User Rating: 0 / 5

Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 
Dorothy Canfield image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Between 1620 and 1630 Giles Boardman, an honest, sober, well-to-do English master-builder found himself hindered in the exercise of his religion. He prayed a great deal and groaned a great deal more (which was perhaps the Puritan equivalent of swearing), but in the end he left his old home and his prosperous business and took his wife and young children the long, difficult, dangerous ocean voyage to the New World. There, to the end of his homesick days, he fought a hand-to-hand battle with wild nature to wring a living from the soil. He died at fifty-four, an exhausted old man, but his last words were, “Praise God that I was allowed to escape out of the pit digged for me.”


His family and descendants, condemned irrevocably to an obscure struggle for existence, did little more than keep themselves alive for about a hundred and thirty years, during which time Giles’ spirit slept.


In 1775 one of his great-great-grandsons, Elmer Boardman by name, learned that the British soldiers were coming to take by force a stock of gunpowder concealed in a barn for the use of the barely beginning American army. He went very white, but he kissed his wife and little boy good-bye, took down from its pegs his musket, and went out to join his neighbors in repelling the well-disciplined English forces. He lost a leg that day and clumped about on a wooden substitute all his hard-working life; but, although he was never anything more than a poor farmer, he always stood very straight with a smile on his plain face whenever the new flag of the new country was carried past him on the Fourth of July. He died, and his spirit slept.


In 1854 one of his grandsons, Peter Boardman, had managed to pull himself up from the family tradition of hard-working poverty, and was a prosperous grocer in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The struggle for the possession of Kansas between the Slave States and the North announced itself. It became known in Massachusetts that sufficiently numerous settlements of Northerners voting for a Free State would carry the day against slavery in the new Territory. For about a month Peter Boardman looked very sick and yellow, had repeated violent attacks of indigestion, and lost more than fifteen pounds. At the end of that time he sold out his grocery (at the usual loss when a business is sold out) and took his family by the slow, laborious caravan route out to the little new, raw settlement on the banks of the Kaw, which was called Lawrence for the city in the East which so many of its inhabitants had left. Here he recovered his health rapidly, and the look of distress left his face; indeed, he had a singular expression of secret happiness. He was caught by the Quantrell raid and was one of those hiding in the cornfield when Quantrell’s men rode in and cut them down like rabbits. He died there of his wounds. And his spirit slept.


His granddaughter, Ellen, plain, rather sallow, very serious, was a sort of office manager in the firm of Walker and Pennypacker, the big wholesale hardware merchants of Marshallton, Kansas. She had passed through the public schools, had graduated from the High School, and had planned to go to the State University; but the death of the uncle who had brought her up after the death of her parents made that plan impossible. She learned as quickly as possible the trade which would bring in the most money immediately, became a good stenographer, though never a rapid one, and at eighteen entered the employ of the hardware firm.


She was still there at twenty-seven, on the day in August, 1914, when she opened the paper and saw that Belgium had been invaded by the Germans. She read with attention what was printed about the treaty obligation involved, although she found it hard to understand. At noon she stopped before the desk of Mr. Pennypacker, the senior member of the firm, for whom she had a great respect, and asked him if she had made out correctly the import of the editorial. “_Had_ the Germans promised they wouldn’t ever go into Belgium in war?”


“Looks that way,” said Mr. Pennypacker, nodding, and searching for a lost paper. The moment after, he had forgotten the question and the questioner.
Ellen had always rather regretted not having been able to “go on with her education,” and this gave her certain little habits of mind which differentiated her somewhat from the other stenographers and typewriters in the office with her, and from her cousin, with whom she shared the small bedroom in Mrs. Wilson’s boarding-house. For instance, she looked up words in the dictionary when she did not understand them, and she had kept all her old schoolbooks on the shelf of the boarding-house bedroom. Finding that she had only a dim recollection of where Belgium was, she took down her old geography and located it. This was in the wait for lunch, which meal was always late at Mrs. Wilson’s. The relation between the size of the little country and the bulk of Germany made an impression on her. “My! it looks as though they could just make one mouthful of it,” she remarked. “It’s _awfully_ little.”
“Who?” asked Maggie. “What?”
“Belgium and Germany.”


Maggie was blank for a moment. Then she remembered. “Oh, the war. Yes, I know. Mr. Wentworth’s fine sermon was about it yesterday. War is the wickedest thing in the world. Anything is better than to go killing each other. They ought to settle it by arbitration. Mr. Wentworth said so.”
“They oughtn’t to have done it if they’d promised not to,” said Ellen. The bell rang for the belated lunch and she went down to the dining-room even more serious than was her habit.


She read the paper very closely for the next few days, and one morning surprised Maggie by the loudness of her exclamation as she glanced at the headlines.
“What’s the matter?” asked her cousin. “Have they found the man who killed that old woman?” She herself was deeply interested in a murder case in Chicago.
Ellen did not hear her. “Well, thank _goodness!_” she exclaimed. “England is going to help France and Belgium!”


Maggie looked over her shoulder disapprovingly. “Oh, I think it’s awful! Another country going to war! England a Christian nation, too! I don’t see how Christians _can_ go to war. And I don’t see what call the Belgians had, anyhow, to fight Germany. They might have known they couldn’t stand up against such a big country. All the Germans wanted to do was just to walk along the roads. They wouldn’t have done any harm. Mr. Schnitzler was explaining it to me down at the office.


“They’d promised they wouldn’t,” repeated Ellen. “And the Belgians had promised everybody that they wouldn’t let anybody go across their land to pick on France that way. They kept their promise and the Germans didn’t. It makes me _mad!_ I wish to goodness our country would help them!”
Maggie was horrified. “_Ellen Boardman_, would you want _Americans_ to commit murder? You’d better go to church with me next Sunday and hear Mr. Wentworth preach one of his fine sermons.”


