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by Mary Jayne Gold
© 1980 by Mary Jayne Gold. All rights reserved.
Marseilles is a busy, dirty Mediterranean port, the biggest of them all. Goods from all over the world pass through its docks, from North Africa and the Near East and, via the Suez Canal, from Indochina and beyond. Her streets and cafés are sprinkled with the sailors of all nations, living it up on shore leave, but the gayest and the noisiest of the lot are the Marseillais themselves. They talk louder and argue with more passion than anyone else. And they love to sit in the sun and drink wine.
If nature had given the city a beautiful setting, man had done his best to spoil it. There were very few buildings, churches, or monuments of any aesthetic merit, very few views in which the works of man had added any special charm. The splendor of the views depended rather on the sun and sky, on the hills, the rocky limestone promontories; the houses, the buildings, man's poor efforts, merely etched a little geometrical detail on the horizon against the bright blue skies. But the Marseillais loved their city with a passion equal to that of the Parisians or the Viennese. To a stranger like myself the city presented a conglomeration of late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century buildings of doubtful taste. It contained no smart shops and was devoid of cultural assets. The sewers emitted a sulfurous odor of decay reminiscent of Venice. But comparison ends there; no extravagant vision of baroque beauty rises from these stones.
In the popular mind the place was peopled by a race of comics. Marseilles was the home of the Marius and Olive stories, a series of endless jokes that had spread from the Vieux-Port to the Dutch border. Every Frenchman and every self-respecting expatriate had their favorite Marseillais joke, but none of us spent much time there.
Marseilles had its darker side. Crime and corruption flourished. You could make a deal, a combine, as the French called it, about anything. Smuggling was an honorable trade. White girls for the brothels of North Africa slipped out illegally, and cheap labor from the whole world slipped in.
I crossed over the high terrace of the Gare St.-Charles, carrying the two suitcases that I had picked up at La Bourboule. It was eleven in the evening and not a taxi in sight. [My dog] Dagobert at my side, I stopped at the top of the monumental staircase and looked down on the busy Boulevard d'Athènes. Up and down, under the dim streetlights, flowed an endless stream of people. Like all inhabitants of the Midi, the South of France, the Marseillais retire late in order to savor the cool air of the summer evenings. The muffled sound of voices mingled with that of shuffling feet rose from below. I became vaguely aware of an unaccountable calm that somehow disquieted me. It was as if the entire city were whispering. Next to my memory's inner ear came the insufferable blaring horns of other years. I opened my eyes and looked down. Motor vehicles had disappeared from the streets. The Armistice had transformed the noisiest city of France into one of muted reverberations.
If Marseilles was as quiet as a country town at midnight it was also jam-packed and dimly lit. I could see the scaffolding of the huge sign Hôtel Splendide, the letters dark against the sky where formerly they had flickered in electric bulbs, now extinguished, for economy's sake, I supposed. When I walked into its spacious lobby a few minutes later the clerk told me immediately it was full. I went out and turned right to try my luck at the swank Hôtel de Noailles on the Canebière. "Nous sommes completsWe are full up."
The Canebière, the main artery of Marseilles, slopes gently down toward the port. I zigzagged back and forth, trying every hotel in my path, hostelries both great and small. I even attempted the lesser establishments on the side streets that rate no mention even in the lowest category of the Guide Michelin.
Exhausted by trudging back and forth across the broad Canebière in my fruitless search, I would plop my suitcases down on the curb and sit on them for a short rest, while Dagobert licked my sore fingers. I finally found a room with bath at the Continental, a middle-class hotel, clean and comfortable enough. After checking in, I went straight to Basso's, a short block away, for dinner, in full view of the Vieux-Port. It had hardly changed at all. Fishing vessels and yachts lined the quays, and way up on the left, high on its hill, stood the massive Fort St.-Nicolas still guarding the approaches to the ancient harbor. Maybe there were fewer electric lights reflected in the dark waters, but the moon and most of the stars were out.
After dinner we went straight back to the hotel. We were both dog-tired.
