Paris - Blind, But They Knew It Not
( Originally Published 1915 )
IT is very evident that many of my countrymen do not believe that "a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things that he hath."
There are about three thousand American tourists caught in Paris by the mobilization. In the region of the Opéra, on the Boulevard des Italiens, the Rue Scribe, the Rue Auber, and in the hotels between the Boulevard des Capucines and the Rue de Rivoli, one would think from the noise they make that. they are three hundred thousand or three million,and that the one imperative question of the moment is not the great tragedy into which Europe is rushing headlong, but the personal comfort of the few whose holiday has been interrupted. This does not, of course, apply to Americans in general. We are, on the whole, a rather decent lot. But there is a class of tourists from the United States which has a faculty of making itself heard. Unfortunately, it is heard sufficiently to stamp the rest of us.
The whole thought in the mind of these Americans is of themselves, their spoiled vacation tour, their missed steamship passages, their difficulty in getting money, and their annoyance at having to comply with the reasonable precaution about registering demanded of them by the proclamation of the state of siege.
Many will return to New York full of disgust and "righteous indignation." No, sir ! they are never coming to Europe again, after the way they have been treated. Trunks missing? Preposterous ! Only two courses for dinner at the hotel? Outrageous! No trains for Calais and Boulogne? The United States government ought to protest vigorously against this barbarous treatment of its citizens ! Go to the police station? A complaint ought to be lodged with the Ambassador!
I have just been to my bank, and am sick at heart. It is still as it was on the day that the moratorium was declared. No one there is thinking of the woe and the misery that has fallen upon the world, and of the anguish of the nation which has so hospitably received them and entertained them, ministering to their every want with a care and a success attested by their eagerness to come here and stay here—as long as the ministration kept up. There seem to be only two questions in their minds, "Can I get any money'?" and "How soon can I get away from here?"
I walked down the Rue de la Paix. Every shop was shut fittingly shut. This is the day of tears and not of jewels and of fine clothes. Near the Vendôme Column a voice hailed me. I turned, and saw a woman to whom Paris had ministered so well to the healing of a great sorrow some years ago that she had become a resident of the city. I started to speak of the war, but the first words were hers.
"Did you ever in your life see anything more disgusting?" she exclaimed. "I had to come up from the country naturally, because I did n't know what was going to happen, and I could get no money there. Here I am marooned. There is no way of getting out of the city comfortably. What can one do here? The theaters are closed; you cannot go to a café for dinner; there is n't a bit of music; I can't even do any shopping; and at every turn people want to talk to you about this disgusting war, which does n't interest us at all. Is n't it a bore?"
What I was going to say what I felt like saying was best left unsaid. I murmured a common place remark, lifted my hat, and hurried on.
In the corridor of a great hotel I met a porter who is a familiar figure to American residents in Paris. I asked him the usual questions.
"Yes, I go tonight," he told me. "Yes, wife and three babies. She could get work here in the hotel, but we are expecting another baby next month."
I passed in. The brilliant hall was full of well dressed Americans, drinking afternoon tea and highballs.
At one table I heard, "I went a third time to the baggage-room of the railway station today, and I told him the trunks were registered in Switzerland, here was the slip, and I wanted no more fooling. He said the trunks were not there. When I insisted, he got quite rude. These French are a good-for-nothing lot of thieves."
At the next table, a big, thick jowled, assertive man, with a two-franc cigar wobbling in the left corner of his mouth as he talked, was pounding with his fist. "I told 'em that they simply must give me two thousand francs: there was the letter of credit all O.K. But they told me I could have only five hundred. It was my money they were holding back on me. My wife wanted some new dresses. You can just bet that John Jones will never deal with that bank again. And I '11 see to it they lose so much business that they'll pay heavily for turning me down."
The guest for whom I was looking was not in. I was glad to get into the open air. When I turned into the Rue de Rivoli, a shopkeeper was just leaving. A small kit was in his hand. He was stuffing a package of sandwiches into his pocket. Arms were thrown around his neck. There was a wild sob, and a moment of silence. Then a self-possessed woman drew back into the doorway.
"I'll keep things going while you 're gone," she smiled through her tears.
From her skirts a sturdy youngster peeped out uncomprehendingly. As the man started down the street, he cried, "Come home soon, papa."