Where a Man Can Hold Up His Head
This story is true in every detail. It was told to Mr. Sullivan by the original Jan Peeters—now a broken old man, living in an American city. The editors think all who read this story will agree that it is the most realistic picture of grim war, and at the same time the finest xfiece of writing that lias appeared in print since the outbreak of the present great conflict. It is a story that will live.
WHEN Jan Peeters first reached Pittsburg, he was dazed for a week; then settled down to his trade of glass blowing. And, because his mild, blue eye was steady and true, and the vast lungs of him under perfect and delicate control, he saved five thousand dollars in the first five years. He contemplated his bank book with placid content, and in seven years more his credit was fifteen thousand.
Always in the bottom of his heart was an undying yearning for the blue skies and flat fields of Belgium. He knew, furthermore, that he was now able to equip a factory for himself in Charleroi. He pictured the very place. It was just off the Rue Poissonière. His brow wrinkled as he drifted back to memories of his wife. But—and here his heart swelled at the thought—Paul and Albert would welcome him, ah, how joyously; and was there not his daughter, Marie, in Liège?
With Jan Peeters, to decide was to act; so he took his money in drafts on Antwerp, and went to say good-bye to the foreman. The latter remonstrated disgustedly, for Jan was the most skilful worker in the fáctory.
“Oh, very well,” he grumbled, “you’ll lose your money, and then come back for another job, and I guess we’ll have to give you one.”
The Belgian shook his great bushy head. “No, I will not lose it, and I want to be happy.”
“Well, good-bye Dutchy,” said the foreman, void of geographical distinction. “You can have your old place any time.” Jan took ship from Boston, straight to Antwerp, and in a matter of two weeks, Paul, Albert and Marie had fallen on his neck and patted his cheek, and told him he looked younger and stronger than ever. Then they went round by Liège to see Marie’s husband, and Jan stared at the Cloth Hall with a lump in his throat, and confessed to his children, who had glorified views about a place where a glass blower could earn seven dollars a day, that there was nothing in America half so beautiful—so, on to Charleroi, where he marched straight down the Rue Poissonière, and turned off into the street on which he had decided to buy his factory building.
There is much in the making of a glass works and he went about it quietly and deliberately, fortified by an experience in which he had noted laborious duties transferred from sweating men to immutable machinery. So it was that Jan
Peeter’s works were very complete. He had the great, central melting tank and the annealing ovens, and the big fans, and the ducts to pour cool air over the workers, and moulds, and plenty of light and baths for his men. It took the better part of a year, but, at the end of it all, Jan Peeters smiled, for he saw that it was good. Then he built a new house next door, and there were peach trees in the garden.
* I ' IME slipped by. Jan had wanted to be happy and his wish was gained. Paul and Albert took charge of the works, while Jan planted strawberries and tended his roses. It was not till after ten years that a sudden cloud appeared in his sky. His sons were called back into the reserves.
Talk of war between France and Germany had been going on for a week. Belgium listened uneasily. The talk sharpened and it was rumored that communications were being exchanged between Belgium and Germany. Jan wondered and then, in the last week of July, he booked a large order for the University of Freibourg, and chuckled at the thought of war. That Saturday he went to Liège to see Marie. There were soldiers in the streets and no one was allowed near the Creusot disappearing forts to the south of the city. He had heard these were of chilled iron, and a foot thick. Destroy them? The idea was absurd; and he went home with a certain American impatience at the whole situation.
Six weeks later the factory was silent and deserted; the great tank was full of a mass of solidified glass, and wounded soldiers were lying on the floor. To the north and east the boom of cannon sounded continuously. The Creusot forts were a tangle of shattered concrete and fractured iron. The Cloth Hall was a smoking ruin. A tide of armed men had flowed past it and, having engulfed Namur, was now half way to Antwerp. Paul and Albert had vanished. On the horizon, clouds of grey smoke were drifting. Charleroi, his city, was full of terrified citizens, tramping steadily westward, beside women and children who were mounted in wagons and sat on piles of bedding. Shop-keepers were nailing up their windows. Outside the town, three semi-circular lines of hastily-dug trenches were
full of men in blue uniforms, képis, and long cloaks. Behind them, the machine guns were masked. Nearer still to the town was a small battery of field guns. Three miles away, black smoke was rising from the ruins of a group of farm houses, destroyed lest they give cover to the enemy.