Next morning, the man at the consulate strongly urged all citizens to leave the country. These were dangerous times. The consulate could not be responsible for what might happen. He sounded worried and hard-pressed the way small bureaucrats always sound in times of crisis. He gave me to understand that it was my duty to go and get out of the way. His advice was sound enough. I left my Marseilles address in case Miriam or the Bénédites should turn up.
Preparations for the departure involved a lot of red tape. Even American citizens had to have French exit visas, Spanish and Portuguese transit visas. Transportation from Lisbon to the States could be arranged on the American Clippers that everybody was talking about. Failing that, you had to find a place on some neutral ship bound for New York and hope the German U-boats respected its neutrality. Remember the Lusitania?
The consulate occupied a handsome old building on the shady Place Félix Baret, just off the Place de la Préfecture. As I came out, I spied on my left a blue awning whose bright yellow letters spelled out Pelikan Café Bar. It looked very inviting. I sat down on the terrace under the plane trees and scuffled my feet in the gravel, gathering my thoughts. I didn't really want to go back to the States. I had lived abroad, by choice, for over ten years now. My family neither shared my interests nor approved of my way of life. I could hardly be expected to live with my mother and Mischa, her White Russian husband; we were centuries apart. I thought of going to England, but I possessed no special skills or qualifications to warrant my presence there. After all, I had never done anything. I would go home, visit the family for a while in Michigan, then later train for something in New York. In any event, the next few days, even weeks, were going to be a great bore, chasing from one bureau to another, and on foot, gathering money, visas, sending telegrams, all the tiresome mechanics of modern life.
During the last year I had lived through some extraordinary events, close to the mainstream of history, which, because of my physical presence and emotional involvement, had become part of my own biography. This exciting period of my life seemed to be drawing to a close.
"C'est finie, la grande aventure, Dagobert," I murmured in my almost native French.
He looked up at me with his dear dog's eyes. He was just glad to be along.
That afternoon, at about four-thirty, I went over to the main post office, to check at General Delivery and to send a telegram to the bank in Chicago. I joined one of the lines formed in front of the windows.
As I surveyed the crowd in a leisurely way, my attention was caught by two men several rows away. It would be difficult to say what attracted me, but I soon became curious about them. One was fair, the other had brown hair and a ruddy complexion. They were both wearing the ubiquitous Basque beret and were dressed in cheap, worn-out business suits, which had faded into a dull purple. Taller than the usual Mediterranean types, the two men could have very well been Normans or Bretons who had been caught up in the scramble and were waiting for news from home. There was something special about these two. If I could only hear them speak.
I was reminded of a game I used to play at the coiffeur's. Smart women from all over the world flocked to Antoine's, Rue Cambon, in Paris. Sitting under one of the dryers in the middle of the room, I used to observe them as they had their hair done. Cut off by the roar of the hot air in my ears, I conjectured from what part of the world these elegant creatures came. Facial expression, gesture, and movement were my only clues. Once released from the dryer I would saunter nonchalantly up and down the line of dressing tables, listening and checking on my guesses. As the weeks wore on, my score improved.
Now was the time to try my skill again, on that pair at the other end of the post office.
"Excuse me, madame, do you wish to send a telegram?" It was the postal clerk behind the bars.
"Oh...yes...a cable to the United States...here."
Suddenly I lost interest and walked straight over to the faded purple suits and asked in a low voice, "Excuse me, but are you two English?"
Their faces fell.
"Oh, I say, is it so obvious?" The perfect Oxonian tones slid sibilantly through the gap where his front tooth had been and ended in a whistle. He clapped his hands over his mouth, slightly embarrassed.
"Sorry, I'm a bit of a war casualty. Lost a tooth in the skirmish up north."
"How could you spot us so easily?" asked the darker one.
"I just had a feelingI don't know." I wanted to reassure them. "Your disguise is magnificent, really."
"These suits are jolly good, aren't they?" said the fair one.
"Marvelous," I insisted, but they still looked worried. "You see, I make a practice of guessing people's nationalities. It's sort of a game."
"An amateur Professor HigginsPygmalionwhat?"
