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Ch. 9: Madame Waddington

MADAME WADDINGTON

I

 

 

One has learned to associate Madame Waddington so intimately with the glittering surface life of Europe that although every one knows she was born in New York of historic parentage, one recalls with something of a shock now and then that she was not only educated in this country but did not go to France to live until after the death of her father in 1871.

This no doubt accounts for the fact that meeting her for the first time one finds her unmistakably an American woman. Her language may be French but she has a directness and simplicity that no more identifies her with a European woman of any class than with the well-known exigencies of diplomacy. Madame Waddington strikes one as quite remarkably fearless and downright; she appears to be as outspoken as she is vivacious; and as her husband had a highly successful career as a diplomatist, and as his debt to his brilliant wife is freely conceded, Madame Waddington is certainly a notable instance of the gay persistence of an intelligent American woman's personality, combined with the proper proportion of acuteness, quickness, and charm which force a highly conventionalized and specialized society to take her on her own terms. The greater number of diplomatic women as well as ladies-in-waiting that I have run across during my European or Washington episodes have about as much personality as a door-mat. Many of our own women have been admirable helpmates to our ambassadors, but I recall none that has played a great personal rôle in the world. Not a few have contributed to the gaiety of nations.

Madame Waddington has had four separate careers quite aside from the always outstanding career of girlhood. Her father was Charles King, President of Columbia College and son of Rufus King, second United States Minister to England. When she married M. Waddington, a Frenchman of English descent, and educated at Rugby and Cambridge, he was just entering public life. His château was in the Department of the Aisne and he was sent from there to the National Assembly. Two years later he was appointed Minister of Public Instruction, and in January, 1876, he was elected Senator from the Aisne. In December of the following year he once more entered the Cabinet as Minister of Public Instruction, later accepting the portfolio for Foreign Affairs.

During this period, of course, Madame Waddington lived the brilliant social and political life of the capital. M. Waddington began his diplomatic career in 1878 as the first Plenipotentiary of France to the Congress of Berlin. In 1883 he was sent as Ambassador Extraordinary to represent France at the coronation of Alexander III; and it was then that Madame Waddington began to send history through the diplomatic pouch, and sow the seeds of that post-career which comes to so few widows of public men.

Madame Waddington's letters from Russia, and later from England where her husband was Ambassador from 1883 to 1893 are now so famous, being probably in every private library of any pretensions, that it would be a waste of space to give an extended notice of them in a book which has nothing whatever to do with the achievements of its heroines in art and letters in that vast almost-forgotten period, Before the War. Suffice it to say that they are among the most delightful epistolary contributions to modern literature, the more so perhaps as they were written without a thought of future publication. But being a born woman of letters, every line she writes has the elusive qualities of style and charm; and she has besides the selective gift of putting down on paper even to her own family only what is worth recording.

When these letters were published in Scribner's Magazine in 1902, eight years after M. Waddington's death, they gave her an instant position in the world of letters, which must have consoled her for the loss of that glittering diplomatic life she had enjoyed for so many years.

Not that Madame Waddington had ever dropped out of society, except during the inevitable period of mourning. In Paris up to the outbreak of the war she was always in demand, particularly in diplomatic circles, by far the most interesting and kaleidoscopic in the European capitals. I was told that she never paid a visit to England without finding an invitation from the King and Queen at her hotel, as well as a peck of other invitations.

I do not think Madame Waddington has ever been wealthy in our sense of the word. But, as I said before, her career is a striking example of that most precious of all gifts, personality. And if she lives until ninety she will always be in social demand, for she is what is known as "good company." She listens to you but you would far rather listen to her. Unlike many women of distinguished pasts she lives in hers very little. It is difficult to induce the reminiscent mood. She lives intensely in the present and her mind works insatiably upon everything in current life that is worth while.

She has no vanity. Unlike many ladies of her age and degree in Paris she does not wear a red-brown wig, but her own abundant hair, as soft and white as cotton and not a "gray" hair in it. She is now too much absorbed in the war to waste time at her dressmakers or even to care whether her placket-hole is open or not. I doubt if she ever did care much about dress or "keeping young," for those are instincts that sleep only in the grave. War or no war they are as much a part of the daily habit as the morning bath. I saw abundant evidence of this immortal fact in Paris during the second summer of the war.

Nevertheless, the moment Madame Waddington enters a room she seems to charge it with electricity. You see no one else and you are impatient when others insist upon talking. Vitality, an immense intelligence without arrogance or self-conceit, a courtesy which has no relation to diplomatic caution, a kindly tact and an unmistakable integrity, combine to make Madame Waddington one of the most popular women in Europe.

 

 

 

 

II

 

 

This brings me to Madame Waddington's fourth career. The war which has lifted so many people out of obscurity, rejuvenated a few dying talents, and given thousands their first opportunity to be useful, simply overwhelmed Madame Waddington with hard work and a multitude of new duties. If she had indulged in dreams of spending the rest of her days in the peaceful paths of literature when not dining out, they were rudely dissipated on August 1st, 1914.

