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Ch. 8: Valentine Thompson

 

VALENTINE THOMPSON

I

 

 

Fortunate are those women who not only are able to take care of themselves but of their dependents during this long period of financial depression; still more fortunate are those who, either wealthy or merely independent, are able both to stand between the great mass of unfortunates and starvation and to serve their country in old ways and new.

More fortunate still are the few who, having made for themselves by their talents and energy a position of leadership before the war, were immediately able to carry their patriotic plans into effect.

In March, 1914, Mlle. Valentine Thompson, already known as one of the most active of the younger feminists, and distinctly the most brilliant, established a weekly newspaper which she called La Vie Feminine. The little journal had a twofold purpose: to offer every sort of news and encouragement to the by-no-means-flourishing party and to give advice, assistance, and situations to women out of work.

Mlle. Thompson's father at the moment was in the Cabinet, holding the portfolio of Ministre du Commerce. Her forefathers on either side had for generations been in public life. She and her grandmother had both won a position with their pen and therefore moved not only in the best political but the best literary society of Paris. Moreover Mlle. Thompson had a special penchant for Americans and knew more or less intimately all of any importance who lived in Paris or visited it regularly. Mrs. Tuck, the wealthiest American living in France--it has been her home for thirty years and she and her husband have spent a fortune on charities--was one of her closest friends. All Americans who went to Paris with any higher purpose than buying clothes or entertaining duchesses at the Ritz, took letters to her. Moreover, she is by common consent, and without the aid of widow's bonnet or Red Cross uniform, one of the handsomest women in Paris. She is of the Amazon type, with dark eyes and hair, a fine complexion, regular features, any expression she chooses to put on, and she is always the well-dressed Parisienne in detail as well as in effect. Her carriage is haughty and dashing, her volubility racial, her enthusiasm, while it lasts, bears down every obstacle, and her nature is imperious. She must hold the center of the stage and the reins of power. I should say that she was the most ambitious woman in France.

She is certainly one of its towering personalities and if she does not stand out at the end of the war as Woman and Her Achievements personified it will be because she has the defects of her genius. Her restless ambition and her driving energy hurl her headlong into one great relief work after another, until she has undertaken more than any mere mortal can carry through in any given space of time. She is therefore in danger of standing for no one monumental work (as will be the happy destiny of Mlle. Javal, for instance), although no woman's activities or sacrifices will have been greater.

It may be imagined that such a woman when she started a newspaper would be in a position to induce half the prominent men and women in France either to write for it or to give interviews, and this she did, of course; she has a magnificent publicity sense. The early numbers of La Vie Feminine were almost choked with names known to "tout Paris." It flourished in both branches, and splendid offices were opened on the Avenue des Champs Elysées. Women came for advice and employment and found both, for Mlle. Thompson is as sincere in her desire to help the less fortunate of her sex as she is in her feminism.

 

 

 

II

 

 

 

 

Then came the War.

Mlle. Thompson's plans were formed in a day, her Committees almost as quickly. La Vie Feminine opened no less than seven ouvroirs, where five hundred women were given work. When the refugees began pouring in she was among the first to ladle out soup and deplete her wardrobe. She even went to the hastily formed hospitals in Paris and offered her services. As she was not a nurse she was obliged to do the most menial work, which not infrequently consisted in washing the filthy poilus wounded after weeks of fighting without a bath or change of clothing. Sometimes the dirt-caked soldiers were natives of Algiers. But she performed her task with her accustomed energy and thoroughness, and no doubt the mere sight of her was a God-send to those men who had for so long looked upon nothing but blood and death and horrors.

Then came the sound of the German guns thirty kilometers from Paris. The Government decided to go to Bordeaux. Mlle. Thompson's father insisted that his daughter accompany himself and her mother. At first she refused. What should she do with the five hundred women in her ouvroirs, the refugees she fed daily? She appealed to Ambassador Herrick. But our distinguished representative shook his head. He had trouble enough on his hands. The more beautiful young women who removed themselves from Paris before the Boche entered it the simpler would be the task of the men forced to remain. It was serious enough that her even more beautiful sister had elected to remain with her husband, whose duties forbade him to flee. Go, Mademoiselle, and go quickly.

