The Day Of The Belgian Ultimatum
( Originally Published 1915 )
THIS morning the newspapers stated that Germany had addressed an ultimatum to Belgium, demanding free passage for her army to the French frontier, and that sixty thousand Germans have occupied the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. I did not have to leave my room to see the effect of this news upon the people of Paris. My balcony looked out on the side street of the Félix Potin branch of the Rue de Rennes. Félix Potin is the largest grocery establishment in Paris. Early in the morning, before the hour of opening, several thousand purchasers, holding big baskets and potato-sacks, were waiting like depositors making a run on a bank.
When I tried, half an hour later, to force my way through the crowd towards breakfast, it was a solid,but by no means passive mass. A hurry up call had been sent in for the police, who were having difficulty in getting through the crowd themselves to protect the doors of the grocery. Generally, Félix Potin puts out on the sidewalk a most delightful variety of fruits, vegetables and meats to tempt the housewives. But not this morning ! The establishment was tightly shut, and customers were being admitted in Noah fashion at one sidedoor.
From the conversation, I gathered that the Germans were on the way to Paris, that the railways would soon be cut off, and that it was now or never to get some food in. Every one had come prepared to carry off as much as possible of sugar, tea, coffee, and dried and canned vegetables. When I reached the corner there was a big sign, stating that Mr. Félix Potin desired to inform his honorable customers that he had in his storehouses enough food to feed Paris for six months, but that horses and truckmen were lacking for providing immediately in his retail shops all that customers might desire to buy and for delivering purchases. So, to Mr. Potin's infinite regret, he was compelled to limit the amount of purchase to what one could carry out of the shop.
This statement, instead of reassuring "the honorable customers," made them feel more strongly that they had been justified in rising and girding up their loins early that morning to fight for a few weeks' food supply. Many believed that they could get ahead of Potin by retaining an auto-taxi or cab, to which they could stagger with a heavy load when they left the shop. It was a long line of cabs and autos, such as one sees at a vernissage of the Salon or a first night of a Rostand play, and the merry ticking of their taximeters, two sous for every three minutes, that made me pause and get an idea into my thick head.
I turned back to look more carefully at the crowd which had discovered at seven A. M. that it wanted dried lentils and peas badly enough for this. Yes, my idea was good. These were not the ordinary Potin early morning buyers, nor the ordinary consumers of dried lentils and peas. These were not the workers of Paris,the representative Parisians. No, this scared crowd were all of the class that cuts coupons for a living, or of those who are accustomed to cry amen to the editorials of the Temps against a graduated income tax with an exemption for modest incomes.
I was amused and relieved. I thought to myself that here were the Parisian counterparts of some Americans I had seen yesterday at the bank. The bank! I had not yet changed my hundred-franc note nor secured any money. So I turned my steps across the river.
I could see one change from yesterday. Wherever there were French and Russian flags, a British flag had been added. The ultimatum to Belgium is panicky in that it bids fair to cause France to be caught, before her mobilization is completed, by an overwhelming invasion of the northern frontier.
But there is comfort in the thought that now Great Britain has one more strong and compelling reason to enter on the side of France, and to enter immediately. The speeches reported from the House of Commons last night can have no other meaning than that this is the intention of the British Cabinet.
The bank was bad enough, but not so bad as yesterday. They actually let me have five hundred francs! I have never felt so rich in my life. Now for the terrace of the Café de la Paix!
As I swung around the corner of the Opéra, almost opposite the office of the American Express Company, I found myself face to face with the Teacher. I call him that, although he is now the head of one of our very greatest American universities. I call him that because I think of him as that, just as many thousands of his old boys, scattered all over the world, are thinking of him as he used to stand before our eyes in the weekly chemistry lecture, with the test tube in his hand, the enthusiasm of his subject lighting up his face and the love of his boys lighting up his eyes. And they are thinking of him, because his is a personality, which, once having touched the life of youth, has never left the object of contact. Is there any other man in America who actually knows by their first names thousands of the best equipped men of the nation, and who has followed their careers, although one decade or two decades, or more than that, have passed since they sat under him in the classroom? There is no nobler title a man can have than that of Teacher, and when I say that this professor of chemistry glorifies the title, one can realize how glad I was to see him.