Madame Waddington opened the Ouvroir Holophane on the 15th of August, her first object being to give employment and so countercheck the double menace of starvation and haunted idleness for at least fifty poor women: teachers, music-mistresses, seamstresses, lace makers, women of all ages and conditions abruptly thrown out of work.

Madame Waddington, speaking of them, said: "We had such piteous cases of perfectly well-dressed, well-educated, gently-bred women that we hardly dared offer them the one-franc-fifty and 'gouter' (bowl of café-au-lait with bread and butter), which was all we were able to give for four hours' work in the afternoon."

However, those poor women were very thankful for the work and sewed faithfully on sleeping-suits and underclothing for poilus in the trenches and hospitals. Madame Waddington's friends in America responded to her call for help and M. Mygatt gave her rooms on the ground floor of his building in the Boulevard Haussmann.

When the Germans were rushing on Paris and invasion seemed as inevitable as the horrors that were bound to follow, Mr. Herrick insisted that Madame Waddington and her sister Miss King, who was almost helpless from rheumatism, follow the Government to the South. This Madame Waddington reluctantly did, but returned immediately after the Battle of the Marne.

It was not long before the Ouvroir Holophane outgrew its original proportions, and instead of the women coming there daily to sew, they called only for materials to make up at home. For this ouvroir (if it has managed to exist in these days of decreasing donations) sends to the Front garments of all sorts for soldiers ill or well, pillow-cases, sheets, sleeping-bags, slippers.

Moreover, as soon as the men began to come home on their six days' leave they found their way to the generous ouvroir on the Boulevard Haussmann, where Madame Waddington, or her friend Mrs. Greene (also an American), or Madame Mygatt, always gave the poor men what they needed to replace their tattered (or missing) undergarments, as well as coffee and bread and butter.

The most difficult women to employ were those who had been accustomed to make embroidery and lace, as well as many who had led pampered lives in a small way and did not know how to sew at all. But one-franc-fifty stood between them and starvation and they learned. To-day nearly all of the younger women assisted by those first ouvroirs are more profitably employed. France has adjusted itself to a state of war and thousands of women are either in Government service and munition factories, or in the reopened shops and restaurants.

 

 

 

 

III

 

 

The Waddingtons being the great people of their district were, of course, looked upon by the peasant farmers and villagers as aristocrats of illimitable wealth. Therefore when the full force of the war struck these poor people--they were in the path of the Germans during the advance on Paris, and ruthlessly treated--they looked to Madame Waddington and her daughter, Madame Francis Waddington, to put them on their feet again.

Francis Waddington, to whom the château descended, was in the trenches, but his mother and wife did all they could, as soon as the Germans had been driven back, to relieve the necessities of the dazed and miserable creatures whose farms had been devastated and shops rifled or razed. Some time, by the way, Madame Waddington may tell the dramatic story of her daughter-in-law's escape. She was alone in the château with her two little boys when the Mayor of the nearest village dashed up with the warning that the Germans were six kilometers away, and the last train was about to leave.

She had two automobiles, but her chauffeur had been mobilized and there was no petrol. She was dressed for dinner, but there was no time to change. She threw on a cloak and thinking of nothing but her children went off with the Mayor in hot haste to catch the train. From that moment on for five or six days, during which time she never took off her high-heeled slippers with their diamond buckles, until she reached her husband in the North, her experience was one of the side dramas of the war.

I think it was early in 1915 that Madame Waddington wrote in Scribner's Magazine a description of her son's château as it was after the Germans had evacuated it. But the half was not told. It never can be, in print. Madame Huard, in her book, My Home on the Field of Honor, is franker than most of the current historians have dared to be, and the conditions which she too found when she returned after the German retreat may be regarded as the prototype of the disgraceful and disgusting state in which these lovely country homes of the French were left; not by lawless German soldiers but by officers of the first rank. Madame Francis Waddington did not even run upstairs to snatch her jewel case, and of course she never saw it again. Her dresses had been taken from the wardrobes and slashed from top to hem by the swords of these incomprehensible barbarians. The most valuable books in the library were gutted. But these outrages are almost too mild to mention.

 

 

 

 

IV

 

 

The next task after the city ouvroir was in running order was to teach the countrywomen how to sew for the soldiers and pay them for their work. The region of the Aisne is agricultural where it is not heavily wooded. Few of the women had any skill with the needle. The two Madame Waddingtons concluded to show these poor women with their coarse red hands how to knit until their fingers grew more supple. This they took to very kindly, knitting jerseys and socks; and since those early days both the Paris and country ouvroirs had sent (June, 1916) twenty thousand packages to the soldiers. Each package contained a flannel shirt, drawers, stomach band, waistcoat or jersey, two pairs of socks, two handkerchiefs, a towel, a piece of soap. Any donations of tobacco or rolled cigarettes were also included.

This burden in the country has been augmented heavily by refugees from the invaded districts. Of course they come no more these days, but while I was in Paris they were still pouring down, and as the Waddington estate was often in their line of march they simply camped in the park and in the garage. Of course they had to be clothed, fed, and generally assisted.

