On Something/The Ironmonger

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On Something by Hilaire Belloc
The Ironmonger

When I was in the French army we came one day with the guns in July along a straight and dusty road and clattered into the village called Bar-le-Duc. Of the details of such marches I have often written. I wish now to speak of another thing, which, in long accounts of mere rumbling of guns, one might never have time to tell, but which is really the most important of all experiences under arms in France - I mean the older civilians, the fathers.

Who made the French army? Who determined to recover from the defeats and to play once more that determined game which makes up half French history, the "Thesaurization," the gradual reaccumulation of power? The general answer to such questions is to say: "The nation being beaten had to set to and recover its old position." That answer is insufficient. It deals in abstractions and it tells you nothing. Plenty of political societies throughout history have sat down under disaster and consented to sink slowly. Many have done worse - they have maintained after sharp warnings the pride of their blind years; they have maintained that pride on into the great disasters, and when these came they have sullenly died. France neither consented to sink nor died by being overweening. Some men must have been at work to force their sons into the conscription, to consent to heavy taxation, to be vigilant, accumulative, tenacious, and, as it were, constantly eager. There must have been classes in which, unknown to themselves, the stirp of the nation survived; individuals who, aiming at twenty different things, managed, as a resultant, to carry up the army to the pitch in which I had known it and to lay a slow foundation for recovered vigour. Who were these men?

I had read of them in Birmingham when I was at school; I had read of them in books when I read of the Hundred Years' War and of the Revolution. I was to read of them again in books at Oxford. But on that Saturday at Bar-le-Duc I saw one of them, and by as much as the physical impression is worth more than the secondary effect of history, my sight of them is worth writing down.

A man in my battery, one Matthieu, told me he had leave to go out for the evening, and told me also to go and get leave. He said his uncle had asked him to dine and bring a friend. It seemed his uncle lived in a villa on the heights above the town; he was an ironmonger who had retired. I went to my Sergeant and asked him for leave.

My Sergeant was a noble who was working his way up through the ranks, and when I found him he was checking off forage at a barn where some of our men were working. He looked me hard in the eyes, and said in a drawling lackadaisical voice:

"You are the Englishman?"

"Yes, Sergeant," said I a little anxiously (for I was very keen to get a good dinner in town after all that marching).

"Well," said he, "as you are the Englishman you can go." Such is the logic of the service.

The army is no place to argue, and I went. I suppose what he meant was, "As we are both more or less in exile, take my blessing and be off," but he may merely have meant to be inconsequent, for inconsequence is the wit of schoolboys and soldiers. I went up the hill with my friend.

The long twilight was still broad over the hill and the old houses of Bar-le-Duc, as we climbed. It was night by the clock, but one could have seen to read. We were tired, and talked of nothing in particular, but such things as we said were full of the old refrain of conscripts: "Dog of a trade," "When shall we be out of it?" Even as we spoke there was pride in our breasts at the noise of trumpets in the mist below along the river and the Eighth making its presence known, and our uniforms and our swords.

We stopped at last before a little square house with "The Lilacs" painted on its gate; there was a parched little lawn, a little fountain, a tripod supporting a globular mirror, and we went in.

Matthieu's uncle met us; he was in a cotton suit walking about among his flowers and enjoying the evening. He was a man of about fifty, short, strong, brown, and abrupt. Though it was already evening and one could see little, we knew well enough that his eyes were steady and dark. For he had the attitude and carriage of those men who invigorate France. His self-confidence was evident in his sturdy legs and his arms akimbo, his vulgarity in his gesture, his narrowness in his forward and peering look, his indomitable energy in every movement of his body. It did not surprise me to learn in his later conversation that he was a Republican. He spoke at once to us both, saying in a kind of grumbling shout:

"Well, gunners!"

Then he spoke roughly to his nephew, telling him we were late: to me a little too politely saying he put no blame on me, but only on his scapegrace of a nephew. I said that our lateness was due to having to find the Sergeant. He answered:

"One must always put the blame on some one else," which was rank bad manners.

He led the way into the house. The dining-room gave on to a veranda, and beyond this was another little lawn with trees. In the dark a few insects chirped, and, as the evening was warmish, one smelt the flowers. The windows had been left open. Everything was clean, neat, and bare. On the walls were two excellent old prints, a badly drawn certificate of membership in some society or other, a still worse portrait of a local worthy, and a water-colour painted, I suppose, by his daughter.

He introduced me to his wife, a hard-featured woman, with thin hair, full of duty, busy and precise - fresh from the kitchen. We unhooked our swords with the conventional clatter, and sat down to the meal.

I will confess that as we ate those excellent dishes (they were all excellent) and drank that ordinary wine, I seemed to be living in a book rather than among living men. Here was I, a young English boy, thrust by accident into the French army. Fairly acquainted with its language, though I spoke it with an accent; taken (of course) by my host for a pure Englishman, though half my blood was French. Here was I sitting at his side and watching things, and learning - as for him, men like him, of whom England has some few left in forgotten villages, and who are, when they can be found, the strength of a State, they never bother about learning anything far removed from their realities.

I noticed the one servant going in and out rapidly, bullied a good deal by her master, deft but nervous. I noticed how everything was solid and good: the chairs, table, clock, clothes--and especially the cooking. I saw his local newspaper neatly folded on the mantelpiece. I saw the pet dog of his retirement crouching at his side, and I heard the chance sayings he threw to his nephew, the maxims granted to youth long ago. I wondered how much that nephew would inherit. I guessed about ten thousand pounds at the least, and twenty at the most. I was almost inclined to cross myself at the thought of such a lot of money.

My host grew more genial: he asked me questions on England. His wife also was interested in that country. They both knew more about it than their class in England knows about France: and this astonished me, for, in the gentry, English gentlemen know more about France than French gentlemen know about England.

He asked me if agriculture were still in a bad way; why we had not more of the people at the Universities; why we allowed only lords into our Parliament, and whether there were more French commercial travellers in England than English commercial travellers in France. In all these points I admitted, supplemented, and corrected, and probably distorted his impressions.

He asked me if English gunners were good. I said I did not know, but I thought so. He replied that the English drivers had a high reputation in his country - his brother (the brother of an ironmonger) was a Captain of the Horse Artillery, and had told him so. And this he said to me, who wore a French uniform, but whose heart was away up in Arun Valley, in my own woods, and at rest and alone.

In the last hour when we had to be getting back a certain tenderness came into his somewhat mercenary look. He devoted himself more to his nephew; he took him aside, and, with some ceremony, gave him money. He offered us cigars. We took one each. His round French face became all wrinkles, like a cracked plate. He said:

"Bah! Take them by the pocketful! We know what life is in the regiment," and he crammed half a dozen each into the pocket of our tunics. But when he said "We know what the life is," he lied. For he had only been a "mobile" in '70. He had voted, but never suffered, the conscription.

So we said good night to this man, our host, who had so regaled us. I may be wrong, but I fancy he was an anti-clerical. He was a hard man, just, eager, and attentive, narrow, as I have said, and unconsciously (as I have also said) building up the nation.

There was the Ironmonger of Bar-le-Duc; and there are hundreds of thousands of the same kind.