Far down the poplar-bordered road, that runs east to Namur, a faint blue haze was visible. At the same moment came a louder detonation, and a six-inch shell crashed into Charleroi; then another, and another. Beyond the ruined farm houses, a thin wave of men, at first midgets, gradually grew into distinction. Jan Peeters marked its approach. It halted, and in half an hour had melted into the very earth. Followed a terrific period, in which shot and shell were rained into Charleroi. The wave advanced another mile, and melted again. This went on, urntil the enemy was only a third of a mile away. At each advance, the semi-cire lav trenches vomited fire and the machine guns tapped angrily. Their rattle reminded Jan of the riveters in the framework of a Pittsburgh skyscraper.
Before long, the wave rolled into the semi-circular trenches and, after a few desperate moments, engulfed them. Rivulets of blue uniforms ran back and took cover at street corners. Jan ran too, and stumbled automatically toward his glass works. He might have run further but this structure of his heart must not be deserted. The wounded soldiers had been moved away. There was a sound of closing windows and doors. Distant rifles barked intermittently, punctuated with volleys that grew gradually nearer. Jan went up to his bedroom and waited. He leaned out and saw a group of men with spiked helmets and rolled blankets on their shoulders, come up the street. They were heading for the Rue Poissonière, half a mile distant. The steps halted; Jan heard the factory door collapse and in another moment the smashing of machinery. This struck his very soul. He shivered as with a palsy. “My factory!” he gasped. “My factory! They must not injure that.”
THE clamor increased. He could follow every blow. Now it was the cold air fan ; now it was the door of the annealing furnace. His imagination kept step with this progressive ruin. Lastly, looking across the garden, he saw a wisp of smoke twisting slowly out of the office window. Steps sounded in the hall below, then
mounted the stairs. Jan sat on the side of the bed, his lips moved silently.
The door of his bedroom flew open, and an officer entered. Behind him were two privates. In a moment their bayonets were at Jan’s breast. In one corner of the room was the safe, a flimsy affair of wood and sheet steel. Its padlock dangled. The officer leveled his revolver. There was a frightful report and the shattered lock swung loose. Jan’s eyes filled with salt tears. The officer thrust a hand in and took eight thousand francs from the cash drawer. Then he turned to Jan. “This is war and it is well for you that you were found here, and not on the street. You will not leave your house for twenty-four hours.” He looked around the room, picked Jan’s watch from the nail where it hung near the mantelpiece, slipped it casually into his pocket, roared an order to the privates and tramped down stairs.
The Belgian sat motionless. The echo of marching feet dwindled. From all parts of Charleroi came strange sounds. He thought he could hear shouting from the Rue Poissonière, and a quick desire for revenge took him, as he sallied boldly out. Remembering that there were six hundred francs under the mattress, he went back and, as they crackled between his fingers, he had a queer idea that here was the sole product of twenty-five years’ labor. There came to him a vision of “Les Misérables” and Jean Valjean, the galley slave, and the one hundred and nine francs he earned in nineteen years in the chain gang.
He made a detour and struck the Rue Poissonière near the middle of the town. A group of blue uniformed men had built a barricade three feet high. Behind this were twelve machine guns. Someone recognized him and shouted: “Get under cover,
Jan Peeters, the music is about to begin!”
HE slipped into a doorway and looked down the Rue Poissonière. A helmet glinted half a mile away. Then, as he watched, more helmets gathered, till the street was full from side to side. This human wall began to flow toward him. It halted ; and a volley whistled over the barricade. It came on again, fifty or sixty deep. As far back as he could see was a forest of spikes. Beneath these were heads and beating
hearts and blue eyes — the enemy.
