France – Hours In Val De Grace

“I HATE sights,” wrote Charles Lamb, and with myself the speech touches a sympathetic chord. I do not suppose that I should ever have visited the Church of Val-de-Grâce ; certainly I should never have crossed the threshold of the great military hospital as a sightseer. But a few years ago an old and valued friend was invalided within its walls, and I ran over to Paris for the purpose of seeing him. The handsome Romanesque Church of Val-de-Grâce was built in the reign of Louis XIV., and the hospital occupies the site of an ancient abbey, but Napoleonic memories are recalled at every step. As you approach the Observatoire a bronze statue meets your eyes that of ” Le brave des braves,” the lion-hearted Ney, who fell here on a December morning in the year of Waterloo.

” Soldats, droit au coeur ! ” (” Soldiers, straight at the heart” !) he shouted, his last word of command as he confronted the companions-in-arms charged with his execution.

In front of the hospital stands another and much finer statue—David d’Anger’s bronze figure of Larrey, Napoleon’s army surgeon. ” The most virtuous man I ever met with,” declared the Emperor at St. Helena, when handsomely remembering him in his will. 0

Larrey was not only a great surgeon and the initiator of many modern methods, he was a great moral inventor.

Attached to the Army of the Rhine in 1792, he thereupon organized the first ambulance service introduced in war-fare, later adopted throughout Europe. After serving in twenty-five campaigns, including the expedition to Moscow, and narrowly escaping with his life at Waterloo, Larrey died at the post of duty in 1842. The inspection of a fever hospital in Algeria brought on an illness which terminated his noble career.

It was a bright afternoon in April when I paid my first visit to Val-de-Grâce. What a contrast did that gloomy interior present to the sunny, animated, tumultuous world without ! In spring and early summer the Paris boulevards have very little in common with the crowded thoroughfares of other cities. The stately avenues of freshly budded green, the children making a playground of the broad pavement, the groups of loungers quaffing their coffee or lemonade amid oleander and pomegranate trees, the gaily moving crowds, make up a whole impossible to match elsewhere. The cheerful ways of men ” are more than cheerful here. One feels exhilarated, one knows not why. Inexpressibly dreary seemed the vast building in which my friend had spent many months.

” Il n’est pas bien gai ici ” (” It is not very lively here “), was all he said, as we sat down for a chat. The French soldier never complains. The commandant’s windows overlooked the garden, now showing freshly budded foliage ; sparrows twittered joyously among the branches, sunshine flooded the place, yet nothing could well be more depressing.

Sick and disabled soldiers sunned themselves on the benches or hobbled up and down the straight walks. Here was a white-faced convalescent recovering from malaria contracted in Algeria, there a victim to acute sciatica brought on by exposure in the French Alps ; a third had been stricken by sunstroke in Tonkin ; a fourth had succumbed to fatigue during the last autumn’s manoeuvres ; the majority, as was the case with my friend, having sacrificed health to duty in times of peace. There was indescribable pathos in the aspect of these invalided soldiers.

In French civil hospitals the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul add a picturesque element. At Val-de-Grâce the nursing staff consists entirely of men. Each officer who pays a certain sum for accommodation has a soldier told off to wait upon him, often some conscript who has chosen hospital service instead of life in barracks. Medical students frequently serve their term as nurses or attendants, the interval being utilized practically. Seminarists also prefer the hospital to the camp.

The commandant’s room was furnished with Spartan simplicity, but doubtless with all that he wanted—an iron bedstead, an armchair, a second chair for a visitor, pegs for coats and dressing-gowns, a toilet table with drawers, a centre table on which lay a few newspapers, a somewhat shabby volume of Herbert Spencer translated into French, and another volume or two. Pianos are out of place in a hospital, otherwise I should most certainly have found here that incomparable lightener of gloom and solitude, my friend being an enthusiastic musician. His long convalescence had now—alas ! for the time being only come to an end, and he was shortly about to resume his post in one of the provinces.