Ellen did this, and heard a sermon on passive resistance as the best answer to violence. She was accustomed to accepting without question any statement she found in a printed book, or what any speaker said in any lecture. Also her mind, having been uniquely devoted for many years to the problems of office administration, moved with more readiness among letter-files and card-catalogues of customers than among the abstract ideas where now, rather to her dismay, she began to find her thoughts centering. More than a week passed after hearing that sermon before she said, one night as she was brushing her hair: “About the Belgians—if a robber wanted us to let him go through this room so he could get into Mrs. Wilson’s room and take all her money and maybe kill her, would you feel all right just to snuggle down in bed and let him? Especially if you had told Mrs. Wilson that she needn’t ever lock the door that leads into our room, because you’d see to it that nobody came through?”


“Oh, but,” said Maggie, “Mr. Wentworth says it is only the German _Government_ that wanted to invade Belgium, that the German soldiers just hated to do it. If you could fight the German Kaiser, it’d be all right.”


Ellen jumped at this admission. “Oh, Mr. Wentworth does think there are _some_ cases where it isn’t enough just to stand by, and say you don’t like it?”
Maggie ignored this. “He says the people who really get killed are only the poor soldiers that aren’t to blame.”


Ellen stood for a moment by the gas, her hair up in curl-papers, the light full on her plain, serious face, sallow above the crude white of her straight, unornamented nightgown. She said, and to her own surprise her voice shook as she spoke: “Well, suppose the real robber stayed down in the street and only sent up here to rob and kill Mrs. Wilson some men who just hated to do it, but were too afraid of him not to. Would you think it was all right for us to open our door and let them go through without trying to stop them?”


Maggie did not follow this reasoning, but she received a disagreeable, rather daunting impression from the eyes which looked at her so hard, from the stern, quivering voice. She flounced back on her pillow, saying impatiently: “I don’t know what’s got into you, Ellen Boardman. You look actually _queer_, these days! What do _you_ care so much about the Belgians for? You never heard of them before all this began! And everybody knows how immoral French people are.”


Ellen turned out the gas and got into bed silently.
Maggie felt uncomfortable and aggrieved. The next time she saw Mr. Wentworth she repeated the conversation to him. She hoped and expected that the young minister would immediately furnish her with a crushing argument to lay Ellen low, but instead he was silent for a moment, and then said: “That’s rather an interesting illustration, about the burglars going through your room. Where does she get such ideas?”


Maggie disavowed with some heat any knowledge of the source of her cousin’s eccentricities. “I don’t _know_ where! She’s a stenographer downtown.”
Mr. Wentworth looked thoughtful and walked away, evidently having forgotten Maggie.
In the days which followed, the office-manager of the wholesale hardware house more and more justified the accusation of looking “queer.” It came to be so noticeable that one day her employer, Mr. Pennypacker, asked her if she didn’t feel well. “You’ve been looking sort of under the weather,” he said.
She answered, “I’m just sick because the United States won’t do anything to help Belgium and France.”


Mr. Pennypacker had never received a more violent shock of pure astonishment. “Great Scotland!” he ejaculated, “what’s that to you?”
“Well, I live in the United States,” she advanced, as though it were an argument.


Mr. Pennypacker looked at her hard. It was the same plain, serious, rather sallow face he had seen for years bent over his typewriter and his letter-files. But the eyes were different—anxious, troubled.


“It makes me sick,” she repeated, “to see a great big nation picking on a little one that was only keeping its promise.”
Her employer cast about for a conceivable reason for the aberration. “Any of your folks come here from there?” he ventured.
“Gracious, _no!_” cried Ellen, almost as much shocked as Maggie would have been at the idea that there might be “foreigners” in her family. She added: “But you don’t have to be related to a little boy, do you, to get mad at a man that’s beating him up, especially if the boy hasn’t done anything he oughtn’t to?”


Mr. Pennypacker stared. “I don’t know that I ever looked at it that way.” He added: “I’ve been so taken up with that lost shipment of nails, to tell the truth, that I haven’t read much about the war. There’s always _some_ sort of a war going on over there in Europe, seems to me.” He stared for a moment into space, and came back with a jerk to the letter he was dictating.


That evening, over the supper-table, he repeated to his wife what his stenographer had said. His wife asked, “That little sallow Miss Boardman that never has a word to say for herself?” and upon being told that it was the same, said wonderingly, “Well, what ever started _her_ up, I wonder?” After a time she said: “_Is_ Germany so much bigger than Belgium as all that? Pete, go get your geography.” She and her husband and their High School son gazed at the map. “It looks that way,” said the father. “Gee! They must have had their nerve with them! Gimme the paper.” He read with care the war-news and the editorial which he had skipped in the morning, and as he read he looked very grave, and rather cross. When he laid the paper down he said, impatiently: “Oh, damn the war! Damn Europe, anyhow!” His wife took the paper out of his hand and read in her turn the news of the advance into Northern France.
Just before they fell asleep his wife remarked out of the darkness, “Mr. Scheidemann, down at the grocery, said to-day the war was because the other nations were jealous of Germany.”


“Well, I don’t know,” said Mr. Pennypacker heavily, “that I’d have any call to take an ax to a man because I thought he was jealous of me.”
“That’s so,” admitted his wife.
During that autumn Ellen read the papers, and from time to time broke her silence and unburdened her mind to the people in the boarding-house. They considered her unbalanced on the subject. The young reporter on the Marshallton _Herald_ liked to lead her on to “get her going,” as he said—but the others dodged whenever the war was mentioned and looked apprehensively in her direction.


The law of association of ideas works, naturally enough, in Marshallton, Kansas, quite as much at its ease as in any psychological laboratory. In fact Marshallton was a psychological laboratory with Ellen Boardman, an undefined element of transmutation. Without knowing why, scarcely realizing that the little drab figure had crossed his field of vision, Mr. Pennypacker found the war recurring to his thoughts every time he saw her. He did not at all enjoy this, and each time that it happened he thrust the disagreeable subject out of his mind with impatience. The constant recurrence of the necessity for this effort brought upon his usually alert, good-humored face an occasional clouded expression like that which darkened his stenographer’s eyes. When Ellen came into the dining-room of the boarding-house, even though she did not say a word, every one there was aware of an unpleasant interruption to the habitual, pleasant current of their thoughts directed upon their own affairs. In self-defense some of the women took to knitting polo-caps for Belgian children. With those in their hands they could listen, with more reassuring certainty that she was “queer,” to Miss Boardman’s comments on what she read in the newspaper. Every time Mr. Wentworth, preaching one of his excellent, civic-minded sermons on caring for the babies of the poor, or organizing a playground for the children of the factory workers, or extending the work of the Ladies’ Guild to neighborhood visits, caught sight of that plain, very serious face looking up at him searchingly, expectantly, he wondered if he had been right in announcing that he would not speak on the war because it would certainly cause dissension among his congregation.