Suddenly a harsh fury burst out beside him, crashing, rending, demoniac—as though millions of devils were battling inside the gates of hell. This raucous clamor took away his breath. From the muzzle of each machine fire streamed a continuous jet of flame and countless strips of cartridges ran into and through them.
Jan stared at the wave. It had halted. The smooth regularity of this line was broken. In front of it was a fringe of men. These were on their knees or faces. Behind them, a staggering section poised for a moment ere it too sank to the earth. Behind these again, were layers of men punctured with metal, whose lives sped out through torn wounds.
They could not fall. Strong bodies pushed them forward, while mounds of dead and dying held them vertical. They swayed thus, wedged between quivering corpses and those about to die. In this mass, one bullet did frightful execution. It penetrated a captain, a corporal, a private, murdering successive and decreasing ranks, finding lodgment in the lowest.
Jan could stand no more. He fled, melt-
ing into porches and alleys, effacing himself in shadows. The sky had turned crimson.
That night, drawn by some horrid fascination, he returned to the Rue Poissonière. The street was silent, the windows blank and dark, the doors closed. No voices, no breathing of humanity. The front of the wave lay where it fell, a tangle of corpses, hands in grotesque places, legs twisted, eyes that stared unseeing, mounds inert, pallor and silence —a medley of helmets, weapons that had ceased to threaten, a mechanism no longer fomnidable—the vacant homes of spirits that had deserted their tenancy, clay and carrion, so late the home of courage, laughter and love. The moon spilled her white beams, and Jan trembled as he stared. This was war! Then he noted that his feet were in a pool—thick, sticky, jellified. He moved with a shudder—it was blood.
\\rHEN morning broke, he was on the y v road to Liège. Marie, Paul, Albert, their names trembled continuously on his lips. Perhaps Paul and Albert looked like the slain in the Rue Poissonière—but Marie—what of her? The country was strewn with the wreckage of war. Villages razed, houses burned, horses with gaping rents in their sides, the fields scarred with trenches, gun. carriages splintered, the dead unburied. On to this road the terrified peasants had streamed. It was an epic of desolation, divided families, ruin and mourning.
The sound of much grief deadens the ear, and dries■ the inward process of tears. There comes a time when the muchburdened heart loses the power to lament. Jan plodded on and followed his soul to Liège.
He reached it at noon on the sixth day, having gone round Namur which he could not bear to enter. The streets were full of the enemy, laughing, eating, sleeping, picketing their horses in the paved square in front of the ribs of the Cloth Hall, swaggering, drinking, cleaning rifles, smoking in the sunshine, and exchanging booty. They took no notice of Jan. He saw an officer strike a private in the face; and the man saluted, while his comrades sprang to attention. The town folk walked with their eyes on the ground. Buildings, battered and dislocated, fronted the streets, their framework revealed, walls gone, displaying
poignant intimate scenes of littered bedrooms. Shops were open and women spoke in whispers behind the counters.
He walked to his daughter’s house on the Rue de Spa. The front door swung on one hinge, windows were raised, and from one of them a dark red curtain streamed like a bloody pall. The dwelling was empty and voiceless. In the drawing-room his own portrait faced him from a gilded frame. He questioned his own eyes and lips. They knew, they had seen, but they would not speak. It was only his effigy that had surveyed the anguish and the flight. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps it was as well that it could not speak. A film came over his blue eyes as he searched the house. It was cold and incommunicable, with no answer to his demands. Its spirit had vanished with Marie. There remained nothing but the hollow shell.
There was now but one thing to do. The Belgium that he knew and loved was ravished of her charm and delight, a shorn plant, reft of its flower. He, himself, was abandoned by God, his labor undone, his heart strings cut and bleeding. Here, in Liège, he seemed to be in the mutilated bosom of his country. These smoking buildings—these streets strewn with the offal of victory—this tramp of armed enemies, terrible puppets of an Emperor—the menace of threatening rivers of helmets that flowed onward, ever onward—the rumble of unnumbered guns—at all these her wounds opened and bled afresh. Was there no solace of solitude, even for the vanquished?