Mlle. Thompson yielded but she made no precipitate flight. Collecting the most influential and generous members of her Committees, she raised the sum needed for a special train of forty cars. Into this she piled the five hundred women of her ouvroirs and their children, a large number of refugees, and an orphan asylum--one thousand in all. When it had steamed out of Paris and was unmistakably on its way to the South she followed. But not to sit fuming in Bordeaux waiting for General Joffre to settle the fate of Paris. She spent the three or four weeks of her exile in finding homes or situations for her thousand helpless charges, in Blanquefort, Lourdes, Bayonne, Marseilles, Bordeaux and other southern cities and small towns, forming in each a Committee to look out for them.

 

 

 

 

III

 

 

Soon after her return to Paris she conceived and put into operation the idea of an École Hôtelière.

Thousands of Germans and Austrians, employed as waiters or in other capacities about the hotels, either had slunk out of Paris just before war was declared or were interned. Even the Swiss had been recalled to protect their frontiers. The great hotels supplied the vacancies with men hastily invited from neutral countries, very green and very exorbitant in their demands. Hundreds of the smaller hotels were obliged to close, although the smallest were, as ever, run by the wife of the proprietor, and her daughters when old enough.

But that was only half of the problem. After the war all these hotels must open to accommodate the tourists who would flock to Europe. The Swiss of course could be relied upon to take the first train to Paris after peace was declared, but the Germans and Austrians had been as thick in France as flies on a battlefield, and it will be a generation before either will fatten on Latin credulity again. Even if the people of the Central Powers revolt and set up a republic it will be long before the French, who are anything but volatile in their essence, will be able to look at a Boche without wanting to spit on him or to kick him out of the way as one would a vicious cur.

To Mlle. Thompson, although men fall at her feet, the answer to every problem is Woman.

She formed another powerful Committee, roused the enthusiasm of the Touring Club de France, rented a dilapidated villa in Passy, and after enlisting the practical sympathies of furnishers, decorators, "magazins," and persons generally whose business it is to make a house comfortable and beautiful, she advertised not only in the Paris but in all the provincial newspapers for young women of good family whose marriage prospects had been ruined by the war and who would wish to fit themselves scientifically for the business of hotel keeping. Each should be educated in every department from directrice to scullion.

The answers were so numerous that she was forced to deny many whose lovers had been killed or whose parents no longer could hope to provide them with the indispensable dot. The repairs and installations of the villa having been rushed, it was in running order and its dormitories were filled by some thirty young women in an incredibly short time. Mlle. Jacquier, who had presided over a somewhat similar school in Switzerland, was installed as directrice.

Each girl, in addition to irreproachable recommendations and the written consent of her parents, must pay seventy francs a month, bring a specified amount of underclothing, etc.; and, whatever her age or education, must, come prepared to submit to the discipline of the school. In return they were to be taught not only how to fill all positions in a hotel, but the scientific principles of domestic economy, properties of food combined with the proportions necessary to health, bookkeeping, English, correspondence, geography, arithmetic--"calcul rapide"--gymnastics, deportment, hygiene.

Moreover, when at the end of the three months' course they had taken their diplomas, places would be found for them. If they failed to take their diplomas and could not afford another course, still would places, but of an inferior order, be provided. After the first students arrived it became known that an ex-pupil without place and without money could always find a temporary refuge there. Even if she had "gone wrong" she might come and ask for advice and help.

 

 

 

 

IV

 

 

When I arrived in Paris I had two letters to Mlle. Thompson and after I had been there about ten days I went with Mr. Jaccaci to call on her at the offices of La Vie Feminine, and found them both sumptuous and a hive of activities. In the course of the rapid give-and-take conversation--if it can be called that when one sits tight with the grim intention of pinning Mlle. Thompson to one subject long enough to extract definite information from her--we discovered that she had translated one of my books. Neither of us could remember which it was, although I had a dim visualization of the correspondence, but it formed an immediate bond. Moreover--another point I had quite forgotten--when her friend, Madame Leverrière, had visited the United States some time previously to put Mlle. Thompson's dolls on the market, I had been asked to write something in favor of the work for the New York Times. Madame Leverrière, who was present, informed me enthusiastically that I had helped her énormément, and there was another bond.

The immediate consequence was that, although I could get little that was coherent from Mlle. Thompson's torrent of classic French, I was invited to be an inmate of the École Hôtelière at Passy. I had mentioned that although I was comfortable at the luxurious Hôtel de Crillon, still when I went upstairs and closed my door I was in the atmosphere of two years ago. And I must have constant atmosphere, for my time was limited. I abominated pensions, and from what I had heard of French families who took in a "paying guest," or, in their tongue, dame pensionnaire, I had concluded that the total renouncement of atmosphere was the lesser evil.