One day, in the middle of winter, he found Miss Boardman waiting for him in the church vestibule after every one else had gone. She said, with her usual directness: “Mr. Wentworth, do you think the French ought to have just let the Germans walk right in and take Paris? Would you let them walk right in and take Washington?”
The minister was a young man, with a good deal of natural heat in his composition, and he found himself answering this bald question with a simplicity as bald: “No, I wouldn’t.”
“Well, if they did right, why don’t we help them?” Ellen’s homely, monosyllabic words had a ring of despairing sincerity.


Mr. Wentworth dodged them hastily. “We _are_ helping them. The charitable effort of the United States in the war is something astounding. The statistics show that we have helped....” He was going on to repeat some statistics of American war-relief just then current, when Mr. Scheidemann, the prosperous German grocer, a most influential member of the First Congregational Church, came back into the vestibule to look for his umbrella, which he had forgotten after the service. By a reflex action beyond his control, the minister stopped talking about the war. He and Miss Boardman had, for just long enough so that he realized it, the appearance of people “caught” discussing something they ought not to mention. The instant after, when Ellen had turned away, he felt the liveliest astonishment and annoyance at having done this. He feared that Miss Boardman might have the preposterous notion that he was _afraid_ to talk about the war before a German. This idea nettled him intolerably. Just before he fell asleep that night he had a most disagreeable moment, half awake, half asleep, when he himself entertained the preposterous idea which he had attributed to Miss Boardman. It woke him up, broad awake, and very much vexed. The little wound he had inflicted on his own vanity smarted. Thereafter at any mention of the war he straightened his back to a conscious stiffness, and raised his voice if a German were within hearing. And every time he saw that plain, dull face of the stenographer, he winced.
On the 8th of May, 1915, when Ellen went down to breakfast, the boarding-house dining-room was excited. Ellen heard the sinking of the _Lusitania_ read out aloud by the young reporter. To every one’s surprise, she added nothing to the exclamations of horror with which the others greeted the news. She looked very white and left the room without touching her breakfast. She went directly down to the office and when Mr. Pennypacker came in at nine o’clock she asked him for a leave of absence, “maybe three months, maybe more,” depending on how long her money held out. She explained that she had in the savings-bank five hundred dollars, the entire savings of a lifetime, which she intended to use now.


It was the first time in eleven years that she had ever asked for more than her regular yearly fortnight, but Mr. Pennypacker was not surprised. “You’ve been looking awfully run-down lately. It’ll do you good to get a real rest. But it won’t cost you all _that!_ Where are you going? To Battle Creek?”
“I’m not going to rest,” said Miss Boardman, in a queer voice. “I’m going to work, in France.”


The first among the clashing and violent ideas which this announcement aroused in Mr. Pennypacker’s mind was the instant certainty that she could not have seen the morning paper. “Great Scotland—not much you’re not! This is no time to be taking ocean trips. The submarines have just got one of the big ocean ships, hundreds of women and children drowned.”


“I heard about that,” she said, looking at him very earnestly, with a dumb emotion struggling in her eyes. “That’s why I’m going.”
Something about the look in her eyes silenced the business man for a moment. He thought uneasily that she had certainly gone a little dippy over the war. Then he drew a long breath and started in confidently to dissuade her.


At ten o’clock, informed that if she went she need not expect to come back, she went out to the savings-bank, drew out her five hundred dollars, went down to the station and bought a ticket to Washington, one of Mr. Pennypacker’s arguments having been the great difficulty of getting a passport.
Then she went back to the boarding-house and began to pack two-thirds of her things into her trunk, and put the other third into her satchel, all she intended to take with her.


At noon Maggie came back from her work, found her thus, and burst into shocked and horrified tears. At two o’clock Maggie went to find the young reporter, and, her eyes swollen, her face between anger and alarm, she begged him to come and “talk to Ellen. She’s gone off her head.”
The reporter asked what form her mania took.


“She’s going to France to work for the French and Belgians as long as her money holds out ... all the money she’s saved in all her life!”
The first among the clashing ideas which this awakened in the reporter’s mind was the most heartfelt and gorgeous amusement. The idea of that dumb, backwoods, pie-faced stenographer carrying her valuable services to the war in Europe seemed to him the richest thing that had happened in years! He burst into laughter. “Yes, sure I’ll come and talk to her,” he agreed. He found her lifting a tray into her trunk. “See here, Miss Boardman,” he remarked reasonably, “do you know what you need? You need a sense of humor! You take things too much in dead earnest. The sense of humor keeps you from doing ridiculous things, don’t you know it does?”


Ellen faced him, seriously considering this. “Do you think all ridiculous things are bad?” she asked him, not as an argument, but as a genuine question.
He evaded this and went on. “Just look at yourself now ... just look at what you’re planning to do. Here is the biggest war in the history of the world; all the great nations involved; millions and millions of dollars being poured out; the United States sending hundreds and thousands of packages and hospital supplies by the million; and nurses and doctors and Lord knows how many trained people ... and, look! who comes here?—a stenographer from Walker and Pennypacker’s, in Marshallton, Kansas, setting out to the war!”


Ellen looked long at this picture of herself, and while she considered it the young man looked long at her. As he looked, he stopped laughing. She said finally, very simply, in a declarative sentence devoid of any but its obvious meaning, “No, I can’t see that that is so very funny.”
At six o’clock that evening she was boarding the train for Washington, her cousin Maggie weeping by her side, Mrs. Wilson herself escorting her, very much excited by the momentousness of the event taking place under her roof, her satchel carried by none other than the young reporter, who, oddly enough, was not laughing at all. He bought her a box of chocolates and a magazine, and shook hands with her vigorously as the train started to pull out of the station. He heard himself saying, “Say, Miss Boardman, if you see anything for me to do over there, you might let me know,” and found that he must run to get himself off the train before it carried him away from Marshallton altogether.