"What a joy to meet you here!" I cried. And, when he told me that his wife was with him, my joy was greater still, for there are some teachers who have taken unto themselves partners that share the affection they receive from their students.
"I am just going over there, Herbert," said the Teacher. "And after I have gotten some money and my mail, I am going to see about my steamship passage for next Saturday on the French line."
I looked "over there," and saw the mad struggling mass before the doors of the Express Company, stretching around into the Rue Auber up to the point where it mingled with the equally mad, struggling mass, turned in the other direction, which was besieging the office of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique.
"But, Doctor," I expostulated, "you are really not going to try to get into either of those places, are you? Can I not stand for you? It is incredible for me to think of you having to do such a thing."
He shook his head sadly. "Herbert," he said, "I have done lots of things these last few days that I had never dreamed of doing. Yesterday Mrs.and I stood in line from morning to night at the Embassy to get a certificate of nationality, and after I get through with the bank and steamship office, I have to go and stand in line at the police station for our permis de séjour. These are things that must be attended to personally, and at a time like this I have no right to ask for special favors. The sister of the President of the United States was among those in line at the Embassy yesterday. We all waited our turn."
I could say nothing. There was nothing to say. The Teacher was right. After having made an engagement with him for dinner that evening, I watched him cross the street and enter the line. There was a man, honored in the great university city above all men. At home, for the privilege of talking a few minutes with him, who would not have waited hours'?
As the Teacher crossed to take his place at the end of the mob on the Rue Scribe, I saw an auto-taxi draw up in front of the door at the corner. Mr. Got-Rocks-and-Lets-You-Know It stepped out majestically, and started to wave his way through the line. A policeman shook his head, and pointed to the end of the line. There was a bellow of rage, a nervous hand thrust into a breast-pocket, a wallet produced, and the fumbling for a card. I did not stay to watch the comedy. The bellow of rage was undoubtedly an indignant "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?" and it was undoubtedly answered as often as reiterated by a despairing and fatalistic shrug of blue coated shoulders. It is a great thing for the frog called Pompous Picayuninity to get out of its little pond occasionally !
I went back to my hotel, hoping for some word from the Artist. More joy! There he was, sitting in the corridor, waving a bamboo cane, twirling the scarcely perceptible upward curve of a scarcely perceptible mustache, and looking as if he had stepped out of a Fifth Avenue tailoring establishment. There is no greater illusion than to think that in art and in music the spotted shirt, the shapeless coat, and the creaseless trousers are the inevitable accompaniment of the man who has the "vital spark." Poor grooming betokens the one on whom the muses have turned their back almost as conclusively as it betokens the failure in any other line. While shining shoes are by no means the sign of a shining intellect, dull shoes pretty generally accompany a dull intellect.
Isn't it curious how often deep satisfaction is expressed by the milder forms of profanity?
"Where in ?" I do not know whether I remembered in time that I was a parson or that the Artist broke in to save me.
"Well," he began with that dear drawl of his, by which the insulation of nonchalance covered the real live wire only to the superficial observer, "I have had the deuce of a time since you left me at Pont-Croix two weeks ago. No, I did n't make love to that pretty girl at the station, because, you remember, she had a baby in her arms as she punched your ticket."
I started to laugh.
"That 's not the reason—"
I laughed still harder.
"Sounds worse, does n't it? But I did n't start to talk romances. I see in your eye that you want to know how in the, that is, how I got here. Came in this morning, old buck; free ride all that way up. Free, mind you. This is how it happened. When I saw that mobilization poster up on the wall of the Mairie, thought I had better get down to Douarnenez. Could n't afford to be caught in a hole like Pont-Croix, where my face would not pass me free into the dining-room for an indefinite length of time. You know I calculated on just enough money until the thirteenth, and had paid my passage back to New York on that date as a precaution. So I went into the Mairie and asked for a laissez-passer to Paris. Monsieur le Maire gave it to me all right, and I made him put all the rubber stamps he had in the office on it, got into a train loaded with reservists, and waved the laissez-passer at the conductor, who was hurrying through as if he did not expect to find any ordinary travelers on the train. At Douarnenez and Nantes, I did n't leave the station, just kept well inside; so I came moseying on to Paris with the reservists. A number of them asked me what day I was called out for, and I just grinned, and they thought I was an Englishman, and kept explaining to each other that Englishmen could go out any time they wanted to, or not at all if they did n't want to. They were just as I find them here,all the French seem fearfully nervous about whether the English are coming into this game. What do you think about that?"
