year old and in running order. In one room were the high chests of narrow drawers one sees in offices and public libraries. These were for card indexes and each drawer contained the dossiers of widows who had applied for assistance or had been discovered suffering in lonely pride by a member of the committee. Each dossier included a methodical account of the age and condition of the applicant, of the number of her children, and the proof that her husband was either dead or "missing." Also, her own statement of the manner in which she might, if assisted, support herself.

Branches of this great work--Association d'Aide aux Veuves Militaires de la Grande Guerre--have been established in every department of France; there is even one in Lille. The Central Committee takes care of Paris and environs, the number of widows cared for by them at that time being two thousand. No doubt the number has doubled since.

In each of the rooms I visited a young widow sat before a table, and I wondered then, as I wondered many times, if all the young French widows really were beautiful or only created the complete illusion in that close black-hung toque with its band of white crêpe just above the eyebrows and another from ear to ear beneath the chin. When the eyes are dark, the eyebrows heavily marked, no hair visible, and the profile regular, the effect is one of poignant almost sensational beauty. Madame Goujon looks like a young abbess.

I do not wish to be cynical but it occurred to me that few of these young widows failed to be consoled when they stood before their mirrors arrayed for public view, however empty their hearts. Before I had left Paris I had concluded that it was the mothers who were to be pitied in this accursed war. Life is long and the future holds many mysteries for handsome young widows. Nevertheless the higher happiness is sometimes found in living with a sacred memory and I have an idea that one or two of these young widows I met will be faithful to their dead.

Smooth as this oeuvre appeared on the surface it had not been easy to establish and every day brought its frictions and obstacles. The French temperament is perhaps the most difficult in the world to deal with, even by the French themselves. Our boasted individuality is merely in the primal stage compared with the finished production in France. Even the children are far more complex and intractable than ours. They have definite opinions on the subject of life, character, and the disposition of themselves at the age of six.

Madame Goujon told me that every widow in need of help, no matter how tormented or however worthy, had to be approached with far more tact than possible donors, and her idiosyncrasies studied and accepted before anything could be done with her, much less for her.

Moreover there was the great problem of the women who would not work. These were either of the industrial class, or of that petite bourgeoisie whose husbands, called to the colors, had been small clerks and had made just enough to keep their usually childless wives in a certain smug comfort.

These women, whose economical parents had married them into their own class, or possibly boosted them one step higher, with the aid of the indispensable dot, never had done any work to speak of, and many of them manifested the strongest possible aversion from working, even under the spur of necessity. They had one-franc-twenty-five a day from the Government and much casual help during the first year of the war, when money was still abundant, from charitable members of the noblesse or the haute bourgeoisie. As their dot had been carefully invested in rentes (bonds) if it continued to yield any income at all this was promptly swallowed up by taxes.

As for the women of the industrial class, they not only received one-franc-twenty-five a day but, if living in Paris, seventy-five centimes for each child--fifty if living in the provinces; and families in the lower classes of France are among the largest in the world. Five, ten, fifteen children; I heard these figures mentioned daily, and, on one or two occasions, nineteen. Mrs. Morton Mitchell of San Francisco, who lives in Paris in the Avenue du Bois de Bologne, discovered after the war broke out that the street-sweeper to whom she had often given largesse left behind him when called to the Front something like seventeen dependents. Indeed, they lost no time acquainting her with the fact; they called on her in a body, and she has maintained them ever since.

While it was by no means possible in the case of the more moderate families to keep them in real comfort on the allocation, the women, many of them, had a pronounced distaste for work outside of their little homes, as they had their liberty for the first time in their drab and overworked lives and proposed to enjoy it. No man to dole them out just enough to keep a roof over their heads and for bread and stew, while he spent the rest on tobacco, at the wine-shops, or for dues to the Socialist or Syndicalist Club. Every centime that came in now was theirs to administer as they pleased.

The Mayoress of a small town near Paris told me that she had heard these women say more than once they didn't care how long the war lasted; owing to the prevalence of the alcoholism octopus which has fastened itself on France of late years the men often beat their wives as brutally as the low-class Englishmen, and this vice added to the miserliness of their race made their sojourn in the trenches a welcome relief. Of course these were the exceptions, for the Frenchman in the main is devoted to his family, but there were enough of them to emerge into a sudden prominence after the outbreak of the war when charitable women were leaving no stone unturned to relieve possible distress.