SHUTTING his eyes to the grim evidences of invasion, Jan Peeters reached at last the wide straight road that runs across the sand plains to Flushing. It would be a long walk—but there were six hundred francs in his pocket and they would help.
Ten miles out he found misery and hunger. He stopped, stared and hesitated. In a moment he went on, ten francs poorer. His weary feet bore him from one tribulation to another. The road to Flushing was, it seemed, an avenue of anguish, a long drawn theatre of suffering on which no curtain ever descended —not even the curtain of darkness. At night it was a chiaroscuro in which a thousand flickering fires painted with false colors the faces of a thousand rings of refugees. He was thankful for the darkness ; for the children slept, being too weary to cry any longer. Each mile brought its own irresistible appeal—Jan Peeters gave, and hurried to escape blessings. He did not count what was left, for in this area there seemed to be concentrated the desolation of a universe.
At the Dutch border, the sentries passed him without question. His tired blue eyes, his grimy face,. his soiled clothes, his empty hands, were an old story to these men who watched a nation crawl through a gate of refuge outside its border. He stopped at a bakery and asked for bread. It smelled good. He took out his pocket book. Of the six hundred francs not one was left.
Two weeks later Jan Peeters landed in
Liverpool with three hundred other refugees. They were taken to a public building, which had been re-arranged for the purpose of receiving them. He was given clothes and food. On the second day he went to the authorities. “I want work,” he said. “I cannot eat the bread of charity.”
They were sympathetic. “We are sorry, we have no work for you, but food and clothes till the end of the war. We are doing our best.”
He bowed and thanked them gravely. They were doing their best for a hundred thousand of his compatriots. He wandered down to the dock and surveyed the shipping. It brought the ends of the world to his feet. After a week he found the captain of a merchant steamer, bound for Kingston, Jamaica.
“I’ll take you there for nothing and welcome,” he said, scanning the shadow in Jan’s eyes.
Jan reflected that Jamaica was nearer Pittsburgh than Liverpool. “Thank you, you are very kind.” He hung over the rail for days staring at the horizon. The captain understood and let him alone. This sea, with its profundities, reminded Jan of eternity. Here was a gulf in which might be buried the anguish of the world. It was calm, voiceless, unfathomed. But ever as the sea opened its emerald arms and called to him, Jan had a vision of the country where he could walk with his head up, and look the next man in the eyes. He pictured the glass works in Pittsburgh, the roar of the furnaces, and the streams of dripping crystal.
They made Kingston in sixteen days. The captain gripped Jan’s hand, gave him ten dollars and wished him luck. The good people of Kingston heard his story and befriended him and found him work; till, one day, there glided into the harbor, a snow-white yacht, with the Stars and Stripes at her stern. Jan watched as her anchor plunged into the coral reefs.
Now the ways of God are strange, and so it came that the owner of the white yacht heard the story of Jan Peeters, which was known to many in Kingston, and he found Jan and cheered him up, and took him aboard and dropped him at Key West with another ten dollars.
TWO weeks later the foreman of the Pittsburgh glass works looked up and saw a man in the door of his office. The features seemed strangely familiar. He glanced at the new comer curiously. Finally memory flashed—but Jan’s hair was not grey when he left.
“Hullo!—Is that you, Jan? I hardly knew you. Sit down.”
The bent fugitive sank slowly into a chair. The foreman noted the lines on the old glass blower’s face. Suddenly he found himself staring deep into Jan’s eyes, and something caught at his throat.
“Do you want your old job? It’s waiting for you,” he said gently.
Jan Peeters nodded. “Yes—thank you —I need my old job now.” Then he put his head on the foreman’s desk and burst into a passion of sobs.