"Not so fast!" I remonstrated. "We 'll leave Asquith and Sir Edward Grey and Lloyd-George out of the conversation until you tell me what you did when you got on the station platform at Paris. Did your laissez-passer stand good for a ticket to the col-lectors at the exit, and what did they think of your label-bespattered suitcase and your painting kit? Did you pass for a war artist, the successor of Vereschagin
"I did think that was going to be a rub, but the Gare d'Orléans was in a state of confusion this morning that you can't describe by any other word than just French. No travelers around, although you had to scramble over their trunks to get off the platform. Just bunches of men coming and going, and not knowing which they were doing. No porters either, so I just made a camel of myself, and marched slowly but boldly up the stairs and through the crowd. No one paid any attention to me. Say, I did have a time getting a cab. Had to walk all the way up the Quai to the Rue Bonaparte before I saw anything, and then I landed a one eyed driver with a lame horse only because I saw him first. I put everything in the cab, jumped in myself, and poked him in the backbone to give him my address before he knew he had me. He protested that he was just about to go back to the stables to give his horse something to eat, but I answered that from the looks of the horse he would n't mind missing just one more meal. He looked as if he had lost the habit so long ago that he had forgotten how. So we crawled up behind the Panthéon to the studio. There I found your card, and, as soon as I had performed three days' ablutions, I came over to hear the good word. Now tell us how you got on from Morlaix."
At this point the Man from Texas and two Scotch doctors broke in upon us.
There is an American cinematograph actor, well known to Parisians,and certainly one of their favorites who is, I believe, called Bunny. If that is n't the name, you will know whom I mean when I say that a fatter actor with a larger, rounder face never trod the boards in our generation: The Man from Texas is Bunny's twin brother. He was an Alsatian half a century ago. His family got out of Colmar at the time of the annexation. In Texas he had evidently gained more than his three hundred pounds, for "money was no object." Many Americans have met him, as have I, on transatlantic steamers, and have smoked his Havanas.
His face was beaming, as only a face like his could beam, as he stretched out his broad paw to greet us. He introduced the Scotch doctors in such high-flowing terms that I did not realize that he was describing me. So I promptly passed the imputation of celebrity on to the Artist. The Man from Texas wanted us, as neutrals, to assure his Scotch friends that the British Bulldog was honor bound to fasten his teeth in the Kaiser's trousers, and, as military experts, to maintain that General Joffre should promptly throw the bulk of the French army into Alsace, leaving the defense of Belgium to the British.
"This must be for us an offensive war!" he cried. "The first thought of every Frenchman called to arms is to rescue the enslaved of the Lost Provinces. That I should have lived to be in Paris on this day!"
When lunch time came, after we had listened for half an hour to a continuous chorus of "Aye, aye," from the Scotchmen, and had warded off, as best we could, the successive suggestions of apéritifs (our best was n't very good) on the part of the Man from Texas, we escaped to hunt up the Sculptor.
Until the news arrived of King Albert's splendid answer to the Kaiser and of his appeal to France and to Great Britain, there was the lull of terrible uncertainty in Paris this afternoon. We hoped to hear this evening of a British ultimatum to Germany, but extras are no longer allowed. No news from London has yet reached us.
The Artist and I dined with the Teacher and his wife. The Teacher has known Germany well since student days in Heidelberg, and has received many honors and widespread recognition in the land of intensive science. But his type of mind is not German, in the sense of what we mean by "German" today, or he would not have been to us the Teacher. We dropped the subject of the war. We were glad to talk of something else.
As we walked homeward through the silent streets, our minds were turned back over the span of years to other days.