"That Day" in Paris
By Estelle Loomis
[The Century Magazine, January 1915]
Paris, yes, but not the Paris you ever knew. Opera gone, theaters gone, museums gone, art—all that made it famous. A city with the foreigners left out is Paris now; tourists, artists, business men, students, all have fled. And with them the golden butterflies have flown. Why stay in Paris?
"Paris is like some dead, old country village now," grumbled the disappointed pleasure-seekers, as trunks were hustled off to Biarritz or passages mournfully booked home.
Yes, the city is hushed and sobered now, and as we trudge along its dejected streets, carrying our own groceries and provisions home (all auto-busses are at the front now, painted a battle-gray, loaded with supplies and wounded soldiers), as we pass the thousands of blue-white-and-red labeled shop shutters, "Closed on account of the mobilization," there surely is a kind of peaceful village quiet; especially when at night, on the dark boulevards and bridges, we long for that country lantern as we stumble and bump from "Beg pardon, Monsieur!" to "Beg pardon, Madame!" Still, we are willing to have the electric street lights out, for, if the truth be told, we are a little nervous about those German aeroplanes that are seeking the Eiffel Tower.
True, every day is like Sunday now in Paris. The church bells of Paris! Day and night calling across the muted city from Montmartre to Montparnasse! No more Baedeker-studying and whispering about Byzantine and Gothic styles in the stillness of those dim, venerable churches; for the whisperers now are the women of Paris, kneeling before the Virgin, praying each for a loved one out at the front in the trenches.
Yes, this muffled atmosphere is everywhere; we walk block after block listening to our own footsteps.
"Attention!" I heard a sergent de ville call out one evening to a boy who was only whistling along the street! At nine o'clock up comes the concierge, apologetically.
"I know you are with us," he says, "but you don't quite understand how we feel. After all, you are foreigners, you know." The piano is stilled. And that old man, how he scowled at us as we gaily clattered down the stone steps at Montmartre! "You laugh? What is there to laugh at now?"
Yet it is still Paris, but a new Paris; it is the real Paris now, the human Paris—Paris in war-time, the throbbing, aching heart of France.
The theaters are closed, but everywhere on the streets there are dramas more thrilling than were ever performed on those stages whose curtains now are down. Are you for comedy? Watch that hilarious, cigarette-smoking corporal, lolling in his speeding taxi-cab, waving, throwing kisses at the girls, and shouting, "To Berlin!" Tragedy? The little corporal is silent now, and behind his modest coffin—no caisson, no flag—walk only three women and two boys, heads down, along the boulevard. "Halt! Present arms!" A detachment of glittering dragoons rein in their horses; their sabers flash in salute. They stand like statues till the hearse and five mourners have passed. No more kisses, no more cigarettes. Good-by, little corporal! The cavalry trots on.
Yes, the treasure-houses of art are closed as well; but oh, the sights at the stations when the wounded soldiers come in! Do you know what a broken bone feels like? Well, I do. Worse than the pain is that "wrong" feeling all over one, that "for heaven's sake! don't touch me! don't even come near me!" sensation. So, with heads bandaged and arms in slings, hobbling on crutches and borne in litters, they come, weary, hollow-eyed, with unkempt beards. Shrinking, moaning? Not always; the greater part of them laughing, making fun of one another, joking over the junk of lead they show you, dug out of their wounded legs with jack-knives, after crawling miles on hands and knees to avoid capture by the "Boches."
Isn't there, in that universal sentiment—patriotism, or whatever you call it—that can lift a common peasant boy so high above calamity, a beauty more vital than that in any of those pictures now hidden behind the locked doors of the Louvre or the Luxembourg, stored in bomb-proof cellars under bags and bags of sand? So what does it matter if the chocolate does come up a little watery at breakfast? If those flaky, delicious crescents (now abolished by law, so that the few bakers left can feed the city) have been supplanted by tough, coarse bread—prison bread, and if our washing is five or six clays late? We don't mind it, not when we are hustling for the Red Cross all day long. If you are not wearing the only style in Paris this year,—black crape—what's the use of clothes, anyway? We haven't made very many calls since "that day."
