Axidava

The Outbreak Of War

A night spent sending despatches—a yelling, singing mob beneath the windows making it almost impossible for messengers to cross to the cable office;—a dawn passed in riding from one ministry to another, wherever any portion of the war councils might still be in session;—and a forenoon spent in a Turkish bath, brought me near to the fateful hour on Saturday, August 1st, when France went to war.

I went to the bath establishment for sleep; but insistently I heard the voices of the night before—the yells, the cheers and the “Marseillaise.” They were just as audible in that Moorish room, with dim lights and a trickling marble fountain. There was no such thing as sleep.

I went to my office and found a sum of gold awaiting me. I was glad to get that gold. I had sent an urgent letter in order to get it, in which I used such phrases as “difficulty of getting cash,” “moratoriums, etc.” My debtor wrote back, “What is a moratorium?” but he sent the cash. It saved the situation for me during the next month, while the financial stringency lasted. I went over to my bank, The Equitable Trust Company, to deposit it. Mr. Laurence Slade, the manager, was in the hall.

“Is it safe to leave this with you,” I asked, “or must I go clinking around town with it hung in a leather belt festooned about my person?”

“Leave it,” he suggested.

“But the moratorium?” I inquired.

“Won’t take advantage of it with any of our customers and we will keep open unless a shell blows the place up.”

I thrust it into his hands, thankful that I had always used an American banking institution in Paris. All French banks took advantage of the moratorium the moment it was declared.

On the boulevards the crowds were thinner than the days before. I stood watching them idly. Every one seemed to realize that the declaration of war was hanging just over our heads. There was less excitement, less feeling of all kind. I said to myself, “Well, it’s coming, the greatest story in all the world and there isn’t a line to be written.” It was just too big to be written then—and except the official bulletins of marching events I know of nothing that was sent to any newspaper on that day either remarkable from the standpoint of writing or facts.

After idling along the boulevard for a few moments, I decided to go to my usual hunting ground for news—the Embassy. I hailed a taxi, and just as I opened the door on one side to enter, a bearded Frenchman opened the door opposite. I stated that the taxi was mine, and he declared emphatically that it belonged to him. The chauffeur evidently saw us both at the same instant and could not make up his mind as to our respective rights. A crowd began to gather, as the Frenchman, recognizing that I was a foreigner, began haranguing the chauffeur.

“What do you mean?” he cried. “Do you propose to let foreigners have taxis in times like this? Taxis are scarce.”

The crowd began to mutter “foreigner.” In a minute they would have declared that I was a German. But I had an inspiration.

“I want to go to the American Embassy,” I told the Frenchman. “If you are going that direction why not come with me? We can share the cab.”

I have always maintained that a Frenchman, no matter how excited he is—and when he is excited he is often almost impossible—will always listen to reason if you can get his attention. My proposition was so entirely unusual that immediately he listened, then smiled and stepped into the cab, motioning me to do the same.

L’Ambassade Americaine,” he bellowed to the chauffeur, and as we drove away he was accepting a cigar from my case.

He explained both his excitement and his hurry. When the mobilization call came it would be necessary for him to join his regiment on the first day. I wanted to tell the chauffeur to drive to his home first, but he would not allow this, and when we arrived at the Embassy it was actually with difficulty that I forced upon him the payment for the taxi up to that point.

I was soon in the famous private room of conference and confidence. The Ambassador, as usual, was sitting with his face to the open window, and smoking a cigarette.

I placed my hat and stick upon the desk and seated myself in silence. We remained quiet for quite a full minute. Finally Mr. Herrick said, with a short laugh:

“Well, there does not seem anything more to talk about, does there?”

“No,” I replied, “we seem to be at that point. There isn’t anything even to write about.”

A door behind us opened quietly, and Mr. Robert Woods Bliss, the first secretary of the Embassy, entered. He walked to the desk. Neither the Ambassador nor I turned. Mr. Bliss stood silent for a moment, then said quietly:

“It’s come.”

“Ah,” breathed Mr. Herrick.

“Yes,” replied Mr. Bliss, “the Foreign Office has just telephoned. The news will be on the streets in a minute.”

It was the biggest moment, perhaps, the world will ever know. It was so big that it stunned us all.

I rose and took my hat and stick.

“Well,” I ejaculated somewhat uncertainly.

“Well,” said the Ambassador in much the same manner.

Then we shook hands; and like a person in a trance I walked out of the room and down to the street.

The isolated Rue de Chaillot was quite deserted; I walked down to the Place de l’Alma to find a cab. There the scene was different. Cabs by the dozen whirled along, but none heeded my signals. A human wave was rolling over the city. Fiacres, street cars, taxis filled with men and baggage were sweeping along. Almost every vehicle was headed for one or another of the railway stations. Already the extra editions had notified the populace of the state of affairs and mobilization was under way.

Finally an empty fiacre came along and I signaled the driver, jumping aboard at the same moment. Just as an hour earlier when I signaled a cab, a Frenchman stepped in at the opposite side. Only, this time, the Frenchman wasted no words concerning his rights to the carriage.

He bowed. “I go to the Place de l’Opera,” he said pleasantly.

I bowed. “I go to exactly the same spot,” I replied tactfully.

We sat down and he directed the driver. We remained silent as we drove down the Cours la Reine until we came opposite the Esplanade of the Invalides. The sun was setting behind the golden dome over the tomb of Napoleon. Then my companion spoke:

“I will take the subway at the Opera station and go to my home. It will be the last time. I join my regiment to-morrow.”

I looked at him for a moment, then asked curiously: “How do you feel about it? Tell me—are you glad—and are you confident?”

He looked me straight in the eye. “I am glad,” he answered. “We are all glad—glad that the waiting and the disappointments, the humiliations of forty-four years, are over.”

“And will you win—you think?”

“I do not know, but we will fight well—that is all I can say, and this time we are not fighting alone.”

We arrived at the Opera. He jumped to the sidewalk and put out his hand. “Good-by,” he said, smiling. “May we meet again.” I wrung his hand and watched him dive down the stairs to the subway station.

I remained at the office as the afternoon slipped into evening and evening into night, writing my despatches on the actual outbreak of war. As I sat by the window, I suddenly realized that instead of the dazzling illumination of the boulevards I was gazing into the darkness. I investigated this phenomenon and I wrote another despatch upon the new aspect of the city of Paris on the first night of the war. It was a cable describing the death of the old “Ville Lumière” and the birth of the new French spirit. For not only were the boulevards dark, but the voices of the city were hushed. It began to rain—a gentle, warm, summer rain; the gendarmes put on their rubber capes and hoods and melted into the shadows.

I went out to take my despatches to the cable office. The streets were quiet as death. A forlorn fiacre ambled dismally out of a gloomy side street, the bell on the horse’s neck giving forth a hollow-sounding tinkle. I climbed in. The driver turned immediately off the boulevard into a back street, when suddenly the decrepit horse fell to his haunches in the slippery road. At once I felt, for I could scarcely see, four silent figures surrounding us. The night before I would have scented danger; but now I had a different feeling entirely. The four shadowy figures remained silent, at attention, as the driver hauled the kicking and plunging horse to his feet.

“He thinks of the war,” said the driver.

A quiet chuckle came from the quartet, and I could now distinguish that they were gendarmes.

“You travel late,” one of them said, addressing me.

La presse,” I replied briefly.

Bien!” was the reply. We drove down the dark street, I astonished at this city that had found itself; this nation that had got quietly and determinately to business, at the very signal of conflict, to the amazement of the entire world.

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