MADAME PIERRE GOUJON (Continued)
I had gone to Lyons to see the war relief work of that flourishing city and Madame Goujon went South at the same time to visit her husband's people. We agreed to meet in the little town of Bourg la Bresse, known to the casual tourist for its church erected in the sixteenth century by Margaret of Austria and famous for the carvings on its tombs.
Otherwise it is a picturesque enlarged village with a meandering stream that serves as an excuse for fine bridges; high-walled gardens, ancient trees, and many quaint old buildings.
Not that I saw anything in detail. The Mayor, M. Loiseau, and Madame Goujon met me at the station, and my ride to the various hospitals must have resembled the triumphal progress of chariots in ancient Rome. The population leaped right and left, the children even scrambling up the walls as we flew through the narrow winding streets. It was apparent that the limited population of Bourg did not in the least mind being scattered by their Mayor, for the children shrieked with delight, and although you see few smiles in the provinces of France these days, and far more mourning than in Paris, at least we encountered no frowns.
The heroine of Bourg is Madame Dugas. Once more to repeat history: Before the war Madame Dugas, being a woman of fashion and large wealth, lived the usual life of her class. She had a château near Bourg for the autumn months: hunting and shooting before 1914 were as much the fashion on the large estates of France as in England. She had a villa on the Rivera, a hôtel in Paris, and a cottage at Dinard. But as soon as war broke out all these establishments were either closed or placed at the disposal of the Government. She cleaned out a large hotel in Bourg and installed as many beds as it was possible to buy at the moment. Then she sent word that she was ready to accommodate a certain number of wounded and asked for nurses and surgeons.
The Government promptly took advantage of her generous offer, and her hospital was so quickly filled with wounded men that she was obliged to take over and furnish another large building. This soon overflowing as well as the military hospitals of the district, she looked about in vain for another house large enough to make extensive installations worth while.
During all those terrible months of the war, when the wounded arrived in Bourg by every train, and household after household put on its crêpe, there was one great establishment behind its lofty walls that took no more note of the war than if the newspapers that never passed its iron gates were giving daily extracts from ancient history. This was the Convent de la Visitation. Its pious nuns had taken the vow never to look upon the face of man. If, as they paced under the great oaks of their close, or the stately length of their cloisters telling their beads, or meditating on the negation of earthly existence and the perfect joys of the future, they heard an echo of the conflict that was shaking Europe, it was only to utter a prayer that the souls of those who had obeyed the call of their country and fallen gloriously as Frenchmen should rest in peace. Not for a moment did the idea cross their gentle minds that any mortal force short of invasion by the enemy could bring them into contact with it.
But that force was already in possession of Bourg. Madame Dugas was a woman of endless resource. Like many another woman in this war the moment her executive faculties, long dormant, were stirred, that moment they began to develop like the police microbes in fevered veins.
She had visited that convent. She knew that its great walls sheltered long rooms and many of them. It would make an ideal hospital and she determined that a hospital it should be.
There was but one recourse. The Pope. Would she dare? People wondered. She did. The Pope, who knew that wounded men cannot wait, granted the holy nuns a temporary dispensation from their vows; and when I walked through the beautiful Convent of the Visitation with Madame Dugas, Madame Goujon, and M. Loiseau, there were soldiers under every tree and nuns were reading to them.
Nuns were also nursing those still in the wards, for nurses are none too plentiful in France even yet, and Madame Dugas had stipulated for the nuns as well as for the convent.
It was a southern summer day. The grass was green. The ancient trees were heavy with leaves. Younger and more graceful trees drooped from the terrace above a high wall in the rear. The sky was blue. The officers, the soldiers, looked happy, the nuns placid. It was an oasis in the desert of war.
I leave obvious ruminations to the reader.
When I met Madame Dugas, once more I wondered if all Frenchwomen who were serving or sorrowing were really beautiful or if it were but one more instance of the triumph of clothes. Madame Dugas is an infirmière major, and over her white linen veil flowed one of bright blue, transparent and fine. She wore the usual white linen uniform with the red cross on her breast, but back from her shoulders as she walked through the streets with us streamed a long dark blue cloak. She is a very tall, very slender woman, with a proud and lofty head, a profile of that almost attenuated thinness that one sees only on a Frenchwoman, and only then when the centuries have done the chiseling. As we walked down those long, narrow, twisted streets of Bourg between the high walls with the trees sweeping over the coping, she seemed to me the most strikingly beautiful woman I had ever seen. But whether I shall still think so if I see her one of these days in a Paris ballroom I have not the least idea.