What transformations in Paris since "that day"—that day when Paris received the announcement of the mobilization! That tragic, historic Saturday, that first day of August, 1914, when I saw Paris change from its bright, high beauty—change in a single hour—to the wreck and frenzy of a Cubist picture, distraught, distracted, by the ominous threat of war!
Now, I was never one who had been looking forward all my life to my trip abroad. Neither was I one who prated I had rather see the wonders of my own country first. I admit I was a provincial, and sang in the chorus with the Manhattanites, "New York is the only place in the world." But when I did think of sailing, I suppose, yes, in a vague sort of way, I did anticipate a few faint revelations; but if I thought of Europe at all definitely, it meant Paris, where possibly I might run across that particular shade of wildish blue in a scarf like that which Nannies May McCracken used to flaunt before my envious eyes.
French? Well, yes, I supposed in that same vague way that they did speak French in Paris. And so, when I was persuaded that I was actually going abroad, I was glad that I had taken that course of lessons where one said "Cat" for "four", and "Personne" meant "nobody." Such an ingenious language! But, after all, it was only a fantastic accomplishment, like crystallography or the sailor's hornpipe, though I struggled hard for my très biens. And at sunset, as I walked up Fifth Avenue, it gave me no little glow to know that I could say, by means of those queer, guttural words, "If you mount on the chair, can you touch at the gas?"
And, thus equipped, I reached Paris. Shall I ever forget that first shock at the Gare du Nord, with everything suddenly bursting into French, bustling into French! Oh, there were no waxed mustached, pink-faced professors bowing and smiling "très bien" at that station! Rough, hustling-baggage French, shouting, angry cab-driver French, chauffeur French, policemen French, swearing, protesting, quarrelling passenger French—a French hailstorm! Until it sent flying every irregular verb and "Touchez au gaz" back into the remotest recesses of my mind—frozen up tight. And with it, I froze, too.
In a sheltering taxi-cab I resigned myself to the thought that I should indubitably hear more French than I had expected; much more. So I had just settled back to look about when "CHOCOLAT" met my gaze. What had happened to my eyes? Astigmatism or what? Chocolat without an "e"! Another "Chocolat" and then "Tabac" just missing it, too; "Parfumerie"—half-English, wrong, drunken English, foolish, like "Scrubway" for Subway. Now, even worse than hearing French was seeing it. And then "Postes et Telegraphes!"
It made me positively angry. I could almost forgive the out-and-out French words, but that ubiquitous "Chocolat!" Why in the world did they leave off that "e"? As we whizzed along in that taxi-cab, I felt just as I did one memorable boarding-school night when (little idiot) I closed my eyes with belladonna to look pretty at a dance, and saw nothing for three days but blurred, all-run-together things. But now, with everything growing more and more upside-down, I realized that I was in for a good deal longer siege than those three days.
"Isn't Paris wonderful? Why, just look at"— The enthusiastic gesture of my companion suddenly fell. "Why, what 's the matter?"
I smiled a defeated smile.
"Why—why, the signs are in French—all of them—aren't they?" That was all I could say about Paris. For all I could understand, I was on a new planet. It was probably Mars.
Now, for the benefit of those who have been many times abroad, do let me say that, to be frank, this picture of my bewilderment is perhaps a bit too cruel. Then, I hope you may see my meaning as a kind of second cousin once removed from what I have so factitiously described. Intellectually, of course I did know that in Paris people were French and undoubtedly spoke French, yes, even had French signs; but as a picture of my inner mood, pray let my innocent confessions remain as true. Subconsciously, I had a feeling of annoyance; I felt unexpectedly alien, and I wanted to go home. Let me proceed, then, with the story of those emotions by which alone I learned to know Paris. Let me proceed, still in that flying taxi-cab, to the pension.
That pension! Where I heard only French, "Madame va mieux?" ate only in French—haricots verts and pommes de terre; and was pounced upon in French until I froze up tighter than ever, apparently deaf and dumb. Of course I had expected to meet French people and all the shoulder-shrugs and temperamental gestures that went with them; but I must say I had never anticipated being reduced to the defenseless age of five. For when at last I did thaw out into weak little French drops of "oui" and "Non," behold! I was to them an infant. Baby's first tooth! How they petted me! How they patted me, and smoothed my American-arranged collar into straightened French effects! Oh, those patronizing smiles one to another! They seemed like ogres, Martians. And that little twelve-year-old, black-haired daughter! Why, she seemed at least a hundred, chattering her French so fluently.
