A “beat” or a “scoop,” otherwise known as exclusive news, is a great matter to a newspaper man. To “put over a beat” gives soul satisfaction, but to be beaten causes poignant feeling of another sort.
There have been some great beats and a multitude of little ones, but up to the beginning of the European war, the greatest beat that was ever put over came from a Paris correspondent.
This was the occasion when Henri de Blowitz, the famous representative of the London Times, gave the full text of the treaty of Berlin before the hour when it was actually signed. That was a real beat, not to be classified with the majority of beats of later years, which were often scandalous, more often paltry, and which often caused us to wonder whether they were worth the cable tolls.
In ante-bellum discussions, the Paris correspondents often opined that the coming conflict would open a more important field. At least we would no longer chronicle the silly ways of fashion and the crazy ways of society. The turf, the mannequin, the Rue de la Paix, and those who drank tea at the Pré Catalan would give way to real and stirring matters. We all schemed to put over a real beat as soon as the war drums began to roll and the new Paris was revealed. The old Paris, in the minds of American editors, had only been an important place for unimportant things.
Looking back now at the beginnings of Armageddon, and at the particular corner in which I performed a minor rôle, I can say generally that all our schemes went wrong and that there were no “beats” of the slightest importance secured by anybody. Remember, I am only speaking of Paris and France. There were a few great beats elsewhere. There was the famous “scrap of paper” interview given to the Associated Press. There were some exclusive interviews secured in both Germany and England. But France, the real theater of action, where beats were expected, was quite the equal of Japan in her sudden tight sealing of every crevice from which news either big or little might leak.
France had learned several lessons from the year 1870, but this one she learned almost too well. So far as the neutral opinion of the world was concerned, it was scarcely known that France had an army. Later, but much later, and then very gradually, some real stories were passed by the censor—but even then very few of them were beats.
But during the hectic week when France went to war the censorship was almost overlooked and there were a few precious hours during which the correspondents and their methods of communication were free. The first sign of the censor was the shutting off of the telephone between Paris and London. It had been my custom to talk with our London office nightly in order that the news of the two capitals might be checked, and that we might not duplicate stories.
The second night following the events of the foregoing chapter I talked to our London bureau for the last time. All that day my mind had been busy with one idea: “If war is declared, how can we beat the censor?”
The first answer that probably occurred to every correspondent was: “Code.” Alas, events moved too quickly. A secret code was a matter that might have been arranged had we been given our expected months of notice, but there was no time now.
I gave the call for our London office, however, with this idea still uppermost in mind. I waited a quarter of an hour to be put through. Then I heard the voice of my colleague. It sounded harassed. I shall never forget his first remark after the communication was established. I could almost see him pass a hand over a fevered brow; I could almost hear the sigh that I am sure accompanied the words which were:
“My gracious, I never expected to live to see such days as these!”
It was quite natural that he should have said just that, but somehow there did not seem any fitting reply. Also it seemed rather hopeless to talk about codes. So I said:
“I am told that we will not be allowed to telephone after to-night.”
He replied: “That’s a fact. I guess this is good-by for a while.” He paused—then as an afterthought, added: “I think you would better just send everything you can from Paris without paying any heed to whether London does or not.”
Inasmuch as a moment had arrived when there was only one possible way to do many things, I quite agreed with him.
The conversation lagged.
“Well, good-by,” I shouted.
“Good-by,” he replied, “and good luck.”
That was the end of the telephone as an adjunct to transatlantic journalism. I have never spoken with our London office from that night.
After hanging up the receiver I had an idea.
It did not and does not now seem a particularly brilliant one; but, again, it was the only possible thing to do. I turned to Mr. Duranty and said:
“We will have a little race with the censor. We will crowd everything possible on the cable before he gets on the job.”
All the late editions were on my desk. I clipped and pasted everything of interest on cable forms and sent them to the Bourse. Mr. Duranty took them himself, “just to see if there were any signs of the censor,” as he expressed it. Then I began to write, interrupted continually by my dozen extra assistants. I had hired every freelance newspaper man I could find—and I had also a number of volunteers, young American visitors, too interested in events to be in a hurry to get out of the city.
The night was warm and the windows all open. The boulevards were dense with shouting people. There was no mistaking the cries on this night. “À Berlin—À Berlin,” echoed above the roar of the traffic and the mob. Cuirassiers frequently rode through the streets but the crowd immediately surged in behind them.
At ten o’clock the concierge mounted to protest against the street door being open. She was afraid. She was alone in the loge. I told her that the business of the office required the doors kept unlocked. She went away and in a few moments came back with the proprietor of the building, whom she had called by telephone. He insisted on closing the street door. I told him this was a violation of my lease. In view of the circumstances he persisted in his demand. I wheeled my chair about and said to him:
“This office remains open—all night if I desire. It is a newspaper office and we cannot close. If you interfere with me I guarantee that I will keep a man there, but if necessary that man will be a soldier.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I mean that I will apply to the American Embassy for the protection of my rights as an American citizen.”
He went away and that difficulty ended.
I turned back to my work. I wrote thousands of words that night; when not writing I was dictating, and piecing together the reports of my assistants.
Mr. Duranty returned from the Bourse. His clothes were awry and he was trembling with excitement. He had diverged, in his return trip, to the Gare du Nord, to get a story of the stormy scenes there—thousands, chiefly Americans, fighting for places in the trains for England. He had been arrested, he explained. Oh, yes, he had been surrounded by a mob at the Gare, who spotted him as a foreigner, and the police had rescued him. He explained his identity and was released.
At the end of the story he suddenly leaped across the room to the window. I leaped at the same moment and so did the stenographer. Across the boulevard was a store that dealt in objects of art. The proprietor was a German. During the day he had boarded the place with stout planks. As we reached the window the sound of splitting and tearing planks sounded above even the cries and roars of the angry people. One look and Duranty was out of the office and in the street.
I sat in the window and watched the mob do its work. The torn planks were used as battering rams through the plate glass, through the expensive statuary and costly vases. In five minutes the place was a ruin. Then the cuirassiers came and drove the crowd away. Duranty returned with the details of the story. I asked him what the police had said to the crowd.
“A man came out holding a marble Adonis by the arm,” he replied. “A cop said to him, ‘Be good now—be good!’ and the chap replied, ‘Well, if I can’t smash it, you smash it!’—So the cop took it and leaped upon it with both feet.”
“Write it,” I said; “also the Gare du Nord story.”
It was midnight and the uproar was greater than ever. Processions blocks long wended through the middle of the streets singing the “Marseillaise,” the “Carmagnole” and other fire-eating songs of the Revolution. Through it all I worked, and steadily sent messenger after messenger to the Bourse with the latest news from the various scenes of action. No signs yet of the censor.
About one o’clock the crowd concentrated just below my window. The cries grew fiercer and louder, with a more terrible note. I went to the window. The faces of the mob were turned to an upper window of the building next door. Some rash voice had shouted from that window a cry that no man might shout that night in Paris with safety. He had cried: “Hurrah for Germany!”
I crawled out on my window ledge and watched. The crowd filled the street completely. They watched that upper window, they yelled their rage and they battered against a great grilled iron door that baffled their efforts. The police tried to disperse them, but as soon as the street was partly cleared they surged back again. They hung about that door, their faces turned up, the hate showing in their eyes, their mouths open, bellowing forth their rage. They waited as patiently as wolves that have surrounded a quarry that must come out to meet them soon. But the waiting was so long that I crawled back from my window ledge into the office.
I finished a despatch that I had compiled from various documents given out to the morning papers by the Foreign Ministry, and of which I had secured a copy. They were an undisputable proof that Germany meant war on France, for they noted a dozen incidents proving that German mobilization had been under way for days. The dawn was breaking as I pushed my chair from the desk.
I told the stenographer and other assistants to go home and get some sleep—not to report again until late afternoon. Duranty, who, like myself, kept no hours but worked always while there was work to do, sauntered into the private room. He had counted the words of copy that had been filed that night—nearly twenty thousand.
The yelling of the mob below had given way to low rumbling. We had ceased to think about it. We lighted our pipes and yawned.
“Shall we cut it out for a few hours?” Duranty asked.
“Think so,” I replied. “We will hunt a cab and go home until noon.”
I stifled another yawn and relighted my pipe.
A scream came from the sidewalk—my pipe dropped to the floor and we were out on the window ledge.
A man was struggling in the middle of the street. He was the man who had so rashly shouted “Vive l’Allemagne” from the window.
He fell and passed out of sight under a mass of bodies. The crowd opened once. The man struggled to his knees. His face was covered with blood. Again we lost sight of him. Then cuirassiers charged down the street. One of them lifted a broken body across his saddle. That story never reached New York. The censor was on the job.