There is a story of one man with thirteen children who was called to the colors on August second, and whose wife received allocation amounting to more than her husband's former earnings. It was some time after the war began that the rule was made exempting from service every man with more than six children. When it did go into effect the fathers of large flocks hastened home, anticipating a joyful reunion. But the wife of this man, at least, received him with dismay and ordered him to enlist--within the hour.

"Don't you realize," she demanded, "that we never were so well off before? We can save for the first time in our lives and I can get a good job that would not be given me if you were here. Go where you belong. Every man's place is in the trenches."

There is not much romance about a marriage of that class, nor is there much romance left in the harried brain of any mother of thirteen.

 

 

 

 

III

 

 

Exasperating as those women were who preferred to live with their children on the insufficient allocation, it is impossible not to feel a certain sympathy for them. In all their lives they had known nothing but grinding work; liberty is the most precious thing in the world and when tasted for the first time after years of sordid oppression it goes to the head. Moreover, the Frenchwoman has the most extraordinary faculty for "managing." The poorest in Paris would draw their skirts away from the slatterns and their dirty offspring in our own tenement districts.

One day I went with Madame Paul Dupuy over to what she assured me was one of the poorest districts of Paris. Our visit had nothing to do with the war. She belonged to a charitable organization which for years had paid weekly visits to the different parishes of the capital and weighed a certain number of babies. The mothers that brought their howling offspring (who abominated the whole performance) were given money according to their needs--vouched for by the priest of the district--and if the babies showed a falling off in weight they were sent to one of the doctors retained by the society.

The little stone house (situated, by the way, in an old garden of a hunting-lodge which is said to have been the rendezvous de chasse of Madame du Barry), where Madame Dupuy worked, with an apron covering her gown and her sleeves rolled up, was like an ice-box, and the naked babies when laid on the scales shrieked like demons. One male child, I remember, sat up perfectly straight and bellowed his protest with an insistent fury and a snorting disdain at all attempts to placate him that betokened the true son of France and a lusty long-distance recruit for the army. All the children, in fact, although their mothers were unmistakably poor, looked remarkably plump and healthy.

After a time, having no desire to contract peritonitis, I left the little house and went out and sat in the car. There I watched for nearly an hour the life of what we would call a slum. The hour was about four in the afternoon, when even the poor have a little leisure. The street was filled with women sauntering up and down, gossiping, and followed by their young. These women and children may have had on no underclothes: their secrets were not revealed to me; but their outer garments were decent. The children had a scrubbed look and their hair was confined in tight pigtails. The women looked stout and comfortable.

They may be as clean to-day but I doubt if they are as stout and as placid of expression. The winter was long and bitter and coal and food scarce, scarcer, and more scarce.

 

 

 

 

IV

 

 

The two classes of women with whom Madame Goujon and her friends have most difficulty are in the minority and merely serve as the shadows in the great canvas crowded with heroic figures of French women of all classes who are working to the limit of their strength for their country or their families. They may be difficult to manage and they may insist upon working at what suits their taste, but they do work and work hard; which after all is the point. Madame Goujon took me through several of the ouvroirs which her society had founded to teach the poor widows--whose pension is far inferior to the often brief allocation--a number of new occupations under competent teachers.

Certainly these young benefactors had exercised all their ingenuity. Some of the women, of course, had been fit for nothing but manual labor, and these they had placed as scrub-women in hospitals or as servants in hôtels or families. But in the case of the more intelligent or deft of finger no pains were being spared to fit them to take a good position, or, as the French would say, "situation," in the future life of the Republic.

In a series of rooms lent to the society by one of the great dressmakers, I saw keen-looking women of all ages learning to retouch photographs, to wind bobbins by electricity, to dress hair and fashion wigs, to engrave music scores, articulate artificial limbs, make artificial flowers, braces for wounded arms and legs, and artificial teeth! Others are taught nursing, bookkeeping, stenography, dentistry.

One of Madame Goujon's most picturesque revivals is the dressing of dolls. Before the Franco-Prussian war this great industry belonged to France. Germany took it away from France while she was prostrate, monopolizing the doll trade of the world, and the industry almost ceased at its ancient focus. Madame Goujon was one of the first to see the opportunity for revival in France, and with Valentine Thompson and Madame Vérone, to mention but two of her rivals, was soon employing hundreds of women. A large room on the ground floor of M. Reinach's hotel is given over as a storeroom for dolls, all irreproachably dressed and indisputably French.