A fortnight from that day (passports were not so difficult to get in those distant days when war-relief work was the eccentricity of only an occasional individual) she was lying in her second-class cabin, as the steamer rolled in the Atlantic swells beyond Sandy Hook. She was horribly seasick, but her plans were all quite clear. Of course she belonged to the Young Women’s Christian Association in Marshallton, so she knew all about it. At Washington she had found shelter at the Y. W. C. A. quarters. In New York she had done the same thing, and when she arrived in Paris (if she ever did) she could of course go there to stay. Her roommate, a very sophisticated, much-traveled art student, was immensely amused by the artlessness of this plan. “I’ve got the _dernier cri_ in greenhorns in my cabin,” she told her group on deck. “She’s expecting to find a Y. W. C. A. in _Paris!_”


But the wisdom of the simple was justified once more. There was a Y. W. C. A. in Paris, run by an energetic, well-informed American spinster. Ellen crawled into the rather hard bed in the very small room (the cheapest offered her) and slept twelve hours at a stretch, utterly worn out with the devastating excitement of her first travels in a foreign land. Then she rose up, comparatively refreshed, and with her foolish, ignorant simplicity inquired where in Paris her services could be of use. The energetic woman managing the Y. W. C. A. looked at her very dubiously.
“Well, there might be something for you over on the rue Pharaon, number 27. I hear there’s a bunch of society dames trying to get up a _vestiaire_ for refugees, there.”
As Ellen noted down the address she said warningly, her eyes running over Ellen’s worn blue serge suit: “They don’t pay anything. It’s work for volunteers, you know.”
Ellen was astonished that any one should think of getting pay for work done in France. “Oh, gracious, no!” she said, turning away.
The directress of the Y. W. C. A. murmured to herself: “Well, you certainly never can tell by _looks!_”


At the rue Pharaon, number 27, Ellen was motioned across a stony gray courtyard littered with wooden packing-cases, into an immense, draughty dark room, that looked as though it might have been originally the coach and harness-room of a big stable. This also was strewed and heaped with packing-cases in indescribable confusion, some opened and disgorging innumerable garments of all colors and materials, others still tightly nailed up. A couple of elderly workmen in blouses were opening one of these. Before others knelt or stood distracted-looking, elegantly dressed women, their arms full of parti-colored bundles, their eyes full of confusion. In one corner, on a bench, sat a row of wretchedly poor women and white-faced, silent children, the latter shod more miserably than the poorest negro child in Marshallton. Against a packing-case near the entrance leaned a beautifully dressed, handsome, middle-aged woman, a hammer in one hand. Before her at ease stood a pretty girl, the fineness of whose tightly drawn silk stockings, the perfection of whose gleaming coiffure, the exquisite hang and fit of whose silken dress filled Ellen Boardman with awe. In an instant her own stout cotton hose hung wrinkled about her ankles, she felt on her neck every stringy wisp of her badly dressed hair, the dip of her skirt at the back was a physical discomfort. The older woman was speaking. Ellen could not help overhearing. She said forcibly: “No, Miss Parton, you will not come in contact with a single heroic poilu here. We have nothing to offer you but hard, uninteresting work for the benefit of ungrateful, uninteresting refugee women, many of whom will try to cheat and get double their share. You will not lay your hand on a single fevered masculine brow....” She broke off, made an effort for self-control and went on with a resolutely reasonable air: “You’d better go out to the hospital at Neuilly. You can wear a uniform there from the first day, and be in contact with the men. I wouldn’t have bothered you to come here, except that you wrote from Detroit that you would be willing to do _any_thing, scrub floors or wash dishes.”


The other received all this with the indestructible good humor of a girl who knows herself very pretty and as well dressed as any one in the world. “I know I did, Mrs. Putnam,” she said, amused at her own absurdity. “But now I’m here I’d be _too_ disappointed to go back if I hadn’t been working for the soldiers. All the girls expect me to have stories about the work, you know. And I can’t stay very long, only four months, because my coming-out party is in October. I guess I _will_ go to Neuilly. They take you for three months there, you know.” She smiled pleasantly, turned with athletic grace and picked her way among the packing-cases back to the door.


Ellen advanced in her turn.
“Well?” said the middle-aged woman, rather grimly. Her intelligent eyes took in relentlessly every detail of Ellen’s costume and Ellen felt them at their work.
“I came to see if I couldn’t help,” said Ellen.
“Don’t you want direct contact with the wounded soldiers?” asked the older woman ironically.
“No,” said Ellen with her habitual simplicity. “I wouldn’t know how to do anything for them. I’m not a nurse.”
“You don’t suppose _that’s_ any obstacle!” ejaculated the other woman.
“But I never had _any_thing to do with sick people,” said Ellen. “I’m the office-manager of a big hardware firm in Kansas.”
Mrs. Putnam gasped like a drowning person coming to the surface. “You _are!_” she cried. “You don’t happen to know shorthand, do you?”
“Gracious! of course I know shorthand!” said Ellen, her astonishment proving her competence.
Mrs. Putnam laid down her hammer and drew another long breath. “How much time can you give us?” she asked. “Two afternoons a week? Three?”
“Oh, _my!_” said Ellen, “I can give you all my time, from eight in the morning till six at night. That’s what I came for.”
Mrs. Putnam looked at her a moment as though to assure herself that she was not dreaming, and then, seizing her by the arm, she propelled her rapidly towards the back of the room, and through a small door into a dingy little room with two desks in it. Among the heaped-up papers on one of these a blond young woman with inky fingers sought wildly something which she did not find. She said without looking up: “Oh, Aunt Maria, I’ve just discovered that that shipment of clothes from Louisville got acknowledged to the people in Seattle! And I can’t find that letter from the woman in Indianapolis who offered to send children’s shirts from her husband’s factory. You said you laid it on your desk, last night, but I _cannot_ find it. And do you remember what you wrote Mrs. Worthington? Did you say anything about the shoes?”
Ellen heard this but dimly, her gaze fixed on the confusion of the desks which made her physically dizzy to contemplate. Never had she dreamed that papers, sacred records of fact, could be so maltreated. In a reflex response to the last question of the lovely, distressed young lady she said: “Why don’t you look at the carbon copy of the letter to Mrs. Worthington?”
“_Copy!_” cried the young lady, aghast. “Why, we don’t begin to have time to write the letters _once_, let alone _copy_ them!”
Ellen gazed horrified into an abyss of ignorance which went beyond her utmost imaginings. She said feebly, “If you kept your letters in a letter-file, you wouldn’t ever lose them.”
“There,” said Mrs. Putnam, in the tone of one unexpectedly upheld in a rather bizarre opinion, “I’ve been saying all the time we ought to have a letter-file. But do you suppose you could _buy_ one in Paris?” She spoke dubiously from the point of view of one who had bought nothing but gloves and laces and old prints in Paris.
Ellen answered with the certainty of one who had found the Y. W. C. A. in Paris: “I’m sure you can. Why, they could not do business a _minute_ without letter-files.”
Mrs. Putnam sank into a chair with a sigh of bewilderment and fatigue, and showed herself to be as truly a superior person as she looked by making the following speech to the newcomer: “The truth is, Miss....”
“Boardman,” supplied Ellen.