Would I go out and see the École Feminine? I would. It sounded interesting and a visit committed me to nothing. Mlle. Thompson put it charmingly. I should be conferring a favor. There was a guest chamber and no guest for the pupils to practice on. And it would be an honor, etc.

We drove out to Passy and I found the École Feminine in the Boulevard Beauséjour all and more than Mlle. Thompson had taken the time to portray in detail. The entrance was at the side of the house and one approached it through a large gateway which led to a cul-de-sac lined with villas and filled with beautiful old trees that enchanted my eye. I cursed those trees later but at the moment they almost decided me before I entered the house.

The interior, having been done by enthusiastic admirers of Mlle. Thompson, was not only fresh and modern but artistic and striking. The salon was paneled, but the dining-room had been decorated by Poiret with great sprays and flowers splashed on the walls, picturesque vegetables that had parted with their humility between the garden and the palette. Through a glass partition one saw the shining kitchen with its large modern range, its rows and rows of the most expensive utensils--all donations by the omnifarious army of Mlle. Thompson's devotees.

Behind the salon was the schoolroom, with its blackboard, its four long tables, its charts for food proportions. All the girls wore blue linen aprons that covered them from head to foot.

I followed Mlle. Thompson up the winding stair and was shown the dormitories, the walls decorated as gaily as if for a bride, but otherwise of a severe if comfortable simplicity. Every cot was as neat as a new hospital's in the second year of the war, and there was an immense lavatory on each floor.

Then I was shown the quarters destined for me if I would so far condescend, etc. There was quite a large bedroom, with a window looking out over a mass of green, and the high terraces of houses beyond; the garden of a neighbor was just below. There was a very large wardrobe, with shelves that pulled out, and one of those wash-stands where a minute tank is filled every morning (when not forgotten) and the bowl is tipped into a noisy tin just below.

The room was in a little hallway of its own which terminated in a large bathroom with two enormous tubs. Of course the water was heated in a copper boiler situated between the tubs, for although the École Feminine was modern it was not too modern. The point, however, was that I should have my daily bath, and that the entire school would delight in waiting on me.

It did not take me any time whatever to decide. I might not be comfortable but I certainly should be interested. I moved in that day. Mlle. Thompson's original invitation to be her guest (in return for the small paragraph I had written about the dolls) was not to be entertained for a moment. I wished to feel at liberty to stay as long as I liked; and it was finally agreed that at the end of the week Mlle. Thompson and Mlle. Jacquier should decide upon the price.

 

 

 

 

V

 

 

I remained something like three months. There were three trolley lines, a train, a cab-stand, a good shopping street within a few steps, the place itself was a haven of rest after my long days in Paris meeting people by the dozen and taking notes of their work, and the cooking was the most varied and the most delicate I have ever eaten anywhere. A famous retired chef had offered his services three times a week for nothing and each girl during her two weeks in the kitchen learned how to prepare eggs in forty different ways, to say nothing of sauces and delicacies that the Ritz itself could not afford. I received the benefit of all the experiments. I could also amuse myself looking through the glass partition at the little master chef, whose services thousands could not command, rushing about the kitchen, waving his arms, tearing his hair, shrieking against the incredible stupidity of young females whom heaven had not endowed with the genius for cooking; and who, no doubt, had never cooked anything at all before they answered the advertisement of Mlle. Thompson. Few that had not belonged to well-to-do families whose heavy work had been done by servants.

A table was given me in a corner by myself and the other tables were occupied by the girls who at the moment were not serving their fortnight in the kitchen or as waitresses. These were treated as ceremoniously (being practiced on) as I was, although their food, substantial and plentiful, was not as choice as mine. I could have had all my meals served in my rooms if I had cared to avail myself of the privilege; but not I! If you take but one letter to Society in France you may, if you stay long enough, and are not personally disagreeable, meet princesses, duchesses, marquises, countesses, by the dozen; but to meet the coldly aloof and suspicious bourgeoisie, who hate the sight of a stranger, particularly the petite bourgeoisie, is more difficult than for a German to explain the sudden lapse of his country into barbarism. Here was a unique opportunity, and I held myself to be very fortunate.

