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It was raining, and a chilly wind blew as we passed beneath a battered arch into the tragic desolation of Arras.
I have seen villages pounded by gun-fire into hideous mounds of dust and rubble, their very semblance blasted utterly away; but Arras, shell-torn, scarred, disfigured for all time, is a city still—a City of Desolation. Her streets lie empty and silent, her once pleasant squares are a dreary desolation, her noble buildings, monuments of her ancient splendour, are ruined beyond repair. Arras is a dead city, whose mournful silence is broken only by the intermittent thunder of the guns.
Thus, as I paced these deserted streets where none moved save myself (for my companions had hastened on), as I gazed on ruined buildings that echoed mournfully to my tread, what wonder that my thoughts were gloomy as the day itself? I paused in a street of fair, tall houses, from whose broken windows curtains of lace, of plush, and tapestry flapped mournfully in the chill November wind like rags upon a corpse, while from some dim interior came the hollow rattle of a door, and, in every gust, a swinging shutter groaned despairingly on rusty hinge.
And as I stood in this narrow street, littered with the brick and masonry of desolate homes, and listened to these mournful sounds, I wondered vaguely what had become of all those for whom this door had been wont to open, where now were the eyes that had looked down from these windows many and many a time—would they ever behold again this quiet, narrow street, would these scarred walls echo again to those same voices and ring with joy of life and familiar laughter?
And now this desolate city became as it were peopled with the souls of these exiles; they flitted ghostlike in the dimness behind flapping curtains, they peered down through closed jalousies—wraiths of the men and women and children who had lived and loved and played here before the curse of the barbarian had driven them away.
And, as if to help this illusion, I saw many things that were eloquent of these vanished people—glimpses through shattered windows and beyond demolished house-fronts; here a table set for dinner, with plates and tarnished cutlery on a dingy cloth that stirred damp and lazily in the wind, yonder a grand piano, open and with sodden music drooping from its rest; here again chairs drawn cosily together.
Wherever I looked were evidences of arrested life, of action suddenly stayed; in one bedroom a trunk open, with a pile of articles beside it in the act of being packed; in another, a great bed, its sheets and blankets tossed askew by hands wild with haste; while in a room lined with bookcases a deep armchair was drawn up to the hearth, with a small table whereon stood a decanter and a half-emptied glass, and an open book whose damp leaves stirred in the wind, now and then, as if touched by phantom fingers. Indeed, more than once I marvelled to see how, amid the awful wreckage of broken floors and tumbled ceilings, delicate vases and chinaware had miraculously escaped destruction. Upon one cracked wall a large mirror reflected the ruin of a massive carved sideboard, while in another house, hard by, a magnificent ivory and ebony crucifix yet hung above an awful twisted thing that had been a brass bedstead.
Here and there, on either side this narrow street, ugly gaps showed where houses had once stood, comfortable homes, now only unsightly heaps of rubbish, a confusion of broken beams and rafters, amid which divers familiar objects obtruded themselves, broken chairs and tables, a grandfather clock, and a shattered piano whose melody was silenced for ever.
Through all these gloomy relics of a vanished people I went slow-footed and heedless of direction, until by chance I came out into the wide Place and saw before me all that remained of the stately building which for centuries had been the Hotel de Ville, now nothing but a crumbling ruin of noble arch and massive tower; even so, in shattered façade and mullioned window one might yet see something of that beauty which had made it famous.
Oblivious of driving rain I stood bethinking me of this ancient city: how in the dark ages it had endured the horrors of battle and siege, had fronted the catapults of Rome, heard the fierce shouts of barbarian assailants, known the merciless savagery of religious wars, and remained a city still only for the cultured barbarian of to-day to make of it a desolation.
Very full of thought I turned away, but, as I crossed the desolate square, I was aroused by a voice that hailed me, seemingly from beneath my feet, a voice that echoed eerily in that silent Place. Glancing about I beheld a beshawled head that rose above the littered pavement, and, as I stared, the head nodded and smiling wanly, accosted me again.