“Miss Boardman, the fact is that we are trying to do something which is beyond us, something we ought never to have undertaken. But we didn’t know we were undertaking it, you see. And now that it is begun, it must not fail. All the wonderful American good-will which has materialized in that room full of packing-cases must not be wasted, must get to the people who need it so direly. It began this way. We had no notion that we would have so great an affair to direct. My niece and I were living here when the war broke out. Of course we gave all our own clothes we could spare and all the money we could for the refugees. Then we wrote home to our American friends. One of my letters was published by chance in a New York paper and copied in a number of others. Everybody who happened to know my name”—(Ellen heard afterwards that she was of the holy of holies of New England families)—“began sending me money and boxes of clothing. It all arrived so suddenly, so unexpectedly. We had to rent this place to put the things in. The refugees came in swarms. We found ourselves overwhelmed. It is impossible to find an English-speaking stenographer who is not already more than overworked. The only help we get is from volunteers, a good many of them American society girls like that one you....” she paused to invent a sufficiently savage characterization and hesitated to pronounce it. “Well, most of them are not quite so absurd as that. But none of them know any more than we do about keeping accounts, letters....”


Ellen broke in: “How do you keep your accounts, anyhow? Bound ledger, or the loose-leaf system?”
They stared. “I have been careful to set down everything I could _remember_ in a little note-book,” said Mrs. Putnam.
Ellen looked about for a chair and sat down on it hastily. When she could speak again, after a moment of silent collecting of her forces she said: “Well, I guess the first thing to do is to get a letter-file. I don’t know any French, so I probably couldn’t get it. If one of you could go....”
The pretty young lady sprang for her hat. “I’ll go! I’ll go, Auntie.”
“And,” continued Ellen, “you can’t do anything till you keep copies of your letters and you can’t make copies unless you have a typewriter. Don’t you suppose you could rent one?”


“I’ll rent one before I come back,” said Eleanor, who evidently lacked neither energy nor good-will. She said to Mrs. Putnam: “I’m going, instead of you, so that you can superintend opening those boxes. They are making a most horrible mess of it, I know.”
“Before a single one is opened, you ought to take down the name and address of the sender, and then note the contents,” said Ellen, speaking with authority. “A card-catalogue would be a good system for keeping that record, I should think, with dates of the arrival of the cases. And why couldn’t you keep track of your refugees that way, too? A card for each family, with a record on it of the number in the family and of everything given. You could refer to it in a moment, and carry it out to the room where the refugees are received.”


They gazed at her plain, sallow countenance in rapt admiration.
“Eleanor,” said Mrs. Putnam, “bring back cards for a card-catalogue, hundreds of cards, thousands of cards.” She addressed Ellen with a respect which did honor to her native intelligence. “Miss Boardman, wouldn’t you better take off your hat? Couldn’t you work more at your ease? You could hang your things here.” With one sweep of her white, well-cared-for hand she snatched her own Parisian habiliments from the hanger and hook, and installed there the Marshallton wraps of Ellen Boardman. She set her down in front of the desk; she put in her hands the ridiculous little Russia leather-covered note-book of the “accounts”; she opened drawer after drawer crammed with letters; and with a happy sigh she went out to the room of the packing-cases, closing the door gently behind her, that she might not disturb the high-priestess of business-management who already bent over those abominably misused records, her eyes gleaming with the sacred fire of system.


There is practically nothing more to record about the four months spent by Ellen Boardman as far as her work at the _vestiaire_ was concerned. Every day she arrived at number 27 rue Pharaon at eight o’clock and put in a good hour of quiet work before any of the more or less irregular volunteer ladies appeared. She worked there till noon, returned to the Y. W. C. A., lunched, was in the office again by one o’clock, had another hour of forceful concentration before any of the cosmopolitan great ladies finished their lengthy _déjeuners_, and she stayed there until six in the evening, when every one else had gone. She realized that her effort must be not only to create a rational system of records and accounts and correspondence which she herself could manage, but a fool-proof one which could be left in the hands of the elegant ladies who would remain in Paris after she had returned to Kansas.
And yet, not so fool-proof as she had thought at first. She was agreeably surprised to find both Mrs. Putnam and her pretty niece perfectly capable of understanding a system once it was invented, set in working order, and explained to them. She came to understand that what, on her first encounter with them, she had naturally enough taken for congenital imbecility, was merely the result of an ignorance and an inexperience which remained to the end astounding to her. Their good-will was as great as their native capacity. Eleanor set herself resolutely, if very awkwardly, to learn the use of the typewriter. Mrs. Putnam even developed the greatest interest in the ingenious methods of corraling and marshaling information and facts which were second nature to the business-woman. “I never saw anything more fascinating!” she cried the day when Ellen explained to her the workings of a system for cross-indexing the card-catalogues of refugees already aided. “How _do_ you think of such things?”