Madame Dugas runs three hospitals at her own expense and is her own committee. Like the rest of the world she expected the war to last three months, and like the rest of her countrywomen who immediately offered their services to the state she has no intention of resigning until what is left of the armies are in barracks once more. She lives in a charming old house in Bourg, roomy and well furnished and with a wild and classic garden below the terrace at the back. (Some day I shall write a story about that house and garden.) Here she rests when she may, and here she gave us tea.
One wonders if these devoted Frenchwomen will have anything left of their fortunes if the war continues a few years longer. Madame Dugas made no complaint, but as an example of the increase in her necessary expenditures since 1914 she mentioned the steadily rising price of chickens. They had cost two francs at the beginning of the war and were now ten. I assumed that she gave her grands blessés chicken broth, which is more than they get in most hospitals.
Many of the girls who had danced in her salons two years before, and even their younger sisters, who had had no chance to "come out," are helping Madame Dugas, both as nurses and in many practical ways; washing and doing other work of menials as cheerfully as they ever played tennis or rode in la chasse.
Curiously enough, the next woman whose work has made her notable, that Madame Goujon took me to see, was very much like Madame Dugas in appearance, certainly of the same type.
Val de Grace is the oldest military hospital in Paris. It covers several acres and was begun by Louis XIII and finished by Napoleon. Before the war it was run entirely by men, but one by one or group by group these men, all reservists, were called out and it became a serious problem how to keep it up to its standard. Of course women were all very well as nurses, but it took strong men and many of them to cook for thousands of wounded, and there was the problem of keeping the immense establishment of many buildings well swept and generally clean. But the men had to go, réformés were not strong enough for the work, every bed was occupied--one entire building by tuberculars--and they must both eat and suffer in sanitary conditions.
Once more they were obliged to have recourse to Woman.
Madame Olivier, like Madame Dugas a dame du monde and an infirmière major, went to one of the hospitals at the Front on the day war broke out, nursed under fire, of course, but displayed so much original executive ability as well as willingness to do anything to help, no matter what, that she was soon put in charge of the wounded on trains. After many trips, during which she showed her uncommon talent for soothing the wounded, making them comfortable even when they were packed like sardines on the floor, and bringing always some sort of order out of the chaos of those first days, she was invited to take hold of the problem of Val de Grace.
She had solved it when I paid my visit with Madame Goujon. She not only had replaced all the men nurses and attendants with women but was training others and sending them off to military hospitals suffering from the same sudden depletions as Val de Grace. She also told me that three women do the work of six men formerly employed, and that they finished before ten in the morning, whereas the men never finished. The hospital when she arrived had been in a condition such as men might tolerate but certainly no woman. I walked through its weary miles (barring the tuberculosis wards) and I never saw a hospital look more sanitarily span.
But the kitchen was the show place of Val de Grace, little as the women hard at work suspected it. Where Madame Olivier found those giantesses I cannot imagine; certainly not in a day. She must have sifted France for them. They looked like peasant women and no doubt they were. Only the soil could produce such powerful cart-horse females. And only such cart-horses could have cooked in the great kitchen of Val de Grace. On a high range that ran the length of the room were copper pots as large as vats, full of stew, and these the Brobdinagians stirred with wooden implements that appeared to my shattered senses as large as spades. No doubt they were of inferior dimensions, but even so they were formidable. How those women stirred and stirred those steaming messes! I never shall forget it. And they could also move those huge pots about, those terrible females. I thought of the French Revolution.
Madame Olivier, ruling all this force, giantesses included, with a rod of iron, stood there in the entrance of the immaculate kitchen looking dainty and out of place, with her thin proud profile, her clear dark skin, beautifully tinted in the cheeks, her seductive infirmière uniform. But she has accomplished one of the minor miracles of the war.
I wonder if all these remarkable women of France will be decorated one of these days? They have earned the highest citations, but perhaps they have merely done their duty as Frenchwomen. C'est la guerre.
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