Paris - Requisitioning
( Originally Published 1915 )
IT is regrettable that I should feel compelled to say that the Café de la Poste is at the corner of the Rue du Bac and the Boulevard St. Germain. You would be insulted if I thought it necessary to mention the location of the Café de la Paix. And yet, the real Paris of the real Parisian can be seen better from the foot of the Boulevard Raspail than from the head of the Avenue de l'Opéra. There you pay a double price for your consommation in order to watch Paris passing by, and what you see is tourists passing by. You look on them as part of Paris, and they look on you as part of Paris. But the man with the picture postal cards and the maps knows both you and them. At the Café de la Poste, on the other hand, you are in Paris, and Parisians sit there watching Parisians pass by. You see the automobiles and the phaetons of those fashionables of the first mark who would look upon living near the Etoile as Fifth Avenue would upon living in Hoboken or as Grosvenor Square would look upon living in one of those places for which you have to change at Clapham Junction. You see, too, the shoppers who know how and what, passing between the Petit St. Thomas and the Bon Marché, and cochers and chauffeurs hovering around who are looking for fares upon whose tips they can depend.
I had been waiting for almost an hour when I was suddenly aware of the fact that the Artist was standing across the street with his legs spread out reminiscently of shipboard, twirling absentmindedly his bamboo cane, and looking up at a batch of posters on the pedestal of the statue of the man whom the French claim to have got there before Morse and Marconi.
I slipped quietly across the street. This almost hazardous feat of a normal midday was easily and quickly accomplished. For I have never seen Paris so free of motor vehicles. It was the reason for this that was engrossing the Artist's attention.
"Say, old man," was his greeting, "d' you see this notice about automobiles being presented at the Esplanade des Invalides this afternoon for requisition? How about going along after we have got our permits for the front from the War Department? It is just a step beyond through the Rue St. Dominique."
Not a word about why he was late, or even that he was late. But the enthusiasm over his suggestions (I use the plural advisedly, for I had no more thought of the permits for the front than of going to the requisitioning) caused me to forget the three quarters of an hour I had been trying to make a single Dubonnet hold out.
Over a luscious steak we discussed the fascinating question of the battleline. A year ago I had given up war correspondence for good and all. Rolling stones may gather polish, but shining isn't eatingyou understand what I mean. But the Artist has a way with him, and for the sake of the truth (even if it does involve the risk of revealing to two women that their husbands are not yet wholly cured of that fatal itch for adventure). I must confess that we began to plan in earnest the securing of passes for a trip towards the Belgian or Alsatian frontier. I say towards rather than to, because bitter experience has often I taught me that a military laissez-passer is magic only until you try to use it.
Although we had no countersign with which to cajole the sentry at the great gate of the Ministry of War, we managed somehow to get into the ante-chamber. There we learned that the formal order against the granting of laissez-passers to foreign correspondents was as insurmountable as the censorship of telegrams. 'When enthusiasms are quickly brought to fever heat, they cool as quickly. Not only did we resign ourselves to the inevitable with very good grace, but, as we walked towards the Esplanade, we were so earnestly explaining to each other why, after all, we really could not take the time to go to the front, that we found ourselves at the Hotel des Invalides before we had fully impressed upon each other that already existing con-tracts with editors and publishers precluded the possibility of such a wild, time wasting pursuit as going north or going east would have been.
The fourteen veterans who went through the Crimean War and the twenty-three who knew the reason why Napoleon III stopped his war against Austria after Solferino (but of course their lips are sealed) were drawn up on the talus by the cannon. Never had their warrior eyes seen such a sight as the mustering of horse and motor drawn vehicles marshaled in endless rows all the way to the Seine. Nor had our eyes, or any other eyes. It was unique, that spectacle.
We spent an hour wandering back and forth between the rows of automobiles and motor-trucks. From the little racing roadster, with just room for one, to the furniture van in which a concert grand piano would be lost, and the truck whose load of flour would feed a good sized town for a week, there was nothing missing. Three-thousand-franc runabouts were rubbing wheels in cheeky familiarity with the limousines of multi-millionaires. Expensive varnish of the Champs Elysées showroom cast the spell of its luster over the unpainted-for-years-and-then-not-painted-well delivery wagon of the Belleville haberdashery. The host of the great department store was encamped beside the lone sentinel of the little shop of the outer boulevards. The model of 1914 had an opportunity, unknown hereto-fore outside of world's fairs, of blatantly asserting its superiority to the pioneer of the early days of motor traction. Then there were the types of horse-drawn wagons. These were not so plentiful. Either gasoline has at last succeeded in demonstrating its superiority to oats and hay or that which comes after a horse was held up and turned back before it reached the Esplanade.
And this was the third day of requisitioning !
After we had got tired of trying to take in the full extent of the exhibit, and of each other's superficial but none the less displayed knowledge of types and makes, we wandered over to one of the numerous bureaux de fortune, where the requisitioning officers were valuing automobiles.
In time of war, there is something aweinspiring about the wonderful utility and adaptability of universal military service. Every man in the nation is called to serve; and those who have special technical aptitude of a character that can be used to advantage in any department of military service are immediately set to employing their talents in their own particular field. Here was a rough wooden table, and three chairs. A clerk in uniform was writing at the table. Two other clerks in uniform had before them card-catalogues. A sublieutenant of reserve was inspecting and valuing the machines. The clerks were giving for a sou a day their services to the government. It was a far cry from the luxurious appointments of the shop where, if he sold two motor cars a week, he could pay a fancy rent and earn a big salary, to drawing two francs a day for hard work. But the sublieutenant, in whom we recognized the manager of one of the most famous automobile firms in the world, seemed proud and happy to be working for the common weal so far from his mahogany desk and Teheran carpet. There was no fooling one of the smartest men in his line in France. He knew at a glance what the car offered was worth in the trade, and how much the government would be justified in giving for it.
In the case of cars of real utility where the fair trade price and the price for military purposes coincided, there was no question. The car was requisitioned. The owner took his paper and left.
But among the automobiles de luxe there were many whose value was larger than the government would be justified in paying. In such a case the choice was left to the owner.
It was here that we came back to the old axiom that the study of human nature is after all the most fascinating thing in the world. One would suppose that the owner of an automobile de luxe could afford to make some sacrifice such as the clerk sitting at the table and the sublieutenant were compelled to make, without which sacrifice, willingly rendered, France would at this day be at the mercy of her foe. But there are some who have more in this world because they hold tight to what they have.
There was the woman, bejeweled and bepowdered, whose eyes flashed with indignation when the sublieutenant communicated to her the price offered, and who shook her head in positive refusal. She entered the limousine, and leaned back in the cushions, hugging closely the little dog that took the place of a baby in her affections. Her chin was slightly elevated, and the hard-as-nails expression of her face was accentuated as she ordered the chauffeur to drive off.
And then there was the dear old man whose rosette of the Legion of Honor was not needed to proclaim his worthiness of it. He nodded in a kind of bewildered fashion, as if he were thinking of other things, when the valuation was called out. A receipt was offered to him. He waved it aside.
"I have given three sons to France," he said simply, in a voice broken and yet proud. "I think this is little enough to add to that."
Slowly he walked away. But I wot that he was not leaning heavily upon his cane because his heart was bowed down within him.