” The winter months seemed long. How I should have got through them without my comrade D—- visits Heaven only knows,” he said, adding sadly, ” I shall never be able to repay such devotion—never, never ! ”

This brother officer, now stationed in Paris, had been a school and college comrade. The pair were knit by brotherly affection, addressing each other with the charming “thee” and ” thou ” of the Quakers. The one was in fine health, and rapidly rising in his profession ; the other’s equally hopeful career had been checked by illness contracted in discharge of his duties. No shadow dimmed their friendship.

The commandant went on to tell me how hardly a winter day had passed without D–‘s cheery visit. No matter the weather—rain might be falling in torrents, sleet and snow might be blinding, a fierce east wind might make the strongest wince—at some hour or other he would hear the thrice welcome footsteps outside, in would burst his friend with cheery handshake and enlivening talk. The long invalid’s day was broken, whiffs from the outer world cheered the dreary place, warm affection gladdened the sick man’s heart. Despite weather, distance, and the obligations of an onerous service, his comrade made time for a visit. Making time in this case is no misuse of words. Only those familiar with military routine in France can realize what such devotion really meant. An officer in garrison has comparatively an easy time of it to that of his fellow-soldier in the bureau, whose work is official rather than active. These indefatigable servants of the State, from the highest to the most modest ranks, receive very moderate emoluments, and voluntaryism is not compatible with military discipline. Little margin of leisure is left to the busy officer.

As I have said, French soldiers never complain. With them the post of duty is ever the post of honour. The commandant’s terrible illness had been brought on by the supervision of engineering works on the Franco-Italian frontier during an Arctic winter.

” Climate, climate ! ” he said. ” There is the soldier’s redoubtable enemy alike in times of war and peace. I started on this survey in fine health, and returned a wreck. You see, I had come from the south, and the change was too sudden and too great. I was often obliged to start with my comrades for a long drive at dawn and in an open vehicle amid blinding snow. At other times we had to take bridle-paths an horseback, often a little girl acting as guide. You may be sure we comforted the poor child with food and hot wine at the first auberge reached, but these dales’ folk are a hardy race. What is a dangerous ordeal to others is a trifle to them. I lost my health in those regions. Mais que voulez vous ? A soldier does not choose his post.”

During the following days we took several drives, the sunshine, the April foliage, the general animation imparting temporary oblivion of past sufferings and anxiety concerning the future. It was something to feel that he would shortly be at work once more, and if his strength should finally give way–” Alors, le repos éternel,” he would say with a sad smile.

Devoted to music, eminently sociable, largely endowed with the French aptitude rather, I will say, genius—for friendship, no man was ever more fitted to enjoy life. In earlier years, as a comrade had said of him, il était la gaieté même (“he had been gaiety itself”). In these pleasant hours abroad the old self came back ; a more delightful cicerone in Paris you could not have. We did not spend our time in sightseeing, but in the forenoon strolled through the markets, revelling in the sight of flowers, fruit, and vegetables, or, after déjeuner, chatted over a newspaper in some square or public garden, and a cup of coffee or glass of sirop and water on the boulevard, taking a long drive or turning into some place of popular entertainment. My short stay passed all too quickly, but we met elsewhere in the autumn, and again and again would the old self come back.

But such gleams of revived health and spirits were transitory. After a brief resumption of service the commandant retired on half pay, not too long having to wait for le repos éternel, so much more welcome to him than valetudinarianism and enforced inactivity, the Legion of Honour his sole reward in lifetime—strange to say, that reward not entitling him to a soldier’s grave.

There is something appalling in the expeditiousness with which one’s friends are hurried into the tomb in France. Three months after spending some days near the invalid, and a few days only after receiving a note from him, came tidings of last illness, death, and interment, twenty-four hours only separating the last two. And some months later I learned that an officer on half pay, no matter how distinguished, is not entitled to burial in that part of a cemetery set apart for military men. Unless a site is purchased beforehand, or by his representatives, a military funeral is followed by interment in the common burial-ground. And this is what happened in my friend’s case—a circumstance, I hardly know why, filling me with hardly less sadness than the news of his death itself.

But that lonely far-off grave is ever carefully tended, for flowers and shrubs brighten it. From time to time a tiny nosegay gathered therefrom reaches the home of his unforgetting English friend.