Les Américains

My first and most poignant recollection of the thousands of Americans caught in France at the outbreak of war is in connection with a cable containing some five thousand of their names, which was killed by the censor on the ground that it was code.

I worked hard on that cable, too. I compiled it in the hope that it would relieve the anxiety of friends and relatives at home. But the censor, after pondering over the Smiths, Jones, Adamses and Wilsons in the list, believed that I had evolved a scheme to outwit the authorities and that important war news would be published if it were allowed to pass.

I have lived long enough in France to know when not to argue. In this case I was meekly and respectfully silent. The censor said it was code—therefore it must be code. He even refused to pass a private message to my editors, who had asked for all the names of Americans that I could get, in which I said that I had tried to meet their wishes but had failed. This, too, the censor thought had a hidden meaning.

The story of the Americans alone would have been almost the biggest that a newspaper man ever had to handle, had it not been for the fact that after all they were only incidental to a far bigger matter. Naturally they did not consider that they could be of lesser importance than anything. Also, the New York editors thought them almost, if not quite, as important as the declaration of war. Unfortunately newspaper correspondents, even Americans, located in the capital of a belligerent power, had officially to think with the authorities, and let the story of the Americans take what place it could find in the jumble of greater and lesser news. True, their story was covered—after a fashion—and the world knew what a real sort of a man the American Ambassador was in the way he protected his people. But most of the tragedy and nearly all of the comedy—much of it was comedy—was lost in the roll of drums.

In those days Europe was for Europeans. As I recall the Americans now, it seems to me that no nation finding herself in such a position as France, could have treated so patiently, so unselfishly, so kindly, as she, the strangers within her gates. As for the strangers, alas, many of them felt distinctly aggrieved that war should come to spoil their summer holidays and bitterly resented their predicament. They ignored the fact that France was fighting for her life.

Their predicament, after all, was not so serious. After all, no American died; no American was wounded; no American even starved. Their troubles were really only inconveniences; but none of them would believe that Uhlans would not probably ride down the Champs Elysées the following morning, shouting “hands up” to the population.

I visited one afternoon the office of the White Star Line, jammed as usual with white-faced, anxious-voiced Americans seeking passage home. The veteran Paris manager of the line was behind the counter. He was speaking to a frightened woman in tones sufficiently clear to be heard by everybody.

“I speak from personal experience, madam,” he told the woman. “I know that there will be plenty of room for everybody just as soon as mobilization is over. In two weeks the situation will be much easier.”

“How do you know?” was the question. “What is your experience?”

His answer should have brought assurance, had assurance been at all possible.

“I was here in eighteen-seventy,” he replied.

The prediction was nearly right. It took longer than two weeks to clear the ways; but when the battle of the Marne began, almost the last batch of tourists were at Havre, awaiting their boat.

The American newspaper correspondents who remained were looked upon as fools. The tourists could not understand our point of view that perhaps, after all, Paris instead of Belgium would produce the biggest story of the war.

I was on one amusing occasion the “horrible example” of the man who would not leave town, in a little sidewalk drama whose stellar rôle was played by one of the best known American actors. On one of the first evenings after mobilization I decided to go to our consulate, then in the Avenue de l’Opera, in order to learn the number of people applying for aid and learn if possible the approximate number of American tourists in Paris.

It was late. When I reached the consulate it was closed, but a large crowd remained waiting on the sidewalk. I learned from the concierge that the staff had departed for the night. As I turned to go I met William H. Crane, the comedian, entering the building. I told him the place was shut, and we stood in the doorway talking.

The benevolent face and gray hair of Mr. Crane marked him with the crowd, and they immediately decided that if he was not the Consul General himself, he was at least a person of highest importance in the affairs of our Government. A group of school teachers timidly approached. I spoke to him quickly in French.

“You can act off the stage, can’t you?”

He muttered something about getting away quickly, but I seized his coat lapel, saying: “Look here, there are many persons in this line and they have picked you out to be the big chief. The consulate is closed and if you don’t play your part they will stand here all night. They are desperate.”

Crane hesitated—then walked down the line, hearing each tale of woe and giving advice. He remained an hour, until the last question was asked and the last tourist satisfied. But he insisted that I remain with him. He told them all that I was so unfortunate as to live in Paris, that I had a house and family there, and that I had no possible chance to get out. And so, he argued, how much better off were they than “this miserable person,” for they would surely get away in few days or weeks at the latest. As they did.

My last recollection of les Américains with which the word poignant might be used, was the morning before the battle of the Marne. It appeared certain to all of us who remained that the entry of the Germans could be only a question of hours. I, however, was fairly happy that day, for at four o’clock that morning my family had left the city for safety. The American Ambassador had told me confidentially something I already knew—that Paris was no longer a safe place for women and children. I had set forth my own belief for days, but my wife had remained. However, she was a great believer in the American Ambassador. So when I gave her the “confidential information”—and I set it forth strong—she consented to go to England.

I walked the streets that morning feeling a load off my mind. I had been up all night, getting my little family off and inasmuch as the day was too important for sleep, I took a refreshing bath and then strolled along the empty Boulevard des Capucines. I had found a shady nook on a sidewalk terrasse when some one touched me on the arm. I turned and looked into the terrified faces of an American friend and his wife. “What are you doing here?” they inquired anxiously.

“Why, I live here,” I replied. “Won’t you sit down and have something?”

“Oh, no,” the man answered. “We are on our way to the train; we were in the country when the trouble began. It was awful. They arrested us as spies. We only got here this morning. We have seats in the last train for Marseilles and will sail from there.”

“Yes,” I said, somewhat uninterestedly I fear, “but you have lots of time—sit down.”

My friend grasped my shoulder. “Man, are you crazy?” he cried. “You look as if you were going to play tennis. You come along with us to America.”

“Can’t do it,” I replied. “I’ve got to stay.”

They stared at me silently. The woman took my hand.

“Good-by,” she whispered.

The man took my hand in both of his. “Good-by,” he quavered. “I’ll tell them in New York that I saw you.”

“Do,” I replied.

I was not at all courageous in remaining in Paris. I did not remain because I so desired. I remained because, as a newspaper man appointed to cover the news of Paris, I could not run away. Then, also, the biggest news that perhaps Paris would ever know seemed so near. I bought a number of American flags that day and hung them outside my windows.

I felt more fortunate than my fellow Americans who had gone away.


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