Ellen did not explain that she generally thought of them in the two or three extra hours of work she put in every day, while Mrs. Putnam ate elaborate food.
It soon became apparent that there had been much “repeating” among the refugees. The number possible to clothe grew rapidly, far beyond what the “office force” could manage to investigate. Ellen set her face against miscellaneous giving without knowledge of conditions. She devised a system of visiting inspectors which kept track of all the families in their rapidly growing list. She even made out a sort of time-card for the visiting ladies which enabled the office to keep some track of what they did, and yet did not ruffle their leisure-class dignity ... and this was really an achievement. She suggested, made out, and had printed an orderly report of what they had done, what money had come in, how it had been spent, what clothes had been given and how distributed, the number of people aided, the most pressing needs. This she had put in every letter sent to America. The result was enough to justify Mrs. Putnam’s naïve astonishment and admiration of her brilliant idea. Packing-cases and checks flowed in by every American steamer.
Ellen’s various accounting systems and card-catalogues responded with elastic ease to the increased volume of facts, as she of course expected them to; but Mrs. Putnam could never be done marveling at the cool certainty with which all this immense increase was handled. She had a shudder as she thought of what would have happened if Miss Boardman had not dropped down from heaven upon them. Dining out, of an evening, she spent much time expatiating on the astonishing virtues of one of her volunteers.


Ellen conceived a considerable regard for Mrs. Putnam, but she did not talk of her in dining out, because she never dined anywhere. She left the “office” at six o’clock and proceeded to a nearby bakery where she bought four sizable rolls. An apple cart supplied a couple of apples, and even her ignorance of French was not too great an obstacle to the purchase of some cakes of sweet chocolate. With these decently hidden in a small black hand-bag, she proceeded to the waiting-room of the Gare de l’Est where, like any traveler waiting for his train she ate her frugal meal; ate as much of it, that is, as a painful tightness in her throat would let her. For the Gare de l’Est was where the majority of French soldiers took their trains to go back to the front after their occasional week’s furlough with their families.


No words of mine can convey any impression of what she saw there. No one who has not seen the Gare de l’Est night after night can ever imagine the sum of stifled human sorrow which filled it thickly, like a dreadful incense of pain going up before some cruel god. It was there that the mothers, the wives, the sweethearts, the sisters, the children brought their priceless all and once more laid it on the altar. It was there that those horrible silent farewells were said, the more unendurable because they were repeated and repeated till human nature reeled under the burden laid on it by the will. The great court outside, the noisy echoing waiting-room, the inner platform which was the uttermost limit for those accompanying the soldiers returning to hell,—they were not only always filled with living hearts broken on the wheel, but they were thronged with ghosts, ghosts of those whose farewell kiss had really been the last, with ghosts of those who had watched the dear face out of sight and who were never to see it again. Those last straining, wordless embraces, those last, hot, silent kisses, the last touch of the little child’s hand on the father’s cheek which it was never to touch again ... the nightmare place reeked of them!


The stenographer from Kansas had found it as simply as she had done everything else. “Which station do the families go to, to say good-bye to their soldiers?” she had asked, explaining apologetically that she thought maybe if she went there too she could help sometimes; there might be a heavy baby to carry, or somebody who had lost his ticket, or somebody who hadn’t any lunch for the train.


After the first evening spent there, she had shivered and wept all night in her bed; but she had gone back the next evening, with the money she saved by eating bread and apples for her dinner; for of course the sweet chocolate was for the soldiers. She sat there, armed with nothing but her immense ignorance, her immense sympathy. On that second evening she summoned enough courage to give some chocolate to an elderly shabby soldier, taking the train sadly, quite alone; and again to a white-faced young lad accompanied by his bent, poorly dressed grandmother. What happened in both those cases sent her back to the Y. W. C. A. to make up laboriously from her little pocket French dictionary and to learn by heart this sentence: “I am sorry that I cannot understand French. I am an American.” Thereafter the surprised and extremely articulate Gallic gratitude which greeted her timid overtures, did not leave her so helplessly swamped in confusion. She stammered out her little phrase with a shy, embarrassed smile and withdrew as soon as possible from the hearty handshake which was nearly always the substitute offered for the unintelligible thanks. How many such handshakes she had! Sometimes as she watched her right hand, tapping on the typewriter, she thought: “Those hands which it has touched, they may be dead now. They were heroes’ hands.” She looked at her own with awe, because it had touched them.


Once her little phrase brought out an unexpected response from a rough-looking man who sat beside her on the bench waiting for his train, his eyes fixed gloomily on his great soldier’s shoes. She offered him, shamefacedly, a little sewing-kit which she herself had manufactured, a pad of writing-paper and some envelopes. He started, came out of his bitter brooding, looked at her astonished, and, as they all did without exception, read in her plain, earnest face what she was. He touched his battered trench helmet in a sketched salute and thanked her. She answered as usual that she was sorry she could not understand French, being an American. To her amazement he answered in fluent English, with an unmistakable New York twang: “Oh, you are, are you? Well, so’m I. Brought up there from the time I was a kid. But all my folks are French and my wife’s French and I couldn’t give the old country the go-by when trouble came.”


In the conversation which followed Ellen learned that his wife was expecting their first child in a few weeks ... “that’s why she didn’t come to see me off. She said it would just about kill her to watch me getting on the train.... Maybe you think it’s easy to leave her all alone ... the poor kid!” The tears rose frankly to his eyes. He blew his nose.
“Maybe I could do something for her,” suggested Ellen, her heart beating fast at the idea.
“Gee! Yes! If you’d go to see her! She talks a little English!” he cried. He gave her the name and address, and when that poilu went back to the front it was Ellen Boardman from Marshallton, Kansas, who walked with him to the gate, who shook hands with him, who waved him a last salute as he boarded his train.
The next night she did not go to the station. She went to see the wife. The night after that she was sewing on a baby’s wrapper as she sat in the Gare de l’Est, turning her eyes away in shame from the intolerable sorrow of those with families, watching for those occasional solitary or very poor ones whom alone she ventured to approach with her timidly proffered tokens of sympathy.
At the Y. W. C. A. opinions varied about her. She was patently to every eye respectable to her last drop of pale blood. And yet _was_ it quite respectable to go offering chocolate and writing-paper to soldiers you’d never seen before? Everybody knew what soldiers were! Some one finally decided smartly that her hat was a sufficient protection. It is true that her hat was not becoming, but I do not think it was what saved her from misunderstanding.
She did not always go to the Gare de l’Est every evening now. Sometimes she spent them in the little dormer-windowed room where the wife of the New York poilu waited for her baby. Several evenings she spent chasing elusive information from the American Ambulance Corps as to exactly the conditions in which a young man without money could come to drive an ambulance in France ... the young man without money being of course the reporter on the Marshallton _Herald_.