Well, there was at least one thing that was the same in French as in English, and that was air. They pronounced it right, they spelled it right—good old "a-i-r." It even breathed right. How often it took me to the street! There, however, the strange, fascinating shops lured me again and again into that strange foreign world, only to get into worse perplexity. Oh, that ridiculous money! Why, I was perfectly ready to buy anything in the place, for all those queer little pale-blue, printed slips they called money meant to me. I couldn't count it; I didn't even want to. I resented it, like the "Chocolat" and I felt poor, no matter how much I had of it, and for all the handfuls of silver and copper change they gave me in return.
But when that blue scarf, exactly like Nannie May McCracken's, was actually delivered to me, it did almost seem as if that funny money was really real. It worked.
Everybody seemed to have it, too. Why, I remember when we first sat down at one of those crowded sidewalk tables of the Café du Panthéon, I thought I was in—well, perhaps some sort of new Chinatown. It was so promiscuous! Here an unshaved soldier and there a clown-powdered girl of the streets; huge men, with square black beards, dallying with tumblers of pink syrup, reading newspapers by the hour; fantastic students writing letters. Nobody with any style, at least to my American thinking: a girl with a desperate yellow fur rug draped over a white shirt-waist, for instance! "How much is the bill?" I would ask. And then, "Good gracious!" if it is as much as that, then where in the world do they get the money?"
I couldn't understand it. I couldn't understand the strange people who passed—that bent old woman who stooped here and there, picked up cigarette-butts, put them in a bag, and wandered on mumbling; and innumerable other types, all differently colored, as strange as tropical insects.
I hated Paris. I hated it more and more. I was disgusted at the almost animal-like abandon, the careless independence of everybody. Nobody cared for anything that I had always cared for. And such manners! The way they wiped up the gravy on their plates with scraps of bread, the napkins tucked in the necks, and all on top of such excruciating, unnecessary politeness.
I couldn't get away from the strangeness of this life, even in my own room. That wasn't right either; it was as wrong as "Chocolat." It was only a chambre. But, still, it was there, in that chambre that I found Annette.
Think of not knowing Annette! But think of describing Annette! Why, every one knows some beauty with chestnut hair and wonderful skin, perhaps even with laughing-sad gray eyes. No matter, then, about her slender figure, her expressive hands. Like a flower, before you examined leaves and petals, you got the perfume first. Annette's beauty came upon you like the whiff of fragrance from a lovely lilac-bush. Annette was lilacs!
No fetching and carrying or making of beds could ever diminish Annette's charm. No lingering in the doorway with that chocolate-tray could detract from her loveliness as she gossiped of Alphonse and her baby. No, the exquisite incongruity only made one wonder why Annette was there. Oh, you dewy, delicious springtime personality! How many times I have rung your bell, just to breathe those lilacs!
And how the scent of those lilacs awoke my dormant interest in French! Why, it was wonderful! Annette and I actually laughed at the same things; even the same little secret things whose subtle humor I had thought no one could appreciate, least of all these queer Parisian people. Perhaps, I thought, there was something in their unnatural jargon, after all.
And so it was Annette's laughter that gradually loosened every frozen word I had learned in that absurd New York school, and what I had not learned was pieced out with shrieking pantomime. It was Annette's laughter that made French idioms, yes, even y and en almost comprehensible. It was Annette's laughter that translated occasions into bargains and made probable even those awful quatre-vingt-dix-sept centimes at the solde Bon Marché and the chic Galeries Lafayette.
So daily my confidence increased. But one Friday, alas! a dish of fried veal unsettled it. What! ill in French? Oh, French was all right perhaps, when you were well, but when it came to swallowing a mysteriously French-labeled liquid huile de ricin (was that what I had asked for, with a name like that?), it took more than six Parisians to make an American.