It will take a year or two of practice and the co-operation of male talent after the war to bring the French doll up to the high standard attained by the Germans throughout forty years of plodding efficiency. The prettiest dolls I saw were those arrayed in the different national costumes of Europe, particularly those that still retain the styles of musical comedy. After those rank the Red Cross nurses, particularly those that wear the blue veil over the white. And I never saw in real life such superb, such imperturbable brides.

 

 

 

 

V

 

 

Another work in which Madame Goujon is interested and which certainly is as picturesque is Le Bon Gite. The gardens of the Tuilleries when regarded from the quay present an odd appearance these days. One sees row after row of little huts, models of the huts the English Society of Friends have built in the devastated valley of the Marne. Where hundreds of families were formerly living in damp cellars or in the ruins of large buildings, wherever they could find a sheltering wall, the children dying of exposure, there are now a great number of these portable huts where families may be dry and protected from the elements, albeit somewhat crowded.

The object of Le Bon Gite is to furnish these little temporary homes--for real houses cannot be built until the men come back from the war--and these models in the Tuilleries Gardens show to the visitor what they can do in the way of furnishing a home that will accommodate a woman and two children, for three hundred francs (sixty dollars).

It seems incredible, but I saw the equipment of several of these little shelters (which contain several rooms) and I saw the bills. They contained a bed, two chairs, a table, a buffet, a stove, kitchen furnishings, blankets, linen, and crockery. There were even window curtains. The railway authorities had reduced freight rates for their benefit fifty per cent; and at that time (July, 1916) they had rescued the poor of four wrecked villages from reeking cellars and filthy straw and given some poor poilus a home to come to during their six days' leave of absence from the Front.

The Marquise de Ganay and the Comtesse de Bryas, two of the most active members, are on duty in the offices of their neat little exhibition for several hours every day, and it was becoming one of the cheerful sights of Paris.

There is little left of the Tuilleries to-day to recall the ornate splendors of the Second Empire, when the Empress Eugenie held her court there, and gave garden parties under the oaks and the chestnuts. There is a vast chasm between the pomp of courts and huts furnished for three hundred francs for the miserable victims of the war; but that chasm, to be sure, was bridged by the Commune and this war has shown those that have visited the Military Zone that a palace makes a no more picturesque ruin than a village.

 

 

 

 

VI

 

 

A more curious contrast was a concert given one afternoon in the Tuilleries Gardens for the purpose of raising money for one of the war relief organizations. Madame Paul Dupuy asked me if I would help her take two blind soldiers to listen to it. We drove first out to Reuilly to the Quinze Vingts, a large establishment where the Government has established hundreds of their war blind (who are being taught a score of new trades), and took the two young fellows who were passed out to us. The youngest was twenty-one, a flat-faced peasant boy, whose eyes had been destroyed by the explosion of a pistol close to his face. The older man, who may have been twenty-six, had a fine, thin, dark face and an expression of fixed melancholy. He had lost his sight from shock. Both used canes and when we left the car at the entrance to the Tuilleries we were obliged to guide them.

The garden was a strange assortment of fashionable women, many of them bearing the highest titles in France, and poilus in their faded uniforms, nearly all maimed--réformés, mutilés! The younger of our charges laughed uproariously, with the other boys, at the comic song, but my melancholy charge never smiled, and later when, under the thawing influence of tea, he told us his story, I was not surprised.

He had been the proprietor before the war of a little business in the North, prosperous and happy in his little family of a wife and two children. His mother was dead but his father and sister lived close by. War came and he left for the Front confident that his wife would run the business. It was only a few months later that he heard his wife had run away with another man, that the shop was abandoned, and the children had taken refuge with his father.

Then came the next blow. His sister died of successive shocks and his father was paralyzed. Then he lost his sight. His children were living anyhow with neighbors in the half ruined village, and he was learning to make brushes.

So much for the man's tragedy in war time. It is said that as time goes on there are more of them. On the other hand, during the first year, when the men were not allowed to go home, they formed abiding connections with women in the rear of the army, and when the six days' leave was granted preferred to take these ladies on a little jaunt than return to the old drab existence at home.

These are what may be called the by-products of war, but they may exercise a serious influence on a nation's future. When the hundreds of children born in the North of France, who are half English, or half Scotch, or half Irish, or half German, or half Indian, or half Moroccan, grow up and begin to drift about and mingle with the general life of the nation, the result may be that we shall have been the last generation to see a race that however diversified was reasonably proud of its purity.

 

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton