Paris - The Froussards
( Originally Published 1915 )
WHEN I wrote that the Parisians took the coming of the aeroplanes calmly, I was, of course, speaking of real folks, of the million and a half or more who have work to do, and who would soon stop eating if they stopped working. I have refrained from mentioning the froussards until I had time to watch their antics and could express myself intelligently concerning that sad phenomenon, that manifestation of mob spirit, which some are declaring is a panic.
Unfortunately, the one scared man makes more noise and attracts more attention than the nine who are not scared : consequently, I suppose there is much in the American newspapers about the panic in Paris ever since last Sunday, when the first of the Tauben paid us a visit.
The overwhelming majority, overwhelming majority, I say, of the people who live in Paris have not been scared, are not scared, and will not be scared. If one limits his observation (as do most of our foreign newspaper men) to the region of the Etoile, the Place de I'opéra, the Place d'Iena, the Bourse and the Place Vendôme, and to the railway stations and streets leading to certain city gates, he concludes that Paris is very much upset these days, and that there is a mad rush to get away to safety. But if he walks, as I have walked, every afternoon since the so called panic began, on the Rive Gauche between St. Germain and the outer boulevards, around the Bastille, Belleville, Buttes-Chaumont and other places where lives the Paris that is not affected by the income tax, he sees no sign—none at all of panic.
On the Rue Mouffetard, the Rue St. Antoine, the Avenue d'orléans, the Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, the Rue de Belleville, the outer end of the Rue de Vaugirard you see I am skipping all over Paris it is not as on the Avenue Henri Martin and the Avenue d'Iena. Instead of grave butlers handing powdered ladies, lap dogs, fat bourgeois rentiers, and a minimum of luggage which is more than the ninety-nine per cent's maximum, into luxurious limousines, the outdoor inspirers of Louise are crying all sorts of delicious vegetables and fruits, meats and dairy products, denizens of sea and air that no longer swim or fly. The Paris that works is buying, for the evening meal that will be cooked deliciously on the little gas stove or brazier and eaten as on any of the other three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of this or any other year, the wares in the pushcarts of the marchandes des quatre saisons.
But I am not writing today about the Paris that works. We take no credit for not being scared. If you have no money other than that which you earn from day to day, if running away from your job never enters your head because there is not the price of the railway ticket and because there is no other job (and a job you must have in order to eat) at the other and unknown end of the flight, are you brave or merely sensible'?
This morning my secretary brought with her to the office another English girl who came to ask my advice about remaining in Paris.
I said to her, "Are you dependent upon your situation here for your livelihood?"
She answered, "Yes."
Then I asked, "If you go away from Paris do you think it will be easy to get another place?"
She answered, "No."
I did not have to hesitate in advising her. I gave her the same advice my secretary and I were both exemplifying. I said, "Stick to your job."
She is sticking. So are we, and so are a million and a half other Parisians. our reason for doing so is patent. There is the whole thing in a nutshell !
I must get back to these froussards. I am not going to attempt to explain what the word means. If don't know already, you will before you have finished this letter.
The newspapers have not told us where the German army is and what are the chances of success in repelling the invasion. one knows better in New York than in Paris what is actually taking place on the battlefield. But we have many other indications of the approach of the Germans than the silence of the newspapers. First of all it was the refugees. Their stories could not be censored. Then the daily appearance of German aeroplanes, and the withdrawal of the Government. Now the class of 1914, boys of twenty, and the older reservists are called out. France needs today every man that can handle a rifle.
We hear that the railway to England, by way of Boulogne and Folkestone, has been cut at Amiens. There is a notice in the newspapers that train services out of Paris have been quadrupled, and that there is ample accommodation for all who want to leave the city, except in the direction of the north and east. The way this notice is given is typically French. I quote :
"NOW THAT THE PERIOD OF MOBILIZATION IS OVER THE PUBLIC IS RESPECTFULLY INFORMED THAT THERE IS SUFFICIENT ACCOMMODATION AVAILABLE FOR ALL TRAVELERS,NO MATTER HOW GREAT THE NUMBER, WHO MAY DESIRE TO LEAVE PARIS TODAY."
So we are preparing for the investment of Paris. Those who live in houses on the ground within the area of the forts must leave and remove their possessions before Monday, for it is the intention, if necessary, to tear down these houses. The "unemployed" have stopped paving the streets and doing other public work, and are digging trenches for the final stand. On the heights of St. Cloud, Meudon and St. Germain, which dominate the city, the great forests have been made impassable by miles and miles of barbed wire, strung from tree to tree, and of heavy copper wire which will be charged, when the need comes, with a deadly current of electricity from the city power plants.
Of course this does not mean that Paris will be invested and that a desperate final stand will have to be made. But the Government is very wisely taking no chances. Hoping for the best, we prepare for the worst.
In the last two or three days, I have seen a revival of the scenes that occurred at the beginning of mobilization, before the resistance of Liége and the offensive movement of the French arms led the Parisians to believe that the German plan of coming to Paris had failed. Crowds are again gathering round the large grocery stores, and once more dry provisions and canned goods are being laid in. "Why once more?" you may ask. "What has happened to the supplies bought four weeks ago?" It is a curious fact that, as soon as Paris began to be relieved of its apprehension, people ate up what they had laid in. For two weeks rice and beans and dried fish formed the menu of every meal, amidst much good natured joking, while the fish and vegetable markets were filled to repletion with stocks that spoiled.'
There is nothing half way about the French bourgeois. Either the armies are winning glorious victories or all is lost. We have had our period of exultation; and now the depression and pessimism is, as an American farmer would express it for want of a better phrase, "something awful." You cannot get a cab today. All are bound for the railway stations, where refugees leaving Paris meet refugees from the north coming to Paris. The confusion is indescribable. But the railway men seem to possess an unusual degree of sang froid for French officials. They are getting out of Paris in very quick time every one who wants to go.
The spirit of panic has not been confined to the French themselves. If I saw one American yesterday who was "up in the air," I saw a hundred. They do not know where they are going; but it is anywhere to get out of Paris ! For tourists, leaving the city at this time is undoubtedly sensible. It is not only an elementary precaution, but also an act of kindness and thoughtfulness to the Parisians. In case of a siege, feeding idle and useless mouths is simply adding an unnecessary burden. But American residents have no reason whatever to leave their homes. They will only be going from Scylla to Charybdis, and will find themselves much more uncomfortable, and exposed to much greater danger in the country than they are in the city, no matter what may happen.'
If tourists are leaving one has only to commend their good sense. But it is totally different for those foreigners to whom Paris is home, and who have their business here. I cannot understand the spirit which prompts a man to leave his work when he is facing difficulties and, perhaps, danger. It would seem that this would be the challenge to him to try to surmount them. It would seem, too, that no duty could be higher than that of the defense of one's home. The writers who are continually telling us that the French have no word for home are simply repeating a "bromide." There is a word that has around it the most sacred of associations; it is foyer. Where the hearthfire burns, there is home. To us of foreign birth who have enjoyed the pleasures of Paris in its days of joy and prosperity and who have gained inestimable treasures of precious memories by our life and our association with one of the noblest races God has ever created, it is little fitting to be unwilling to share the days of trial. For there is much that we can do by simply staying here and continuing our work, and, if need be, by taking our places with our fellow citizens in the trenches to defend the city we love.
So great was the rush on Monday to leave Paris that the police found themselves in the physical impossibility of writing the necessary laissez-passers which, under martial law, are required for every one who leaves the fortified camp of Paris. Bending to the inevitable, it was announced that these permits would no longer be demanded, and that all who cared to leave the city could do so without any formality whatever. The train services to the east and north have been suspended. So the fleeing Parisians are congested in great masses at the railway stations which lead to the west and south of France. It is a case of precipitate flight.
The panic is limited to the well-to-do classes, those who have money and are afraid to lose it, those who have luxuries and are afraid to be deprived of them.' Yesterday on the Boulevard des Italiens great crowds gathered before the Crédit Lyonnais waiting their turn to get into their safe deposit boxes : each had a handbag or suitcase. It was a mad rush to withdraw their valuables. For the rentiers have heard (and believe it to be true!) that the Germans looted the vaults of the banks in Brussels.
Some of the banks have closed their doors entirely. Most of the wholesale houses are shut. one can go through street after street in the wholesale districts, that are usually humming with industry, and find not a shutter open, not a truck standing before the warehouses, not a single husky drayman with his hook loading bales and boxes.
While those that have were worrying about the treasures they had laid up on earth, the far larger class of those who have not,and I am glad I belong to them, because it gives me nothing to worry about were looking skyward at a particularly audacious German airman who had come down pretty close to earth. In the Place de l'opéra, several British soldiers were taking pot shots at the aeroplane. They were immediately stopped by the policemen, who with the true spirit of red tape which permeates French officialdom, informed them that it was forbidden by the ordonnance of February 29, 1819, or some such ancient date, to discharge firearms in the streets of Paris. Their note-books were out, and they were taking the names of the soldiers with the intention of serving them with a procès verbal for breaking this regulation. The soldiers were quite bewildered, as they did not understand French. I suppose they thought that their names were being recorded in order that the Cross of the Legion of Honor might be bestowed upon them. In the meantime, the aeroplane, flying up the Champs Elysées, was the object of a lively bombardment from the rapid-firing guns on the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.
That was yesterday.
This evening, there is only one place in Paris for taking your apéritif. Most people who have time and money to take apéritifs these days, and who are not engaged in packing their bags, do not know of this place. We were glad of this, the Lawyer and I, when we got out of the Gare de l'Est-Montrouge tram and made our way through the crowd of outward bound vehicles to the terrace of the cafe opposite the Porte d'orléans. For we could get a table in the front row of the terrace facing the fortifications. The spectacle afforded to the observer in this one spot and on this one day of the twentieth century was, sui generis, unique.
Paris is dull around the Opéra and the Place Vendôme and the Madeleine. Paris is empty, or emptying, in the de luxe business and pleasure quarters of the Rive Droite. At this hour of sunset no one is in the shops and no one on the streets. Pedestrians have no reason for being there. Taxi-autos and cabs are busy dumping froussards at the Gares de Lyon, des Invalides, d'Austerlitz, and du Montparnasse, to join the miles long lines of claimants for standing room in freight-cars, or at the Quai d'Orsay for the river boats to Havre, run by an enterprising American who believes in Carpe Diem! and is getting rich in a week.
But the Porte d'Orleans has never known a busier day since Chauchard's funeral. This is the exit of those who are spending thousands instead of hundreds of francs to get away. An inextricable mass of motor and horse driven vehicles, even of voitures à bras, blocks the streets, waiting their turn to pass from Paris. Outside, automobiles and carriages and wagons are heaped with boxes and bags : inside, they are heaped with froussards.
It is against human nature to sit long over our five-o'clock this evening. We must get nearer and see the fun. So we dive through the jumble—or jungle —avoiding with difficulty axle-grease, and treading on horses' hoofs. A single gate is open. Pedestrians pass out at will, but even bicycles and pushcarts must present the magic laissez-passer to the gendarmes on guard. They are looking particularly for automobiles and chauffeurs who may have failed to pass the council of revision during the days of requisitioning and mustering. We could not help wondering what would happen if a motorcar were held up. Turning around would have been impossible, and backing equally impossible. For on both sides, and in the rear, vehicles of froussards swarmed as far as the eye could reach.
Outside the gate it was possible to breathe air not tainted with gasoline. We gulped and sniffed with delight, and looked to see if our clothes were still intact. A taxicab chauffeur who had just received the precious stamp allowing him to pass the outer line of pickets was bending in front of his machine to crank up. A head appeared at the window. Joy of joys, a newspaper man (excuse me, I ought to say journalist or magazine writer) who had come to Paris especially to find "local war color." 'We accosted him, and were presented to his fellow-travelers, two Frenchmen of the fop type and a Brazilian coffee merchant. He could hardly talk to them. They had picked him up, or he had picked them up, at the Bodega. A waiter had arranged the deal between them.
"Sharing this auto to Orleans with these friends here," he explained. "Would come pretty high alone—my fourth comes pretty high as it is. But the Brazilian had the pass, and we others are lucky, don't you think?"
"Why?" asked the Lawyer, promptly.
"Don't know about the other chaps, old man, but I am in luck. Pretty dead here in Paris just now, and I can't risk, anyhow, having my stuff held up. Must go through this week. Then I have a hunch that there is a good story in the stranded Americans being embarked for England and America at Havre. I can always get back to Paris, you know, even if I have to come through the German lines to do it."
Wh-r-r-r. Chunk-chunk. The engine had started. A hand was waved through the window. "So long!" he cried.
"How long?" I cried back. But I think he did n't hear me, or, if he did, he hardly appreciated my repartee.
The next car beside the octroi window was filled with a Papa and his three daughters. I offered to bet the Lawyer that the Papa's bag contained a comfortable pair of bedroom salon combination slippers. The Lawyer answered that he was not giving away his hard earned money.
But, while we were sure of the slippers, we wondered how much the Papa had paid for his taxicab. Orleans bound too. We were sure of that. Too many Uhlans on the direct road to Rouen. Ma foi! The Lawyer went up to him, and asked. I took off my hat apologetically to the girls. They giggled.
The Papa did not take offense. "Twelve hundred francs, the robber," he answered almost lifelessly, even to the denunciation. As we thanked him and were turning away, he put a detaining hand on the Lawyer's arm.
"Dites donc," he demanded anxiously. "Is it true that the Boches have already cut off the road to Orleans? Do you think it safe to go through? Had we not better go to Pithiviers from Etampes, and try to get to Auxerre?"
The chauffeur saved us an answer. "I 'm going to Orleans," he announced briefly, and started the machine. The girls giggled again. It was easy to see that the Papa was the only froussard. There were no shades of horse-meat in 1870 to bother the girls.
Others were coming along. But it was dinner time. We had seen enough. We walked down the Avenue d'Orleans and the Avenue du Maine, in the midst of a perfectly normal evening Paris crowd, who were buying from the pushcarts with their flaring lamps and from the outside rayons of the shops. The bell of a moving-picture show was ringing persistently, and a "barker" was assuring the passers-by that they would remember this evening's films for a lifetime. "Latest actualités from the battle-front!" he cried persuasively. No sign anywhere of anything out of the ordinary.
It is the salvation of Paris, of France, of the world, that most people do not cross bridges until they come to them. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."