A member of the Garde Republicaine, whose duty was to keep order in the court, was creating great disorder by climbing over the shoulders of the mob in the press section. He ousted friends of the white-faced prisoner in the dock, to make room for a fat reporter from Petit Parisien, who ordinarily did finance but was now relieving a confrère at the lunch hour. The case in court was that of the famous affaire Caillaux and all the world was reading bulletins concerning its progress as fast as special editions could supply them.
I was sitting in the last of the over-crowded rows allotted to the press, but filled with whoever got there first. I was one of the few Americans permitted to cover this important “story” first hand, instead of having to write my nightly cables from reports in the evening papers.
As the Petit Parisien man wheezed and jostled his way to a seat on the bench just in front of me, I caught some words he flung to a friend in passing. Maitre Labori was proclaiming the innocence of the prisoner with all the fervor for which he is celebrated, and I was wondering how soon an adjournment would let us escape from the stifling heat of the room. It was the latter part of July, 1914; and true to French custom all of the windows were shut tight.
The words of the fat reporter pricked my flagging attention, “There is a panic on the Bourse.”
The words caused a buzz of comment all around me. One English journalist, monocled and superior, even stopped his writing, and the financial reporter, his fat body half crowded into his seat, paused midway to add: “The Austrian note to Serbia that has got them all scared.”
Another French newspaperman some seats away overheard the talk and joined in loudly. It did not matter how much we talked during the proceedings of the affaire Caillaux. Everybody talked. Often everybody talked at the same moment. This journalist prefaced his remarks by a derisive laugh.
“They are crazy on the Bourse,” he said. “You may be sure that nothing matters now in France but this trial. No panic, or Austrian note, or Russian note or anything, will rival it as a newspaper story, I am certain.”
The fat reporter again wheezed into speech.
“I do not know very much concerning this affaire Caillaux,” he replied, “but I will bet you money that the verdict will not get a top headline.”
“Why?” cried some of us, mocking and incredulous.
“Because of what I’ve told you. There is a panic on the Bourse.”
The presiding judge announced the luncheon adjournment; we trooped to the basement restaurant of the Palais de Justice. I found myself sitting at a table with the superior Englishman. We discussed the qualities of French cuisine for a moment; then he said:
“It will be jolly annoying if this Bourse business develops into war, you know.”
This was the first mention that I remember of the word “war” in connection with the events that followed so fast for the next few weeks, that now as I look back upon them, they do not seem real at all. One week to the day following this luncheon, I remember saying to a fellow newspaper correspondent, “Is it a week, or is it a year, since we had Peace in the world?” But at the first mention of the word—the first premonition of the nearness of the tragedy that was descending upon Europe—I remember signaling somewhat abstractedly to a waiter, and giving him an order for food.
Every one of the Americans who covered that session of the Caillaux trial had lived in Europe for years; and the majority were to remain as onlookers of the great war that had been so long predicted. But on this day none of us realized, and none of us knew; and that was the greater part of all our troubles.
I remember a conversation only a few weeks before all this happened, with Mr. Charles R. Miller, the editor of the New York Times, who was passing through Paris on his return to New York from Carlsbad. He asked me when I intended going home, and I replied to him as I had to many others:
“Not until they pull off this war over here. I have been in the newspaper game ever since I left college, but I have never been lucky enough to cover a war. So I do not propose to miss this one.”
Then came the invariable question:
“When do you think it will come?”
I had my reply ready. All of us had made it many times.
“Oh, perhaps in a few years. Perhaps it will not be so very long.”
The next remark of at least half the persons with whom I discussed the question was, “Pooh, pooh, there’ll never be a European war.” Mr. Miller only said, “What will you do when it comes?”
Again the reply was pat to hand, but how vague it seems now, in the light of then fast approaching events! It was:
“There will be warning enough to make our plans for beating the censor, I am certain.”
It is easy enough to look back now and declare that incidents such as Agadir, the Balkan war and Sarejebo should have been sufficient handwriting on the wall. All those affairs were exactly that, but we simply could not grasp the idea, that actual Armageddon could come without at least months of announcement—time enough for all of us to make our plans. In this I do not think we should be blamed, for we followed so exactly the fatuous beliefs of even foreign ministries. That the great moment should come in a week never entered our imaginations.
We filed back to the court room on that afternoon of the Caillaux trial and fought for the last time the twice daily battle for our seats. I sat beside the superior Englishman. We listened idly to famous politicians and famous doctors and famous lawyers garbling as best they could the dead question of the murder of Gaston Calmette, and the more burning though irrelevant one as to whether Joseph Caillaux was a traitor.
My companion and I discovered that our arrangements for a summer vacation included the same tiny Brittany hamlet by the sea. We passed a portion of the afternoon making mutual plans for the coming month, and at the adjournment drove away from the ancient building on the banks of the Seine in the same fiacre, both trying to align the chief features of the day’s sitting, and planning the writing of our night’s despatches.
After an hour at my desk that evening, I remember turning to Mr. Walter Duranty, my chief assistant, and saying, “It is about two thousand words to-night. With all the direct testimony that the Associated Press is sending, it ought to lead the paper to-morrow morning. Mark it ‘rush.'”
“But about this panic on the Bourse story! Don’t you think we should send a special on that?” Mr. Duranty asked.
“Why?” I questioned.
“Because there is an Austrian brokerage firm that has been selling like mad—started all the trouble; it is the identical firm that two years ago—” His voice broke off suddenly. “Listen!” he then shouted. We made a rush to the front windows looking upon the Boulevard des Italiens near the Opera.
The street was seething, which signified exactly nothing, for the Caillaux case had kept the boulevards stirred up for days.
“They are yelling, ‘Down with Caillaux!'” I said, as we tore open the window sashes.
“No—it’s something else.”
We leaned far out. Under the lights moved thousands of heads. Hundreds were reading the latest editions, but in the middle of the road a mob was surging, and we heard a monotonous cry. It was a cry heard that night in Paris for the first time in forty-four years.
The mob was shouting, “To Berlin!”
I slammed shut the window. “Cut that Caillaux cable to a thousand words,” I yelled, as I seized my hat, ran down the stairs, and plunged into the crowd, snatching the latest editions as I ran.
The Austro-Serb and Russian news had become worse within a few hours, and there were already rumors of Franco-German frontier incidents. I hurried along the boulevards, calling at the offices of the Matin and the London Daily Mail, but could get no inside information; nothing but official announcements which would be cabled by the news agencies, and did not interest me, the correspondent of a paper receiving all agency matter.
Later I returned to my office, cabled a story that pictured the scene in the boulevards and gave some details concerning the Austrian brokerage firm that had precipitated the trouble on the Bourse by its selling orders. My paper alone carried the next morning the significant information that this same Austrian house, with high Vienna connections, had made an enormous fortune just two years before, when it had accurate and precise information concerning the hour that the conflict in the Balkans would begin.
This story was a “beat”—probably it was the first “beat” of the European war, but it was almost lost in the mass of heavy despatches that on that night began crowding the cables from every capital in Europe. The next morning probably every newspaper in the world led its columns with the subject of war. Even in Paris the affaire Caillaux was relegated to the second page.