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In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
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page: 296

THE SHOEMAKER’S STORY.

THERE are towns in France so associated with coals and cotton that no traveller expects to meet with aught else upon their borders, and it is only as a halting‐place breaking the long journey into Belgium that any traveller would naturally spend a night at St. Quintin, unless he were a philanthropist bent upon a visit to the famous cité ouvrière of Guise, known to manufacturing Europe as a twin rival of our own Saltaire. A tourist giving two hours to the town, after a night spent at a railway hotel amid the whistles of the luggage trains on that Great Northern line, sees before him a very wide street, sloping uphill, to the not unpicturesque town. On the right is the cathedral, nearly a mile away; on the left rises the great roof of an old abbey now used as a spinning factory. On the broad pavement are pots and pans, carrots and onions, boots page: 297 and slippers and wooden shoes; and right in the midst of the thoroughfare, where it spreads out into a wide circle, is a monument; it is large and imposing, and on the top stands a female figure; her head is ornamented with a diadem of battlements, and her right hand rests upon a spinning‐wheel; she symbolizes the good town of St. Quintin, the town of spinners; but on either side of her are bas‐reliefs of a battlefield commanded by an elderly general in spectacles, and at her back, facing the upper street, is sculptured the haughty inspired head of the “Fou Furieux” Leon Gambetta.

And this was the short story told by the shoemaker.

It was the very fag‐end of the siege of Paris, and the great city could hold out no longer, and a general effort was ordered to be made of troops fighting all round about, so that the sortie which we now call the Battle of Buzenval, the last sortie from Paris, which took place on the 21st of January, might have a chance of success. And it nearly did have it, for the French were uppermost on that dark winter afternoon, when they were forced to desist by the waning day‐ page: 298 light daylight from pushing on to the Prussian headquarters at Versailles. That was the sortie in which Regnier the artist was killed in his glorious youth. He was a “Prix de Rome,” and all his early works announced a future of unsurpassed success. In that same famous fatal sortie marched a more elderly professor. He was then past forty, the father of many boys, and the very last human being with whom could be associated ideas of bloodshed; from him, as he sits in his velvet cap, may be heard the story of what happened at Buzenval.

But Buzenval, whenever planned, did not come off till the 21st of January, and by some dismal mistake, or the want of some necessary communication such as was for ever happening in that saddest war, General Faidherbe and his Army of the North turned up at St. Quintin and met the Germans on the 19th, two days too soon. The shoemaker said one could read all about it in any history of the war; so one could, but not so graphically as he told it to me in his shop in the midst of the town. Thus:—

“The man with the spectacles managed his troops so well, that after fighting all through page: 299 one day and part of the next, they beat; and this also perpetually happened in the side issues of the war. But then—along that northern railway connecting St. Quintin with Paris, and having started from the occupied zone encircling the besieged city, came up train after train filled with fresh, well‐fed Germans. Shriek went the whistles as the men with spiked helmets got out of the carriages and formed. It seemed to the St. Quintin people as if the trains would never have done coming, and by dusk General Faidherbe was beaten back, and the town of St. Quintin was given over to pillage for over two hours.”

“Pillage! It was said the Germans never pillaged!”

“Ah, well, this was an open town, and our gendarmes had fought with the regular French troops, which, being an irregular proceeding, was punished by pillage.”

“And what did the Germans really do?” said the hearer, looking with troubled eyes up the broad, busy street.

Said the shoemaker, “Luckily for us it was just dark, or matters would have gone much page: 300 worse. What they did was to run into the cafés and drink the wine, and if they wanted anything, boots for instance, they carried off five or six pairs to be sure of a fit, and so on with clothes—shirts, drawers, and stockings; but it was certainly a great mercy that they rushed round for two hours in the dark, or we should have been much worse off.”

“And was there a great slaughter on the battle‐field outside the town?”

“Yes, the worst was by the windmill which you can see sculptured on the monument. Altogether I suppose there were from fifteen to twenty thousand killed or wounded.”

“Alas! mothers’ sons! and all for nothing, absolutely nothing!”

“And what became of the man in spectacles?”

“Ah! General Faidherbe is now Commander‐in‐chief of the Legion of Honour, and lives at the Chancellerie in Paris; but he was so crippled by the rheumatism he caught in all his campings out, that he goes about in a little chair on wheels in which he pushes himself along, you know. You can see him any day.”

page: 301

Perhaps this was legendary; perhaps Faidherbe did not propel himself along the quays like the crippled artists upon the pavement, but the shoemaker fully believes that he did. What is certain is that he lived for nineteen years longer, bearing, as did so many thousand others, the penalty of broken health as the result of the campaigns of 1870‐71.

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