By Joyce Kilmer
WE had hiked seventeen miles that stormy December day—the third of a four days’ journey. The snow was piled high on our packs, our rifles were crusted with ice, the leather of our hob-nailed boots was frozen stiff over our lamed feet. The weary lieutenant led us to the door of a little house in a side street.
“Next twelve men,” he said. A dozen of us dropped out of the ranks and dragged ourselves over the threshold. We tracked snow and mud over a spotless stone floor. Before an open fire stood Madame and the three children—a girl of eight years, a boy of five, a boy of three. They stared with round frightened eyes at les soldats Americans, the first they had ever seen. We were too tired to stare back. We at once climbed to the chill attic, our billet, our lodging for the night. First we lifted the packs from one another’s aching shoulders: then, without spreading our blankets, we lay down on the bare boards.
For ten minutes there was silence, broken by an occasional groan, an oath, the striking of a match. Cigarettes glowed like fireflies in a forest. Then a voice came from the corner:
“Where is Sergeant Reilly?” it said. We lazily searched. There was no Sergeant Reilly to be found.
“I’ll bet the old bum has gone out after a pint,” said the voice. And with the curiosity of the American and the enthusiasm of the Irish we lumbered downstairs in quest of Sergeant Reilly.
He was sitting on a low bench by the fire. His shoes were off and his bruised feet were in a pail of cold water. He was too good a soldier to expose them to the heat at once. The little girl was on his lap and the little boys stood by and envied him. And in a voice that twenty years of soldiering and oceans of whisky had failed to rob of its Celtic sweetness, he was softly singing: “Ireland Isn’t Ireland Any More.” We listened respectfully.
“They cheer the King and then salute him,” said Sergeant Reilly.
“A regular Irishman would shoot him,” and we all joined in the chorus, “Ireland Isn’t Ireland Any More.”
“Ooh, la, la!” exclaimed Madame, and she and all the children began to talk at the top of their voices. What they said Heaven knows, but the tones were friendly, even admiring.
“Gentlemen,” said Sergeant Reilly from his post of honor, “the lady who runs this billet is a very nice lady indeed. She says yez can all take off your shoes and dry your socks by the fire. But take turns and don’t crowd or I’ll turn yez all upstairs.”
Now Madame, a woman of some forty years, was a true bourgeoise, with all the thrift of her class. And by the terms of her agreement with the authorities she was required to let the soldiers have for one night the attic of her house to sleep in—nothing more; no light, no heat. Also, wood is very expensive in France—for reasons that are engraven in letters of blood on the pages of history. Nevertheless—
“Asseyez-vous, s’il vous plait,” said Madame. And she brought nearer to the fire all the chairs the establishment possessed and some chests and boxes to be used as seats. And she and the little girl, whose name was Solange, went out into the snow and came back with heaping armfuls of small logs. The fire blazed merrily—more merrily than it had blazed since August, 1914, perhaps. We surrounded it, and soon the air was thick with steam from our drying socks.
Meanwhile Madame and the Sergeant had generously admitted all eleven of us into their conversation. A spirited conversation it was, too, in spite of the fact that she knew no English and the extent of his French was “du pain,” “du vin,” “cognac” and “bon jour.” Those of us who knew a little more of the language of the country acted as interpreters for the others. We learned the names of the children and their ages. We learned that our hostess was a widow. Her husband had fallen in battle just one month before our arrival in her home. She showed us with simple pride and affection and restrained grief his picture. Then she showed us those of her two brothers—one now fighting at Salonica, the other a prisoner of war—of her mother and father, of herself dressed for First Communion.
This last picture she showed somewhat shyly, as if doubting that we would understand it. But when one of us asked in halting French if Solange, her little daughter, had yet made her First Communion, then Madame’s face cleared.
At once rosary beads were flourished to prove our right to answer this question affirmatively. Tattered prayer-books and somewhat dingy scapulars were brought to light. Madame and the children chattered their surprise and delight to each other, and every exhibit called for a new outburst.
“Ah, le bon S. Benoit! Ah, voilà, le Conception Immacule! Ooh la la, le Sacré Cœur!” (which last exclamation sounded in no wise as irreverent as it looks in print).
Now other treasures, too, were shown—treasures chiefly photographic. There were family groups, there were Coney Island snapshots. And Madame and the children were a gratifyingly appreciative audience. They admired and sympathized; they exclaimed appropriately at the beauty of every girl’s face, the tenderness of every pictured mother. We had become the intimates of Madame. She had admitted us into her family and we her into ours.
Soldiers—American soldiers of Irish descent—have souls and hearts. These organs (if the soul may be so termed) had been satisfied. But our stomachs remained—and that they yearned was evident to us. We had made our hike on a meal of hardtack and “corned willy.” Mess call would sound soon. Should we force our wet shoes on again and plod through the snowy streets to the temporary mess-shack? We knew our supply wagons had not succeeded in climbing the last hill into town, and that therefore bread and unsweetened coffee would be our portion. A great depression settled upon us.
But Sergeant Reilly rose to the occasion.
“Boys,” he said, “this here lady has got a good fire going, and I’ll bet she can cook. What do you say we get her to fix us up a meal?”
The proposal was received joyously at first. Then some one said:
“But I haven’t got any money.” “Neither have I—not a damn sou!” said another. And again the spiritual temperature of the room fell.
Again Sergeant Reilly spoke:
“I haven’t got any money to speak of, meself,” he said. “But let’s have a show-down. I guess we’ve got enough to buy somethin’ to eat.”
It was long after pay-day, and we were not hopeful of the results of the search. But the wealthy (that is, those who had two francs) made up for the poor (that is, those who had two sous). And among the coins on the table I noticed an American dime, an English half-crown and a Chinese piece with a square hole in the center. In negotiable tender the money came in all to eight francs.
It takes more money than that to feed twelve hungry soldiers these days in France. But there was no harm in trying. So an ex-seminarian, an ex-bookkeeper and an ex-street-car conductor aided Sergeant Reilly in explaining in French that had both a brogue and a Yankee twang that we were hungry, that this was all the money we had in the world, and that we wanted her to cook us something to eat.
Now Madame was what they call in New England a “capable” woman. In a jiffy she had the money in Solange’s hand and had that admirable child cloaked and wooden-shod for the street, and fully informed as to what she was to buy. What Madame and the children had intended to have for supper I do not know, for there was nothing in the kitchen but the fire, the stove, the table, some shelves of dishes and an enormous bed. Nothing in the way of a food cupboard could be seen. And the only other room of the house was the bare attic.
When Solange came back she carried in a basket bigger than herself these articles: (1) two loaves of war-bread; (2) five bottles of red wine; (3) three cheeses; (4) numerous potatoes; (5) a lump of fat; (6) a bag of coffee. The whole represented, as was afterward demonstrated, exactly the sum of ten francs, fifty centimes.
Well, we all set to work peeling potatoes. Then with a veritable French trench-knife Madame cut the potatoes into long strips. Meanwhile Solange had put the lump of fat into the big black pot that hung by a chain over the fire. In the boiling grease the potatoes were placed, Madame standing by with a big ladle punched full of holes (I regret that I do not know the technical name for this instrument) and keeping the potato-strips swimming, zealously frustrating any attempt on their part to lie lazily at the bottom of the pot.
We forgot all about the hike as we sat at supper that evening. The only absentees were the two little boys, Michael and Paul. And they were really absent only from our board—they were in the room, in the great built-in bed that was later to hold also Madame and Solange. Their little bodies were covered by the three-foot thick mattress-like red silk quilt, but their tousled heads protruded and they watched us unblinkingly all the evening.
But just as we sat down, before Sergeant Reilly began his task of dishing out the potatoes and starting the bottles on their way, Madame stopped her chattering and looked at Solange. And Solange stopped her chattering and looked at Madame. And they both looked rather searchingly at us. We didn’t know what was the matter, but we felt rather embarrassed.
Then Madame began to talk, slowly and loudly, as one talks to make foreigners understand. And the gist of her remarks was that she was surprised to see that American Catholics did not say grace before eating like French Catholics.
We sprang to our feet at once. But it was not Sergeant Reilly who saved the situation. Instead, the ex-seminarian (he is only temporarily an ex-seminarian; he’ll be preaching missions and giving retreats yet if a bit of shrapnel doesn’t hasten his journey to Heaven) said, after we had blessed ourselves: “Benedicite; nos et quae sumus sumpturi benedicat Deus, Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus. Amen.”
Madame and Solange, obviously relieved, joined us in the Amen, and we sat down again to eat.
It was a memorable feast. There was not much conversation—except on the part of Madame and Solange—but there was plenty of good cheer. Also there was enough cheese and bread and wine and potatoes for all of us—half starved as we were when we sat down. Even big Considine, who drains a can of condensed milk at a gulp and has been known to eat an apple pie without stopping to take breath, was satisfied. There were toasts, also, all proposed by Sergeant Reilly—toasts to Madame, and to the children, and to France, and to the United States, and to the Old Gray Mare (this last toast having an esoteric significance apparent only to illuminati of Sergeant Reilly’s circle).
The table cleared and the “agimus tibi gratias” duly said, we sat before the fire, most of us on the floor. We were warm and happy and full of good food and good wine. I spied a slip of paper on the floor by Solange’s foot and unashamedly read it. It was an accounting for the evening’s expenditures—totaling exactly ten francs and fifty centimes.
Now when soldiers are unhappy—during a long, hard hike, for instance—they sing to keep up their spirits. And when they are happy, as on the evening now under consideration, they sing to express their satisfaction with life. We sang “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.” We shook the kitchen-bedroom with the echoes of “Take Me Back to New York Town.” We informed Madame, Solange, Paul, Michael, in fact, the whole village, that we had never been a wanderer and that we longed for our Indiana home. We grew sentimental over “Mother Machree.” And Sergeant Reilly obliged with a reel—in his socks—to an accomplishment of whistling and handclapping.