"That's it. Professor Higgins. I just guessed right. You both look very convincing, really."
These were the first Englishmen I had seen since the fighting began. Something warm and sweet permeated my soul like the essence of warm treacle and rum. My admiration and goodwill filled the whole post office.
"As soon as we get through here, let us buy you a drink."
A man in front turned around and looked at us suspiciously. I exchanged conspiratorial glances with the Englishmen.
"Au revoir. À bientôt," I said, and left, joining another line. There was no message for me at General Delivery. I kept my Englishmen well in sight until they left. Then I followed them down to one of the cheaper cafés at the Vieux-Port.
They were officers who had been separated from their units during the May offensive, Cut off from Dunkirk, they had made their way south, discarding their uniforms to avoid detection. They had met with the aid and cooperation of numerous members of the population who had clothed, fed, housed, and sped them on their way. Here in Marseilles they had apparently made some contacts. They gave me little scraps of information as we sat sipping our drinks. They never told me much, and I never asked any questions.
The Vieux-Port for the last century or so had harbored only fishing boats and yachts. The great modern docks lay to the west of the city. In front of us we could see the masts of the smaller craft bristling against the sky. The long, almost rectangular basin lay cradled between two low parallel ridges. On the left the southern arm terminated in the rocky bulwark of the Fort St.-Nicolas. Today in the sunlight it looked extraordinarily stolid: huge stonework cubes climbing up the hill, surmounted by a main building lying squat and flat on the top, a thoroughly forbidding structure if it had not been touched up, all gold and pink, by the afternoon sun.
I remarked upon its beauty. They told me it was a military prison. They seemed more familiar with the Fort St.-Jean on the right of the port, which they said was the first depot of the French Foreign Legion in Metropolitan France.
I did not learn where the two men were staying, but before parting company they remarked that they often came to this café at the end of the day and asked me to meet them there tomorrow.
We spent several afternoons together. They warned me that one day they would simply not turn up and I would know they had left. I understood, of course, and we developed an easy friendly companionship and I didn't ask for their names. They called me "the female from Marseilles."
We three had a carefree time, in spite of everything. The two Britishers took everything with superb unconcern, never seeming to doubt their own escape and the eventual victorious outcome of the war. We never even discussed it. The fair one's hiss was an endless source of laughter. We always spoke English and no one bothered us. So while the radio screeched about perfidious Albion we played about town, lighthearted and fancy-free.
One evening shortly after I had joined them at their café, the dark one announced smugly, "We have bicycles."
I congratulated them.
A few minutes after this disclosure one of them said, "If you ever come to London..."
"Oh yes, we'd love to show you London. Do the town, what?"
At last we exchanged names and addresses. One of them wrote his name in my address book. The other, or maybe the same one, said he belonged to the Black Watch. Now, that rang a bell: "Black Watch, isn't that...terribly chic?"
I was met with a blank stare.
"I mean, I always see them being photographed in the Tatler. Lady Althea Higginbottom and Major Sedgewick of the Black Watch.'
"Oh yes," he admitted reluctantly, "we're quite posh."
"But tell me, is it only posh, or are you put inin a tight spotyou knowlike a crack regiment?"
"Oh well, yes, rather....We put up a jolly good show at Waterloo."
Shortly after that Punch line we said good-bye. The next day and for several days I walked up and down in front of all the cafés in the port, but they were nowhere to be seen. I was alone again.
Several years later, after the war, I read in Arthur Koestler's Scum of the Earth that at this period there were sixty or more members of the BEF hiding in the Fort St.-Jean with the connivance of certain officers of the Foreign Legion. From there they escaped over the border and made for Gibraltar. Border surveillance was very loose.
By the time I got back to London I had lost the old address book. Just a few months ago I found it. Written in tiny letters is "Lt. Colonel Drummond-Wolfe." I don't know whether he was the dark one or the fair one who had lost his front tooth.
Back to Crossroads Marseilles 1940
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© Copyright 2006. Chambon Foundation. All rights reserved. Revised: February 12, 2008