Madame, monsieur, mademoiselle, and paying guests were lined up and interrogated. But no! "Where's Annette?" I demanded. Surely Annette would know. Had Annette ever given that mystery to her baby? Again Annette's laughter emboldened me. And instead of dying in French, I was restored to confidence. Indeed, I was restored to greater confidence than ever; for, the language now having stood the test not only of humor, but of ptomaines, I was quite reconciled to live in French. On my walls "The Last Cartridge" and Napoleon III gave way to long paper ribbons of irregular verbs; francs and centimes were no longer translated into dollars and cents; a franc was a franc now, and a street was a rue with no quotation marks. And the Madeleine, ceasing to be an "object of interest," became just a Corinthian church.
Proud of my growing knowledge, I essayed longer, more elaborate sentences at the pension table. I even interrupted deep discussions about Servia and Austria and Russia with glibly prepared anecdotes of my favorite shop-window cats.
Every day those Frenchmen were getting more and more interested in Servia and Austria and Russia and ultimatums and treaties and Triple Alliances. Struggling as I was with the first mysteries of French subjunctives, those gesticulated arguments on European politics were quite over my head. Sir Edward Grey and ambassadors and mobilizations and naval bases, to be sure! And they were all so serious about it, too, so sober, solemn!
But how serious Paris had grown, too, all over! Was it really different—or did I imagine it? Men's heads together over the tables of cafés, their cigarettes burning to the end, forgotten—why? Why did those little threes and fours form everywhere on the street in eager discussion? Had Paris become a city of conspirators—or what?
Why, even when I came back for a laugh with Annette I heard nothing but anxiety about Servia and Austria and what was Emperor William going to do, and would Russia intervene? What in the world the entente cordiale had to do with her Alphonse I couldn't understand. She talked so fast now that I caught only a word here and there—not nearly enough, even with her flashing eyes and excited gestures, to comprehend how the murder of an Austrian archduke could in any possible way affect her baby.
But the French newspapers soon enlightened me. What amusement we had had, my little red dictionary and I, picking easy sentences out of those smudgy sheets! But now their head-lines grew bigger and bigger until they reached across the sheet, and suddenly I saw that what I had considered merely European politics was threatening to turn into European war. But of course war was impossible.
I flew to the plain English of the Paris "New York Herald" and found that it was not only possible, but probable. The cloud grew darker every day. Every day the situation was more strained. Every day anxiety in Paris grew more tense. It was not only Servia and Austria and Russia now; it was Germany and France and England. All rested with the German chancellor, and he made no sign. The nervous suspense grew unbearable. But still there were optimists who believed that war was an anachronism, that Germany was not mobilizing, that England would never fight. Hadn't Sir Edward Grey said that very morning that there was still a hope for peace? "What shall we do?" Americans telephoned to one another. At their bankers they met for anxious gossip, and despatched pneumatique special-delivery letters. Stay or go home? that was the question. Wait and see. No doubt it will all be settled; surely some way will be found out of it. War is absurd; why, there's the question of finance, and all that.
On Friday night there was rejoicing in our pension. A spruce young Frenchman, Wilde by name and mild by nature, a subeditor of "Le Gaulois" called and brought us reassuring news Said the Gaulois: "Don't worry any more. From private sources we have learned that an arrangement has been made. You can go right on with your vacation; there will be no war. Oh, don't mention it; very glad to give you the tip. Good evening." Exit Gaulois, leaving hope behind. Feeling myself now an adept in European politics, I wrote a long cheerful letter home, and went to bed.
The next day was perfect; everybody was out of doors, everybody seemed to be in a much happier mood. Was it only the effect of the glorious sunshine after weeks of rain, or had Gaulois spread the good news, like Paul Revere? How brilliantly the geraniums and white roses shone in the Luxembourg! Almost as brilliantly as the rouged lips and floured cheeks of the accordion-pleated girls who laughed and chatted in holiday spirits.
How the cafés bustled and rustled! The little round, marble-topped tables seemed to overflow the sidewalk! Oh, gay sparkling Paris! Oh, effervescent boulevards, with the laughing, cavalier, devil-may-care animation of a musical comedy scene! This was on Saturday, the first of August, 1914. Yes, Paris was almost gay again.
