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To Save Four Cities
by [?]

First Louvain, Malines, Termonde, Lierre, Dixmude, Nieuport (and I am speaking only of the disasters of Flanders); now Ypres is no more and Furnes is half in ruins. By the side of the great Flemish cities, Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges, those vast and incomparable living museums which have been watchfully preserved by a whole people, a people above all others attached to its traditions, they formed a constellation of little towns, delightful and hospitable, too little known to travellers. Each of them wore its own expression, of peace, pleasantness, innocent mirth, or meditation. Each possessed its treasures, jealously guarded: its belfries, its churches, its canals, its old bridges, its quiet convents, its ancient houses, which gave it a special physiognomy, never to be forgotten by those who had beheld it.

But the indisputable queen of these beautiful forsaken cities was Ypres, with its enormous market-place, bordered by little dwelling-houses with stepped gables, and its prodigious market-buildings, which occupied one whole side of the immense oblong. This market-place haunted for ever the memory of those who had seen it, were it but once, while waiting to change trains; it was so unexpected, so magical, so dream-like almost, in its disproportion to the rest of the town. While the ancient city, whose life had withdrawn itself from century to century, was gradually shrinking all around it, the Grand’Place itself remained an immovable, gigantic, magnificent witness to the might and opulence of old, when Ypres was, with Ghent and Bruges, one of the three queens of the western world, one of the most strenuous centres of human industry and activity and the cradle of our great liberties. Such as it was yesterday–alas, that I cannot say, such as it is to-day!–this square, with the enormous but unspeakably harmonious mass of those market-buildings, at once powerful and graceful, wild, gloomy, proud, yet genial, was one of the most wonderful and perfect spectacles that could be seen in any town on this old earth of ours. While of a different order of architecture, built of other elements and standing under sterner skies, it should have been as precious to man, as sacred and as intangible as the Piazza di San Marco at Venice, the Signoria at Florence or the Piazza del Duomo at Pisa. It constituted a peerless specimen of art, which at all times wrung a cry of admiration from the most indifferent, an ornament which men hoped was imperishable, one of those things of beauty which, in the words of the poet, are a joy forever.

I cannot believe that it no longer exists; and yet in this horrible war we have to believe everything and, above all, the worst. Now, fatally and inevitably, it will be the turn of the Belfry of Bruges; and then the tide of barbarians will rise against Ghent and Antwerp and Brussels; and there will forthwith disappear one of those portions of the world’s surface in which was hoarded the greatest wealth of beauty and of memories and of the stuff of history. We did what we could to preserve it; we could do no more. The most heroic of armies are powerless to prevent the bandits whom they are driving back from murdering the women and children or from deliberately and uselessly destroying all that they find along their path of retreat. There is only one hope left us: the immediate and imperious intervention of the neutral powers. It is towards them that we turn our tortured gaze. Two great nations notably–Italy and the United States–hold in their hands the fate of these last treasures, whose loss would one day be reckoned among the heaviest and the most irreparable that have been suffered in the course of long centuries of human civilization. They can do what they will; it is time for them to do that which it is no longer lawful to leave undone. By its frantic lies, the beast from over the Rhine, standing at bay and in peril of death, shows plainly enough the importance which it attaches to the opinion of the only nations which the execration of all that lives and breathes have not yet armed against it. It is afraid. It feels that all is crumbling under foot, that it is being shunned and abandoned. It seeks in every direction a glance that does not curse it. It must not, it shall not find that glance. It is not necessary to tell Italy what our imperilled cities are worth; for Italy is preeminently the land of noble cities.

Our cause is her cause; she owes us her support. When a work of beauty is destroyed, her own genius and her own eternal gods are outraged. As for America, she more than any other country stands for the future. She should think of the days that will follow after this war. When the great peace descends upon the earth, let not the earth be found desert and robbed of all its jewels. The places at which the earth is beautiful because of centuries of effort, because of the successful zeal and patience and genius of a race, are not so many. This corner of Flanders, over which death now hovers, is one of those consecrated spots. Were it to perish, men as yet unborn, men who at last, perhaps, will achieve happiness, would lack memories and examples which nothing could replace.