It chanced to be on one of the evenings when she was with the young wife that the need came. She sat on the stairs outside till nearly morning. When it was quiet, she took the little new citizen of the Republic in her arms, tears of mingled thanksgiving and dreadful fear raining down her face, because another man-child had been born into the world. Would _he_ grow up only to say farewell at the Gare de l’Est? Oh, she was not sorry that she had come to France to help in that war. She understood now, she understood.


It was Ellen who wrote to the father the letter announcing the birth of a child which gave him the right to another precious short furlough. It was Ellen who went down to the Gare de l’Est, this time to the joyful wait on the muddy street outside the side door from which the returning _permissionnaires_ issued forth, caked with mud to their eyes. It was Ellen who had never before “been kissed by a man” who was caught in a pair of dingy, horizon-blue arms and soundly saluted on each sallow cheek by the exultant father. It was Ellen who was made as much of a godmother as her Protestant affiliations permitted ... and oh, it was Ellen who made the fourth at the end of the furlough when (the first time the new mother had left her room) they went back to the Gare de l’Est. At the last it was Ellen who held the sleeping baby when the husband took his wife in that long, bitter embrace; it was Ellen who was not surprised or hurt that he turned away without a word to her ... she understood that ... it was Ellen whose arm was around the trembling young wife as they stood, their faces pressed against the barrier to see him for the last time; it was Ellen who went back with her to the silent desolation of the little room, who put the baby into the slackly hanging arms, and watched, her eyes burning with unshed tears, those arms close about the little new inheritor of humanity’s woes....


Four months from the time she landed in Paris her money was almost gone and she was quitting the city with barely enough in her pocket to take her back to Marshallton. As simply as she had come to Paris, she now went home. She _belonged_ to Marshallton. It was a very good thing for Marshallton that she did.


She gave fifty dollars to the mother of baby Jacques (that was why she had so very little left) and she promised to send her ten dollars every month as soon as she herself should be again a wage-earner. Mrs. Putnam and her niece, inconsolable at her loss, went down to the Gare du Quai d’Orsay to see her off, looking more in keeping with the elegant travelers starting for the Midi, than Ellen did. Her place, after all, had been at the Gare de l’Est. As they shook hands warmly with her, they gave her a beautiful bouquet, the evident cost of which stabbed her to the heart. What she could have done with that money!


“You have simply transformed the _vestiaire_, Miss Boardman,” said Mrs. Putnam with generous but by no means exaggerating ardor. “It would certainly have sunk under the waves if you hadn’t come to the rescue. I wish you _could_ have stayed, but thanks to your teaching we’ll be able to manage anything now.”


After the train had moved off, Mrs. Putnam said to her niece in a shocked voice: “Third class! That long trip to Bordeaux! She’ll die of fatigue. You don’t suppose she is going back because she didn’t have _money_ enough to stay! Why, I would have paid anything to keep her.” The belated nature of this reflection shows that Ellen’s teachings had never gone more than skin deep and that there was still something lacking in Mrs. Putnam’s grasp on the realities of contemporary life.


Ellen was again too horribly seasick to suffer much apprehension about submarines. This time she had as cabin-mate in the unventilated second-class cabin the “companion” of a great lady traveling of course in a suite in first-class. This great personage, when informed by her satellites’ nimble and malicious tongues of Ellen’s personality and recent errand in France, remarked with authority to the group of people about her at dinner, embarking upon the game which was the seventh course of the meal: “I disapprove wholly of these foolish American volunteers ... ignorant, awkward, provincial boors, for the most part, knowing nothing of all the exquisite old traditions of France, who thrust themselves forward. They make America a laughing-stock.”
Luckily, Ellen, pecking feebly at the chilly, boiled potato brought her by an impatient stewardess, could not know this characterization.
She arrived in Marshallton, and was astonished to find herself a personage. Her departure had made her much more a figure in the town life than she had ever been when she was still walking its streets. The day after her departure the young reporter had written her up in the _Herald_ in a lengthy paragraph, and not a humorous one either. The Sunday which she passed on the ocean after she left New York, Mr. Wentworth in one of his prayers implored the Divine blessing on “one of our number who has left home and safety to fulfil a high moral obligation and who even now is risking death in the pursuance of her duty as she conceives it.” Every one knew that he meant Ellen Boardman, about whom they had all read in the _Herald_. Mr. Pennypacker took, then and there, a decision which inexplicably lightened his heart. Being a good businessman, he did not keep it to himself, but allowed it to leak out the next time the reporter from the _Herald_ dropped around for chance items of news. The reporter made the most of it, and Marshallton, already spending much of its time in discussing Ellen, read that “Mr. John S. Pennypacker, in view of the high humanitarian principles animating Miss Boardman in quitting his employ, has decided not to fill her position but to keep it open for her on her return from her errand of mercy to those in foreign parts stricken by the awful war now devastating Europe.”


Then Ellen’s letters began to arrive, mostly to Maggie, who read them aloud to the deeply interested boarding-house circle. The members of this, basking in reflected importance, repeated their contents to every one who would listen. In addition the young reporter published extracts from them in the _Herald_, editing them artfully, choosing the rare plums of anecdote or description in Ellen’s arid epistolary style. When her letter to him came, he was plunged into despair because she had learned that he would have to pay part of his expenses if he drove an ambulance on the French front. By that time his sense of humor was in such total eclipse that he saw nothing ridiculous in the fact that he could not breathe freely another hour in the easy good-cheer of his care-free life. He revolved one scheme after another for getting money; and in the meantime let no week go by without giving some news from their “heroic fellow-townswoman in France.” Highland Springs, the traditional rival and enemy of Marshallton, felt outraged by the tone of proprietorship with which Marshallton people bragged of their delegate in France.