Coming thither I looked into a square opening with a flight of steps leading down into a subterranean chamber, and upon these steps a woman sat knitting busily. She enquired if I wished to view the catacombs, and pointed where a lamp burned above another opening and other steps descended lower yet, seemingly into the very bowels of the earth. To her I explained that my time was limited and all I wished to see lay above ground, and from her I learned that some few people yet remained in ruined Arras, who, even as she, lived underground, since every day at irregular intervals the enemy fired into the town haphazard. Only that very morning, she told me, another shell had struck the poor Hotel de Ville, and she pointed to a new, white scar upon the shapeless tower. She also showed me an ugly rent upon a certain wall near by, made by the shell which had killed her husband. Yes, she lived all alone now, she told me, waiting for that good day when the Boches should be driven beyond the Rhine, waiting until the townsfolk should come back and Arras wake to life again: meantime she knitted.
Presently I saluted this solitary woman, and, turning away, left her amid the desolate ruin of that once busy square, her beshawled head bowed above feverishly busy fingers, left her as I had found her—waiting.
And now as I traversed those deserted streets it seemed that this seemingly dead city did but swoon after all, despite its many grievous wounds, for here was life even as the woman had said; evidences of which I saw here and there, in battered stovepipes that had writhed themselves snake-like through rusty cellar gratings and holes in wall or pavement, miserable contrivances at best, whose fumes blackened the walls whereto they clung. Still, nowhere was there sound or sight of folk save in one small back street, where, in a shop that apparently sold everything, from pickles to picture postcards, two British soldiers were buying a pair of braces from a smiling, haggard-eyed woman, and being extremely polite about it in cryptic Anglo-French; and here I foregathered with my companions. Our way led us through the railway station, a much-battered ruin, its clock tower half gone, its platforms cracked and splintered, the iron girders of its great, domed roof bent and twisted, and with never a sheet of glass anywhere. Between the rusty tracks grass and weeds grew and flourished, and the few waybills and excursion placards which still showed here and there looked unutterably forlorn. In the booking office was a confusion of broken desks, stools and overthrown chairs, the floor littered with sodden books and ledgers, but the racks still held thousands of tickets, bearing so many names they might have taken any one anywhere throughout fair France once, but now, it seemed, would never take any one anywhere.
All at once, through the battered swing doors, marched a company of soldiers, the tramp of their feet and the lilt of their voices filling the place with strange echoes, for, being wet and weary and British, they sang cheerily. Packs a-swing, rifles on shoulder, they tramped through shell-torn waiting room and booking hall and out again into wind and wet, and I remember the burden of their chanting was: “Smile! Smile! Smile!”
In a little while I stood amid the ruins of the great cathedral; its mighty pillars, chipped and scarred, yet rose high in air, but its long aisles were choked with rubble and fallen masonry, while through the gaping rents of its lofty roof the rain fell, wetting the shattered heap of particoloured marble that had been the high altar once. Here and there, half buried in the débris at my feet, I saw fragments of memorial tablets, a battered corona, the twisted remains of a great candelabrum, and over and through this mournful ruin a cold and rising wind moaned fitfully. Silently we clambered back over the mountain of débris and hurried on, heedless of the devastation around, heartsick with the gross barbarity of it all.
They tell me that churches and cathedrals must of necessity be destroyed since they generally serve as observation posts. But I have seen many ruined churches—usually beautified by Time and hallowed by tradition—that by reason of site and position could never have been so misused—and then there is the beautiful Chateau d’Eau!
Evening was falling, and as the shadows stole upon this silent city, a gloom unrelieved by any homely twinkle of light, these dreadful streets, these stricken homes took on an aspect more sinister and forbidding in the half-light. Behind those flapping curtains were pits of gloom full of unimagined terrors whence came unearthly sounds, stealthy rustlings, groans and sighs and sobbing voices. If ghosts did flit behind those crumbling walls, surely they were very sad and woeful ghosts.
“Damn this rain!” murmured K. gently.
“And the wind!” said F., pulling up his collar. “Listen to it! It’s going to play the very deuce with these broken roofs and things if it blows hard. Going to be a beastly night, and a forty-mile drive in front of us. Listen to that wind! Come on—let’s get away!”
Very soon, buried in warm rugs, we sped across dim squares, past wind-swept ruins, under battered arch, and the dismal city was behind us, but, for a while, her ghosts seemed all about us still.
As we plunged on through the gathering dark, past rows of trees that leapt at us and were gone, it seemed to me that the soul of Arras was typified in that patient, solitary woman who sat amid desolate ruin—waiting for the great Day; and surely her patience cannot go unrewarded. For since science has proved that nothing can be utterly destroyed, since I for one am convinced that the soul of man through death is but translated into a fuller and more infinite living, so do I think that one day the woes of Arras shall be done away, and she shall rise again, a City greater perhaps and fairer than she was.
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