Was I comfortable? Judged by the American standard, certainly not. My bed was soft enough, and my breakfast was brought to me at whatever hour I rang for it. But, as was the case all over Paris, the central heat had ceased abruptly on its specified date and I nearly froze. During the late afternoon and evenings all through May and the greater part of June I sat wrapped in my traveling cloak and went to bed as soon as the evening ceremonies of my two fortnightly attendants were over. I might as well have tried to interrupt the advance of a German taube as to interfere with any of Mlle. Jacquier's orthodoxies.

Moreover four girls, with great chattering, invariably prepared my bath--which circumstances decided me to take at night--and I had to wait until all their confidences--exchanged as they sat in a row on the edge of the two tubs--were over. Then something happened to the boiler, and as all the plumbers were in the trenches, and ubiquitous woman seemed to have stopped short in her new accomplishments at mending pipes, I had to wait until a permissionnaire came home on his six days' leave, and that was for five weeks. More than once I decided to go back to the Crillon, where the bathrooms are the last cry in luxury, for I detest the makeshift bath, but by this time I was too fascinated by the École to tear myself away.

Naturally out of thirty girls there were some antagonistic personalities, and two or three I took such an intense dislike to that I finally prevailed upon Mlle. Jacquier to keep them out of my room and away from my table. But the majority of the students were "regular girls." At first I was as welcome in the dining-room as a Prussian sentinel, and they exchanged desultory remarks in whispers; but after a while they grew accustomed to me and chattered like magpies. I could hear them again in their dormitories until about half-past ten at night. Mlle. Jacquier asked me once with some anxiety if I minded, and I assured her that I liked it. This was quite true, for these girls, all so eager and natural, and even gay, despite the tragedy in the background of many, seemed to me the brightest spot in Paris.

It is true that I remonstrated, and frequently, against the terrific noise they made every morning at seven o'clock when they clamped across the uncarpeted hall and down the stairs. But although they would tiptoe for a day they would forget again, and I finally resigned myself. I also did my share in training them to wait on a guest in her room! Not one when I arrived had anything more than a theoretical idea of what to do beyond making a bed, sweeping, and dusting. I soon discovered that the more exacting I was--and there were times when I was exceeding stormy--the better Mlle. Jacquier was pleased.

She had her hands full. Her discipline was superb and she addressed each with invariable formality as "Mademoiselle----"; but they were real girls, full of vitality, and always on the edge of rebellion. I listened to some stinging rebukes delivered by Mlle. Jacquier when she would arise in her wrath in the dining-room and address them collectively. She knew how to get under their skin, for they would blush, hang their heads, and writhe.

 

 

 

 

VI

 

 

But Mlle. Jacquier told me that what really kept them in order was the influence of Mlle. Thompson. At first she came every week late in the afternoon to give them a talk; then every fortnight; then--oh là! là!

I listened to one or two of these talks. The girls sat in a semicircle, hardly breathing, their eyes filling with tears whenever Mlle. Thompson, who sat at a table at the head of the room, played on that particular key.

I never thought Valentine Thompson more remarkable than during this hour dedicated to the tuning and exalting of the souls of these girls. Several told me that she held their hearts in her hands when she talked and that they would follow her straight to the battlefield. She, herself, assumed her most serious and exalted expression. I have never heard any one use more exquisite French. Not for a moment did she talk down to those girls of a humbler sphere. She lifted them to her own. Her voice took on deeper tones, but she always stopped short of being dramatic. French people of all classes are too keen and clear-sighted and intelligent to be taken in by theatrical tricks, and Mlle. Thompson made no mistakes. Her only mistake was in neglecting these girls later on for other new enterprises that claimed her ardent imagination.

She talked, I remember, of patriotism, of morale, of their duty to excel in their present studies that they might be of service not only to their impoverished families but to their beloved France. It was not so much what she said as the lovely way in which she said it, her impressive manner and appearance, her almost overwhelming but, for the occasion, wholly democratic personality.

Once a week Mlle. Thompson and the heads of the Touring Club de France had a breakfast at the École and tables were laid even in the salon. I was always somebody's guest upon these Tuesdays, unless I was engaged elsewhere, and had, moreover, been for years a member of the Touring Club. Some of the most distinguished men and women of Paris came to the breakfasts: statesmen, journalists, authors, artists, people of le beau monde, visiting English and Americans as well as French people of note. Naturally the students became expert waitresses and chasseurs as well as cooks.