As Madame Waddington's is not one of the picturesque ouvroirs she has found it difficult to keep it going, and no doubt contributes all she can spare of what the war has left of her own income. Moreover, she is on practically every important war relief committee, sometimes as honorary president, for her name carries great weight, often as vice-president or as a member of the "conseil." After her ouvroirs the most important organization of which she is president is the Comité International de Pansements Chirurgicaux des Etats Unis--in other words, surgical dressings--started by Mrs. Willard, and run actively in Paris by Mrs. Austin, the vice-president. When I visited it they were serving about seven hundred hospitals, and no doubt by this time are supplying twice that number. Two floors of a new apartment house had been put at their disposal near the Bois, and the activity and shining whiteness were the last word in modern proficiency (I shall never use that black-sheep among words, efficiency, again).

One of Madame Waddington's more personal oeuvres is the amusement she, in company with her daughter-in-law, provides for the poilus in the village near her son's estate. Regiments are quartered there, either to hold themselves in readiness, or to cut down trees for the army. They wandered about, desolate and bored, until the two Madame Waddingtons furnished a reading-room, provided with letter paper and post-cards, books and, I hope, by this time a gramophone. Here they sit and smoke, read, or get up little plays. As the château is now occupied by the staff the two patronesses are obliged to go back and forth from Paris, and this they do once a week at least.

 

 

 

 

V

 

 

Madame Waddington, knowing that I was very anxious to see one of the cantines at the railway stations about which so much was said, took me late one afternoon to St. Lazare. Into this great station, as into all the others, train after train hourly gives up its load of permissionnaires--men home on their six days' leave--; men for the éclopé stations; men from shattered regiments, to be held at Le Bourget until the time comes to be sent to fill other gaps made by the German guns; men who merely arrive by one train to take another out, but who must frequently remain for several hours in the dépôt.

I have never entered one of these gares to take a train that I have not seen hundreds of soldiers entering, leaving, waiting; sometimes lying asleep on the hard floor, always on the benches. It is for all who choose to take advantage of them that these cantines are run, and they are open day and night.

The one in St. Lazare had been organized in February, 1915, by the Baronne de Berckheim (born Pourtales) and was still run by her in person when I visited it in June, 1916. During that time she and her staff had taken care of over two hundred thousand soldiers. From 8 to 11 A.M. café-au-lait, or café noir, or bouillon, paté de foie or cheese is served. From 11 to 2 and from 6 to 9, bouillon, a plate of meat and vegetables, salad, cheese, fruits or compote, coffee, a quart of wine or beer, cigarettes. From 2 to 6 and after 9 P.M., bouillon, coffee, tea, paté, cheese, milk, lemonade, cocoa.

The rooms in the station are a donation by the officials, of course. The dining-room of the St. Lazare cantine was fitted up with several long tables, before which, when we arrived, every square inch of the benches was occupied by poilus enjoying an excellent meal of which beef à la mode was the pièce de résistance. The Baroness Berckheim and the young girls helping her wore the Red Cross uniform, and they served the needs of the tired and hungry soldiers with a humble devotion that nothing but war and its awful possibilities can inspire. It was these nameless men who were saving not only France from the most brutal enemy of modern times but the honor of thousands of such beautiful and fastidious young women as these. No wonder they were willing and grateful to stand until they dropped.

It was evident, however, that their imagination carried them beyond man's interiorities. The walls were charmingly decorated not only with pictures of the heroes of the war but with the colored supplements of the great weekly magazines which pursue their even and welcome way in spite of the war. Above there were flags and banners, and the lights were very bright. Altogether there was no restaurant in Paris more cheerful--or more exquisitely neat in its kitchen. I went behind and saw the great roasts in their shining pans, the splendid loaves of bread, the piles of clean dishes. Not a spot of grease in those crowded quarters. In a corner the President of the Chamber of Commerce was cashier for the night.

Adjoining was a rest-room with six or eight beds, and a lavatory large enough for several men simultaneously to wash off the dust of their long journey.

These cantines are supported by collections taken up on trains. On any train between Paris and any point in France outside of the War Zone girls in the uniform of the Croix Rouge appear at every stop and shake a box at you. They are wooden boxes, with a little slit at the top. As I have myself seen people slipping in coppers and, no doubt, receiving the credit from other passengers of donating francs, I suggested that these young cadets of the Red Cross would add heavily to their day's toll if they passed round open plates. Certainly no one would dare contribute copper under the sharp eyes of his fellows. This, I was told, was against the law, but that it might be found practicable to use glass boxes.

In any case the gains are enough to run these cantines. The girls are almost always good looking and well bred, and they look very serious in their white uniform with the red cross on the sleeves; and the psychotherapeutic influence is too strong for any one to resist.

Madame Waddington had brought a large box of chocolates and she passed a piece over the shoulder of each soldier, who interrupted the more serious business of the moment to be polite. Other people bring them flowers, or cigarettes, and certainly there is no one in the world so satisfactory to put one's self to any effort for as a poilu. On her manners alone France should win her war.

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton