Paris Answers The Call To Mobilize
( Originally Published 1915 )
Sunday, midnight, August second.
A MAN ought to be disgusted with himself for not waking until nine o'clock on the most memorable day of modem history. It was some minutes before I could adjust myself to where I was, and why I was there. The events of the journey from Finistère, more than the journey itself, had proved a severe drain on nervous energy. But when I looked at the clock, I was up with a start. I had no baggage, so my toilet was quickly accomplished.
As I stepped out of the elevator, a woman spoke to me.
"Pardon me," she asked, "but are you an American I"
"I certainly am," I answered'.
"How are you planning to get out of Paris? The clerk at the desk seems too busy to tell me more than that trains are not running, and the hall porter stupidly shrugs his shoulders, and pretends not to understand English. I must get to London or somewhere. They say the Germans are coming, and that we shall be besieged."
"How am I planning to get out'? Why, I just got in with difficulty last night."
Perhaps it was rude not to satisfy the astonished question in her eyes, but I was thinking of other things. I hurried into the reading-room. There was the Matin, with the headline across the front page.
GERMANY DECLARES WAR ON RUSSIA
The Rubicon is crossed. Alea jacta est! All Europe will be soon in arms. I can see only one thing with certainty. It was foreshadowed on a Sunday morning in November, two years ago, when I stood on the hill behind my home in Constantinople and heard the Bulgarian cannon thundering at Tchataldja. It is inevitable now. The Crescent will wane no more, for there will be no more Crescent to wane. The new map of Europe, drawn in accordance with the decisions of this gigantic struggle, will have no place for Turkey.
Across the street from the open door of the hotel I saw a débit, where one finds coffee for two sous, and delicious croissants or petits pains for a sou. I had in my pocket just fifty centimes (ten cents), so I was saved from enduring lukewarm café au lait served by a supercilious waiter who would lift his eyebrows if you asked for more than one roll and more than a quarter-teaspoonful of butter. You do not know the life of Paris until you have learned to lean your elbows on the zinc counter of a débit, and to order a two sou cup of coffee without allowing the bartender to work off on you with it a petit verre of expensive brandy.
It was a woman with swollen eyes, whose tears were still falling, that served me. She explained that one boy was doing his military service at Belfort, and the other had just left half an hour ago for Toul.
"Tell me," she said, "is there any hope that it will not be war? If Austria attacks Servia, and Russia attacks Austria, why should that mean that France must attack Germany and my boys go to be killed? Servia is nothing but a name to me. And yet I must suffer this. Tell me, is such a thing possible? Is it really war for us because Germany has declared war on Russia?"
There was nothing I could say. What explanation would have satisfied that mother's heart of the reasonableness of her sacrifice? At that moment, a newsboy came along the street, calling "La Patrie! La Patrie!" This was an evening newspaper, and here it was not yet ten in the morning. I went to the door, and bought a copy. My answer was in the headline.
A German cavalry patrol had crossed the border at Joncherey, and killed the corporal commanding the post. Near Longwy, another violation of French territory is reported. Across the zinc, I read the news to the mother in tears. Her expression changed. The face grew hard. A feverish hand grasped my wrist. "Monsieur," she said, "I am ashamed of my weakness. Ever since I was a little girl I have known that it would be my duty, my privilege indeed, to bear sons to save France from the Germans. I am glad that I have two !"
At the telegraph window in the post office, I found a notice stating that telegrams must bear no code address and no code words, and that they are accepted only after having been viséd at police headquarters. This censorship ! How often I have wrestled with it, and enjoyed with keen zest the game of matching wits with the clever stupidity and the obstinacy of officialdom. But my experience heretofore had always been with the southern temperament, with Spaniards, with Italians, Greeks and Turks. I had never failed to find some loophole. It took me less than two hours today to realize that here was a different proposition. Rien à discuter, Monsieur! There will be no "indiscretions" in this war. Only hopeless banalities will go out over the wires. News as we understand that word in America is taboo.
I confess that my greatest disappointment was not that I am, for the moment, at least, relieved of the feverish tension of censors and cables, but that I could not use the excuse of a cable for getting a hundred franc note changed. I had only two copper sous. The banknotes in my pocket were worth absolutely nothing. At every café, an intentionally huge sign on the terrace invites you to refrain from eating and drinking unless you are able to give the exact change. It was either go back to the hotel, where I would not have to pay cash, or go hungry. I had a vision of the hotel corridor crowded with excited tourists. "Do you mind telling me just in a few words what all this war is about?" "Will the American Express Company cash their checks? What shall I do if I can get no money?" "Do you think that Cook's will be open tomorrow?" There is a limit to what one is willing to do even for a meal.
Who would be in town on a Sunday in midsummer? It was then that I got a happy inspiration. The Lawyer, of course ! Down the Boulevard Raspail I hurried; for it was high noon, and with the happy inspiration came the fearful thought that he might already have gone out. It was not only that he would stake me to lunch. The Lawyer's heart is matched by his brain. Neither could be bigger. No American knows Europe better. No American loves France more passionately. With whom could I spend a more illuminating afternoon on the first day of the mobilization?
I found the Lawyer just returning from a spin on his bicycle in the Bois de Boulogne. No war could change his habits. I buried myself in the Bergson lying open on his study-table while he took his shower.
We lunched at a café opposite the "Boul Mich" entrance of the Luxembourg. The fountain of Marie de Medici was splashing away as usual. The ordinary Sunday crowds were passing through the gates into the garden. But there were no autobusses, and tramways were few.
After lunch we sat on the terrace of the Café d'Harcourt for our coffee. At the Lycée Saint Louis across the street, the young men mobilized for the engineer service were being received. A number in uniform stood around the door, and newcomers were greeted with cheers. Some of them were having a farewell glass with the Fifis and Mimis at tables around us. There was no sadness, no feeling of depression. The students were full of enthusiasm. Jo youth war is an adventure, and those who go are "lucky dogs." We could see the envious eyes of the too young, looking at the uniforms of the old enough.
As for the Fi fis and Mimis, a sudden parting, a collapse of the house of cards, is not a new experience born of the war. It is part of the life of the Quarter. If they were not willing "to play the game" with a stiff upper lip, they would not be there. They were playing it, all right, this afternoon.
When we reached the Rue Soufflot, on our way back to the Luxembourg to see if by any chance, there would be music, association made me think of the Artist. Could he possibly have gotten back this soon from the little town near Douarnenez, away at the end of Finistère, where I had left him ten days ago'? Had he seen the storm coming? We climbed up behind the Panthéon to the Rue Descartes. No, the concierge had heard nothing from the Artist, but would see that he got my message immediately upon his return. I left as my address the hotel where I was stopping for the moment. For I felt sure that he would get back to Paris somehow. Trust the Artist ! His head is as clever as his hand, and that is saying a good deal.
A quiet, peaceful afternoon we spent, the Lawyer and I, near the large basin by the Palais du Sénat. The Luxembourg is never prettier than in midsummer with its riot of color around the Palais and in the parterre. The weather was glorious. The merry ring of children's laughter and the beauty of God in the flowers seemed to give the lie to the news the camelots were crying on the boulevard. It seemed as if we had awakened from an ugly and repellent dream into the reality of life. Why does not the joy of living make impossible the lust of killing?
Why does not the influence of creation master the madness of destruction'?
The spell was soon broken. There were too many women passing us who revealed their overwhelming thought by the way they held the arm of their escorts. Whether it was a mother with her big boy, a wife with her husband, a girl with her lover, the clutch was the same. Clutch no other word describes it. There was no music. We wanted none. It would have been a mockery. When Paris is in agony, she continues to smile. But she does not sing. Music would only help the flow of tears, and tears unnerve.
And yet, there was no depression. One felt in the atmosphere rather that grim, triumphant exultation of suffering where the cry of the lost soul is drowned by the cry of the redeemed, where the joy of the sacrifice transcends the pain of it. There kept running through my head the trio in the fifth act of Faust. Gounod must have lived through the first day of a mobilization.
The Lawyer, from his vast storehouse of knowledge, was calling forth the reasons why. His face was illumined as he spoke of the redemption of Alsace and Lorraine, and that led him with some faltering to the subject nearest and dearest. When he presented the brief for Poland, and suggested the possible effects of the war, he seemed to be answering the mute question of the passers-by, which had communicated itself to me. Only the surgeon's knife can cure the disease. Women of France, the sacrifice will not be in vain. Life is given for others. Else the world would have no ideals.
The Lawyer left me at sunset. He would not go across to the grands boulevards, not he. On a night like this? I felt that I had to excuse my youthful temerity and willingness to mingle with crowds on the ground of professional duty.
"I must see what is going on," I said.
"Slippers and dressing-gown and Bergson for me," he replied.
I had the good fortune to run into one of my old students from Constantinople, who had come to Paris for law, but was now thinking of enlisting. He responded with alacrity to the suggestion of the Boulevards. We went down into the subway and came to light again at the Gare de l'Est.
On this first evening of the mobilization, the Gare de l'Est was the heart of France. The reservists were leaving from all the stations to report at their respective garrison towns. But from the Gare de l'Est regiment after regiment of soldiers actually under the flags, the men of the "first line" who are called upon to ward off the first brusk attacks of the giant while France is mobilizing behind the rampart of their bodies, were being hurried off. To them the battlefield was something of tonight, of tomorrow, and not of weeks ahead, when the diplomats may have the questions at issue settled out of court. So here we saw the soldiers who were going straight to the line of fire.
Signs at the outer gates, "Militaires pour Nancy" and "Militaires pour Belfort," made one think of unredeemed Metz and Strasbourg beyond. The crowd was dense and noisy. It was hard for the soldiers who arrived singly to work their way through to the gate. There was much grasping of hands, some embracing, and a continuous refrain of au revoir, bonne chance, and bon courage. So much liquor was being drunk that the atmosphere was of hilarity rather than of confidence. The crowd around the gates was rather hoodlum than typically Parisian.
As we withdrew, wild yells and the crash of falling glass came from a big café directly opposite the station. It was all over when we got there. 'Waiters had tried to overcharge some soldiers or reservists. Grabbing chairs for weapons, they cleaned out the café, and smashed the tables and every bit of glass in the place. To give good measure, the chairs were thrown through the windows of the hotel on the first and second stories.
I have never seen such complete destruction in 24 so short a time. When the police arrived, there was nothing to do. The crowd approved.
As we walked down the Boulevard de Strasbourg towards the grands boulevards, every café was ablaze with light, and tables overflowed into the street. The orchestras were playing the Marseillaise, the Sambre et Meuse and the Russian and British national hymns. Nothing else would go. The same four airs were demanded over and over again. Those standing in the street joined in the choruses of the songs with as much zest as if they also were drinking heavily. The evening was growing older, and the excitement increasing with every hour.
My companion and I managed to get a table, where we soon found ourselves involuntary recipients of an enthusiastic ovation. He, a Spanish Jew from Turkey, and I, an American to the cut of my trousers, were somehow taken by the crowd for Englishmen. It would not have done to protest. For then we should have been German spies ! We had to see it through by standing on our chairs and leading the mob in "God save the King," of which we, no more than they, knew the words. We came out strong on the last line of each verse. Up to the last line, I sang "My country, 't is of thee." The Constantinopolitan just kept his lips moving. We were compelled to shake hands with one and all of the hundreds who passed in line before us, and to promise that the British would not fail France. When finally we managed to sit down again, I had decided I would never run for the Presidency of the United States. My arm is so limp that I can hardly write. My mind would be limp also if I had consumed the pledges of friendship with which our table was covered. Many of our numerous friends had ordered up drinks for us. The waiter stopped bringing them only when he had no place to put them.
What has happened since we escaped from that café is a dream. Fourteen years ago I had the privilege of living through Mafeking night in London. It was a night that brought a new word into the English language. This evening has equaled Mafeking night in enthusiasm, no, that is not the word I want in delirium.
From the Gare de l'Est to the Madeleine, procession after procession passed through the Boulevards, carrying flags and banners. As most of the young men of the nation are leaving today or tomorrow, the French manifestants were mostly boys. Among the most enthusiastic that I saw were those whose banner declared that they were "The Jews of France in Arms for the Motherland." The majority of the paraders were volunteers of various nations, who, according to their banners at least, were offering their services to France. Among the groups I jotted down :
"Rumania rallies to the Mother of the Latin races" ;
"Italy, whose freedom was purchased by French blood" ;
"Spain, the loving sister of France" ;
"British volunteers for France";
"The Greeks who love France" ;
"Belgium looks to France" ;
"Luxembourg will never be German" ;
"The Slavic World at France's side"; "Scandinavians of Paris" ;
"South American lives for the Mother of South American culture."
The greatest cheers, mixed with frenzied sobs, greeted the long line of those who claimed to be "Alsatians bound for home." How one gets to the very depth of French feeling whenever Alsace and Lorraine are mentioned !
Mob spirit, of which we had seen the beginning at the Gare de l'Est, soon got the upper hand. Almost next door to the café where we had our ovation was a Paris Pschorrbrauhaus. It was rumored falsely perhaps that the orchestra had got tired of playing the Marseillaise. In five minutes there was nothing left of the café but splintered glass and wood.
A merry and peaceable crowd was changing into a mob bent upon destruction.
A few roughnecks began the sack of cafés whose proprietors had German names, or whose signs told that they sold German beer. As bière de Munich is a favorite beverage with Parisians, this meant really every café. Wise men, who saw the storm coming, closed hastily.
We got into the maelstrom as it swept down the grands boulevards towards the Place de l'Opéra. The dives of Paris had poured out their product the same type as in all great cities. Patriotism was seized upon as the excuse for loot and destruction. It is astonishing how contamination spreads. Respectable men and boys even respectable women—caught the mob spirit.
Robbed of their objective by the closing of the cafés, the mob began to break into shops supposed to be German or Austrian. It needed only the unsupported affirmation of some irresponsible person to start an attack. From the very beginning, the police were powerless to protect Appenrodt's and the Cristallerie de Karlsbad on the Boulevard des Italiens. We saw one stone fired, then another, and after that there was no stopping the mob. Mounted cavalry appeared. It was too late. They were unwilling to ride down the crowd or fire into it. No gentler measure would have sufficed. The city of Paris will have a large bill of damages to pay when this night's accounts are settled.
It is a poor way for Paris to enter into the lifeand death struggle. I should be anxious, and disgusted had I not seen mobs before, and did I not know that the grands boulevards could no more typify the real Paris in war than in peace. A few thousands, drawn into a demonstration of which they will be heartily ashamed tomorrow, are looting and destroying. A few thousands are drinking themselves into a state of irresponsibility. But two millions in this city tonight are soberly resigning themselves to the sacrifice. Those who are called are preparing to go out to fight and die. Those who are not called will remain to work and keep the defenders in the field.
The real Paris is not the mob with stones and sticks, but the woman who gave me my morning coffee, the students at the café on the "Boul Mich," the Lawyer with his illumined face, the women clutching the arms of their menfolk in the Luxembourg. Because I see the power of victory in Paris answering the call to mobilize, my heart thrills with the certainty of realization when I think of that one banner standing out among those of the volunteers,"Alsatians bound for home" !