Altogether I should have only the pleasantest memories of the École Feminine had it not been for the mosquitoes. I do not believe that New Jersey ever had a worse record than Paris that summer. Every leaf of every one of those beautiful trees beyond my window, over whose tops I used to gaze at the airplanes darting about on the lookout for taubes, was an incubator. I exhausted the resources of two chemist shops in Passy and one in Paris. I tried every invention, went to bed reeking with turpentine, and burned evil-smelling pastiles. Mlle. Jacquier came in every night and slew a dozen with a towel as scientifically as she did everything else. All of no avail. At one time I was so spotted that I had to wear a still more heavily spotted veil. I looked as if afflicted with measles.

Oddly enough the prettiest of the students, whose first name was Alice, was the only one of us all ignored by the mosquitoes. She had red-gold hair and a pink and white skin of great delicacy, and she might have been the twin of Elsie Ferguson. A few of the other girls were passably good-looking but she was the only one with anything like beauty--which, it would seem, is practically confined to the noblesse and grande bourgeoisie in France. Next to her in looks came Mlle. Jacquier, who if she had a dot would have been snapped up long since.

Alice had had two fiancés (selected by her mother) and both young officers; one, an Englishman, had been killed in the first year of the war. She was only eighteen. At one time the northern town she lived in was threatened by the Germans, and Mrs. Vail of Boston (whose daughter is so prominent at the American Fund for French Wounded headquarters in Paris), being on the spot and knowing how much there would be left of the wildrose innocence that bloomed visibly on Alice's plump cheeks, whisked her off to London. There she remained until she heard of Mlle. Thompson's School, when Mrs. Vail brought her to Paris. As she was not only pretty and charming but intelligent, I exerted myself to find her a place before I left, and I believe she is still with Mrs. Thayer in the Hotel Cecilia.

 

 

 

 

VII

 

 

The École Féminine, I am told, is no more. Mlle. Thompson found it impossible to raise the necessary money to keep it going. The truth is, I fancy, that she approached generous donators for too many different objects and too many times. Perhaps the École will be reopened later on. If not it will always be a matter of regret not only for France but for Valentine Thompson's own sake that she did not concentrate on this useful enterprise; it would have been a definite monument in the center of her shifting activities.

I have no space to give even a list of her manifold oeuvres, but one at least bids fair to be associated permanently with her name. What is now known in the United States as the French Heroes' Fund was started by Mlle. Thompson under the auspices of La Vie Féminine to help the réformés rebuild their lives. The greater number could not work at their old avocations, being minus an arm or a leg. But they learned to make toys and many useful articles, and worked at home; in good weather, sitting before their doors in the quiet village street. A vast number of these Mlle. Thompson and various members of her Committee located, tabulated, encouraged; and, once a fortnight, collected their work. This was either sold in Paris or sent to America.

In New York Mrs. William Astor Chanler and Mr. John Moffat organized the work under its present title and raised the money to buy Lafayette's birthplace. They got it at a great bargain, $20,000; for a large number of acres were included in the purchase. Another $20,000, also raised by Mr. Moffatt, repaired and furnished the château, which not only is to be a sort of French Mt. Vernon, with rooms dedicated to relics of Lafayette and the present war, as well as a memorial room for the American heroes who have fallen for France, but an orphanage is to be built in the grounds, and the repairs as well as all the other work is to be done by the blind and the mutilated, who will thus not be objects of charity but made to feel themselves men once more and able to support their families. The land will be rented to the réformés, the mutilés and the blind.

Mlle. Thompson and Mrs. Chanler, with the help of a powerful Committee, are pushing this work forward as rapidly as possible in the circumstances and no doubt it will be one of the first war meccas of the American tourists so long separated from their beloved Europe.

 

 

 

 

VIII

 

 

The most insistent memory of my life in Passy at the Hôtel Féminine is the Battle of the Somme. After it commenced in July I heard the great guns day and night for a week. That deep, steady, portentous booming had begun to exert a morbid fascination before the advance carried the cannon out of my range, and I had an almost irresistible desire to pack up and follow it. The ancestral response to the old god of war is more persistent than any of us imagine, I fancy. I was close to the lines some weeks later, when I went into the Zone des Armées, and it is quite positive that not only does that dreary and dangerous region exert a sinister fascination but that it seems to expel fear from your composition. It is as if for the first time you were in the normal condition of life, which during the centuries of the ancestors to whom you owe your brain-cells, was war, not peace.

 

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton