Chapter the Fourth: The New Phase - Section 5
The state of mind of the dispossessed urban population which swarmed and perished so abundantly over the country-side during the dark days of the autumnal months that followed the Last War, was one of blank despair. Barnet gives sketch after sketch of groups of these people, camped among the vineyards of Champagne, as he saw them during his period of service with the army of pacification.
There was, for example, that ‘man-milliner’ who came out from a field beside the road that rises up eastward out of Epernay, and asked how things were going in Paris. He was, says Barnet, a round-faced man, dressed very neatly in black—so neatly that it was amazing to discover he was living close at hand in a tent made of carpets—and he had ‘an urbane but insistent manner,’ a carefully trimmed moustache and beard, expressive eyebrows, and hair very neatly brushed.
‘No one goes into Paris,’ said Barnet.
‘But, Monsieur, that is very unenterprising,’ the man by the wayside submitted.
‘The danger is too great. The radiations eat into people’s skins.’
The eyebrows protested. ‘But is nothing to be done?’
‘Nothing can be done.’
‘But, Monsieur, it is extraordinarily inconvenient, this living in exile and waiting. My wife and my little boy suffer extremely. There is a lack of amenity. And the season advances. I say nothing of the expense and difficulty in obtaining provisions.... When does Monsieur think that something will be done to render Paris—possible?’
Barnet considered his interlocutor.
‘I’m told,’ said Barnet, ‘that Paris is not likely to be possible again for several generations.’
‘Oh! but this is preposterous! Consider, Monsieur! What are people like ourselves to do in the meanwhile? I am a costumier. All my connections and interests, above all my style, demand Paris....’
Barnet considered the sky, from which a light rain was beginning to fall, the wide fields about them from which the harvest had been taken, the trimmed poplars by the wayside.
‘Naturally,’ he agreed, ‘you want to go to Paris. But Paris is over.’
‘But then, Monsieur—what is to become—of ME?’
Barnet turned his face westward, whither the white road led.
‘Where else, for example, may I hope to find—opportunity?’
Barnet made no reply.
‘Perhaps on the Riviera. Or at some such place as Homburg. Or some plague perhaps.’
‘All that,’ said Barnet, accepting for the first time facts that had lain evident in his mind for weeks; ‘all that must be over, too.’
There was a pause. Then the voice beside him broke out. ‘But, Monsieur, it is impossible! It leaves—nothing.’
‘No. Not very much.’
‘One cannot suddenly begin to grow potatoes!’
‘It would be good if Monsieur could bring himself——’
‘To the life of a peasant! And my wife——You do not know the distinguished delicacy of my wife, a refined helplessness, a peculiar dependent charm. Like some slender tropical creeper—with great white flowers.... But all this is foolish talk. It is impossible that Paris, which has survived so many misfortunes, should not presently revive.’
‘I do not think it will ever revive. Paris is finished. London, too, I am told—Berlin. All the great capitals were stricken....’
‘But——! Monsieur must permit me to differ.’
‘It is so.’
‘It is impossible. Civilisations do not end in this manner. Mankind will insist.’
‘Monsieur, you might as well hope to go down the Maelstrom and resume business there.’
‘I am content, Monsieur, with my own faith.’
‘The winter comes on. Would not Monsieur be wiser to seek a house?’
‘Farther from Paris? No, Monsieur. But it is not possible, Monsieur, what you say, and you are under a tremendous mistake.... Indeed you are in error.... I asked merely for information....’
‘When last I saw him,’ said Barnet, ‘he was standing under the signpost at the crest of the hill, gazing wistfully, yet it seemed to me a little doubtfully, now towards Paris, and altogether heedless of a drizzling rain that was wetting him through and through....’