So it happened that when Ellen, fearfully tired, fearfully dusty after the long ride in the day-coach, and fearfully shabby in exactly the same clothes she had worn away, stepped wearily off the train at the well-remembered little wooden station, she found not only Maggie, to whom she had telegraphed from New York, but a large group of other people advancing upon her with outstretched hands, crowding around her with more respectful consideration than she had ever dreamed of seeing addressed to her obscure person. She was too tired, too deeply moved to find herself at home again, too confused, to recognize them all. Indeed a number of them knew her only by her fame since her departure. Ellen made out Maggie, who embraced her, weeping as loudly as when she had gone away; she saw Mrs. Wilson who kissed her very hard and said she was proud to know her; she saw with astonishment that Mr. Pennypacker himself had left business in office hours! He shook her hand with energy and said: “Well, Miss Boardman, very glad to see you safe back. We’ll be expecting you back at the old stand just as soon as you’ve rested up from the trip.” The intention of the poilu who had taken her in his arms and kissed her, had not been more cordial. Ellen knew this and was touched to tears.


There was the reporter from the _Herald_, too, she saw him dimly through the mist before her eyes, as he carried the satchel, the same he had carried five months before with the same things in it. And as they put her in the “hack” (she had never ridden in the hack before) there was Mr. Wentworth, the young minister, who leaned through the window and said earnestly: “I am counting on you to speak to our people in the church parlors. You must tell us about things over there.”


Well, she did speak to them! She was not the same person, you see, she had been before she had spent those evenings in the Gare de l’Est. She wanted them to know about what she had seen, and because there was no one else to tell them, she rose up in her shabby suit and told them herself. The first thing that came into her mind as she stood before them, her heart suffocating her, her knees shaking under her, was the strangeness of seeing so many able-bodied men not in uniform, and so many women not in mourning. She told them this as a beginning and got their startled attention at once, the men vaguely uneasy, the women divining with frightened sympathy what it meant to see all women in black.


Then she went on to tell them about the work for the refugees ... not for nothing had she made out the card-catalogue accounts of those life-histories. “There was one old woman we helped ... she looked some like Mrs. Wilson’s mother. She had lost three sons and two sons-in-law in the war. Both of her daughters, widows, had been sent off into Germany to do forced labor. One of them had been a music-teacher and the other a dressmaker. She had three of the grandchildren with her. Two of them had disappeared ... just lost somewhere. She didn’t have a cent left, the Germans had taken everything. She was sixty-seven years old and she was earning the children’s living by doing scrubwoman’s work in a slaughter-house. She had been a school-teacher when she was young.


“There were five little children in one family. The mother was sort of out of her mind, though the doctors said maybe she would get over it. They had been under shell-fire for five days, and she had seen three members of her family die there. After that they wandered around in the woods for ten days, living on grass and roots. The youngest child died then. The oldest girl was only ten years old, but she took care of them all somehow and used to get up nights when her mother got crazy thinking the shells were falling again.”


Ellen spoke badly, awkwardly, haltingly. She told nothing which they might not have read, perhaps had read in some American magazine. But it was a different matter to hear such stories from the lips of Ellen Boardman, born and brought up among them. Ellen Boardman had _seen_ those people, and through her eyes Marshallton looked aghast and for the first time believed that what it saw was real, that such things were happening to real men and women like themselves.


When she began to tell them about the Gare de l’Est she began helplessly to cry, but she would not stop for that. She smeared away the tears with her handkerchief wadded into a ball, she was obliged to stop frequently to blow her nose and catch her breath, but she had so much to say that she struggled on, saying it in a shaking, uncertain voice, quite out of her control. Standing there before those well-fed, well-meaning, prosperous, _safe_ countrymen of hers, it all rose before her with burning vividness, and burningly she strove to set it before them. It had all been said far better than she said it, eloquently described in many highly paid newspaper articles, but it had never before been said so that Marshallton understood it. Ellen Boardman, graceless, stammering, inarticulate, yet spoke to them with the tongues of men and angels because she spoke their own language. In the very real, very literal and wholly miraculous sense of the words, she brought the war—_home_—to them.


When she sat down no one applauded. The women were pale. Some of them had been crying. The men’s faces were set and inexpressive. Mr. Wentworth stood up and cleared his throat. He said that a young citizen of their town (he named him, the young reporter) desired greatly to go to the French front as an ambulance driver, but being obliged to earn his living, he could not go unless helped out on his expenses. Miss Boardman had been able to get exact information about that. Four hundred dollars would keep him at the front for a year. He proposed that a contribution should be taken up to that end.
He himself went among them, gathering the contributions which were given in silence. While he counted them afterwards, the young reporter, waiting with an anxious face, swallowed repeatedly and crossed and uncrossed his legs a great many times. Before he had finished counting the minister stopped, reached over and gave the other young man a handclasp. “I envy you,” he said.


He turned to the audience and announced that he had counted almost enough for their purpose when he had come upon a note from Mr. Pennypacker saying that he would make up any deficit. Hence they could consider the matter settled. “Very soon, therefore, our town will again be represented on the French front.”
The audience stirred, drew a long breath, and broke into applause.
Whatever the rest of the Union might decide to do, Marshallton, Kansas, had come into the war.

About Dorothy Canfield:

Dorothy Canfield (Dorothea Frances Canfield Fisher), the author of Home Fires in France from which “A Little Kansas Leaven” was taken, is one of the most convincing and brilliant writers of the times. She always writes with a purpose, but as all of her work is characterized by originality, clearness, and the vital quality of human sympathy, there is not a dull line in any of her fiction or her educational writings.


Home Fires in France is a truthful record of Mrs. Fisher’s impressions of life in tragic, devastated France during the Great War. During much of this period the author was working for the relief of those made blind by war. The tremendous appeal to America made by this book testifies to the sincerity and the genius of the author.


Dorothy Canfield was born in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1879. She obtained degrees from Ohio State University and from Columbia and studied and traveled abroad extensively, becoming an accomplished linguist. She is the author, under the name of Dorothy Canfield, of some of the most brilliant fiction of the day, The Squirrel-Cage, The Bent Twig, and other novels, and under her married name, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, of some valuable educational works, The Montessori Mother, Mothers and Children, and other books of progressive ideas in education. Mrs. Fisher is now in France (1918) carrying on her work of mercy for the French soldiers and their families.