Now, it was our hostess’s turn to entertain. We intimated as much. She responded, first by much talk, much consultation with Solange, and finally by going to one of the shelves that held the pans and taking down some paper-covered books.
There was more consultation, whispered this time, and much turning of pages. Then, after some preliminary coughing and humming, the music began—the woman’s rich alto blending with the child’s shrill but sweet notes. And what they sang was “Tantum ergo Sacramentum.”
Why she should have thought that an appropriate song to offer this company of rough soldiers from a distant land I do not know. And why we found it appropriate it is harder still to say. But it did seem appropriate to all of us—to Sergeant Reilly, to Jim (who used to drive a truck), to Larry (who sold cigars), to Frank (who tended a bar on Fourteenth Street). It seemed, for some reason, eminently fitting. Not one of us then or later expressed any surprise that this hymn, familiar to most of us since our mothers first led us to the Parish Church down the pavements of New York or across the Irish hills, should be sung to us in this strange land and in these strange circumstances.
Since the gracious Latin of the Church was in order and since the season was appropriate, one of us suggested “Adeste Fideles” for the next item on the evening’s program. Madame and Solange and our ex-seminarian knew all the words and the rest of us came in strong with “Venite, adoremus Dominum.”
Then, as if to show that piety and mirth may live together, the ladies obliged with “Au Clair de la Lune” and other simple ballads of old France. And after taps had sounded in the street outside our door, and there was yawning, and wrist-watches were being scanned, the evening’s entertainment ended, by general consent, with patriotic selections. We sang—as best we could—the “Star-Spangled Banner,” Solange and her mother humming the air and applauding at the conclusion. Then we attempted “La Marseillaise.” Of course, we did not know the words. Solange came to our rescue with two little pamphlets containing the song, so we looked over each other’s shoulders and got to work in earnest. Madame sang with us, and Solange. But during the final stanza Madame did not sing. She leaned against the great family bedstead and looked at us. She had taken one of the babies from under the red comforter and held him to her breast. One of her red and toil-scarred hands half covered his fat little back. There was a gentle dignity about that plain, hard-working woman, that soldier’s widow—we all felt it. And some of us saw the tears in her eyes.
There are mists, faint and beautiful and unchanging, that hang over the green slopes of some mountains I know. I have seen them on the Irish hills and I have seen them on the hills of France. I think that they are made of the tears of good brave women.
Before I went to sleep that night I exchanged a few words with Sergeant Reilly. We lay side by side on the floor, now piled with straw. Blankets, shelter-halves, slickers and overcoats insured warm sleep. Sergeant Reilly’s hard old face was wrapped round with his muffler. The final cigarette of the day burned lazily in a corner of his mouth.
“That was a pretty good evening, Sarge,” I said. “We sure were in luck when we struck this billet.”
He grunted affirmatively, then puffed in silence for a few minutes. Then he deftly spat the cigarette into a strawless portion of the floor, where it glowed for a few seconds before it went out.
“You said it,” he remarked. “We were in luck is right. What do you know about that lady, anyway?”
“Why,” I answered, “I thought she treated us pretty white.”
“Joe,” said Sergeant Reilly, “do you realize how much trouble that woman took to make this bunch of roughnecks comfortable? She didn’t make a damn cent on that feed, you know. The kid spent all the money we give her. And she’s out about six francs for firewood, too—I wish to God I had the money to pay her. I bet she’ll go cold for a week now, and hungry, too.
“And that ain’t all,” he continued, after a pause broken only by an occasional snore from our blissful neighbors. “Look at the way she cooked them pomme de terres and fixed things up for us and let us sit down there with her like we was her family. And look at the way she and the little Sallie there sung for us.
“I tell you, Joe, it makes me think of old times to hear a woman sing them church hymns to me that way. It’s forty years since I heard a hymn sung in a kitchen, and it was my mother, God rest her, that sang them. I sort of realize what we’re fighting for now, and I never did before. It’s for women like that and their kids.
“It gave me a turn to see her a-sitting there singing them hymns. I remembered when I was a boy in Shangolden. I wonder if there’s many women like that in France now—telling their beads and singing the old hymns and treating poor traveling men the way she’s just after treating us. There used to be lots of women like that in the Old Country. And I think that’s why it was called ‘Holy Ireland.'”
Joyce Kilmer (born as Alfred Joyce Kilmer; December 6, 1886 – July 30, 1918) was an American writer and poet mainly remembered for a short poem titled “Trees” (1913), which was published in the collection Trees and Other Poems in 1914. Though a prolific poet whose works celebrated the common beauty of the natural world as well as his Roman Catholic religious faith, Kilmer was also a journalist, literary critic, lecturer, and editor. – Wikipedia