Stimulated by this buoyant atmosphere, courage came to me to sally forth, for the first time really alone; to explore those foreign rues, each labeled so plainly with their blue-and-white enameled signs. As I cheerfully hastened along the narrow, sloping, uneven sidewalks, why my spirits should begin gradually to go down I couldn't possibly imagine. Still, as I went on, lower and lower they fell, until—oh dear! what was the matter with me?
But the farther I went, the more depressed I became. I was unaware of everything about me. I was aware of nothing but my own inexplicable unhappiness. How it did keep on deepening!
I stopped (I suppose to collect myself) at the window of one of those attractive parfumerie shops, when, in the doorway, I noticed a woman crying. I remember glancing back at her, and thinking that the sight hadn't cheered me up very much; then I hurried along and tried another shop window, stopped and smiled. Blue as I was, I couldn't get past that shop without going in.
But hardly had I stooped to stroke a gorgeous, velvety-black cat when a queer sound—was it a voice?—arrested my hand, and I looked up. Through a stepladder in the middle of that cluttered patisserie I could see a woman clinging with both arms around a man's neck; clutching into his shoulders, crazy almost, and running her nervous hands through his hair; weeping bitterly. And at her side a small child, weeping too, tugged at her skirt. Hurriedly I turned, opened the door, and walked out; but only to turn again and quickly, too, staring amazed over at a big tree, where another woman leaned distracted, wringing her hands and moaning. What in the world was the matter with every one? I gazed in a sort of stupor at that short, stout man in corduroys as his red-cotton handkerchief devotedly wiped away her tears.
I was wandering rather than walking now in a sort of dismal day-dream. I recall stopping at one of those benches in a little triangular place, and had reached down to tie a loose shoe-lace when—oh, I can hardly, bear to recall it!—such a sound, such a sobbing as came from that poor, bent-to-the-ground old woman. I started to go to her, but the utter despair in her voice not only prevented me, but quickened my footsteps to escape from hearing- it.
But I couldn't escape; there was misery all about me. By the time I had reached the next corner, here was more crying. Now it was a man, now it was a girl going by, and across the street, in the doorways, in shops, everywhere, some weeping silently, some staring out into the street with hard eyes like glass. What in the world was the matter?
I quickened my steps to reach the happy, open boulevard. But if those little streets had seemed unnaturally woeful, even agonized, the Boulevard St.-Germain appeared actually distracted. All along the tree-bordered sidewalks and in the doorways there were knots of people talking loudly; and how excitedly they gesticulated! From the windows faces looked out; they leaned over the balconies. What were they looking for, this way, that way? Why were they so agitated? Why was I so agitated? All of a sudden I was almost running—I didn't know why—but others were running, too. Where were they going?
I stopped a little old man hurrying past. "What is it?" He brushed me aside without looking at me. In desperation I seized a girl. "C'est la guerre, la guerre!" she sobbed.
"War!" I stopped and gasped. War? Could it mean really war? I ran on, following the crowd.
Round the corner, up that curving street, there was a long, high wall, and a big double doorway to the military barracks, with a flag hung out. In front of it was a packed crowd, with people running to it incredulous, and people walking away stunned. I saw a coachman stop his horse, jump down from the box, and leave his fiacre in the middle of the street while he pushed in. A chauffeur was standing up in the front of his taxicab, looking over the heads of the crowd.
Before I knew it, I was in that crowd, too, hustled, jostled, craning my neck with the others to look at that large white placard nailed to the door. So that 's what it was, a general mobilization! No wonder Paris was distracted. A general mobilization! Oh, I knew by that time what that meant in France, a thing so terrible that no American could possibly comprehend its terror; it meant that every able-bodied man between the ages of twenty-one and forty-eight, that very week, or next week, or within twenty days, must go to the front and be shot at by German machine-guns. Not as volunteers; must go! No delaying, no excuses—MUST! He must march all night and fight all day, hold trenches and starve, sleep in the rain, suffer intolerable fatigue, cold steel, and hot lead, lie wounded, be captured, go shoeless, freeze, see his best friends mangled or perhaps killed, his country's villages shelled, laid waste, destroyed, burned to ashes.
Oh, if it had only been an earthquake, a flood, or a conflagration—anything that would have brought forth some audible outbreak of emotion!
But that silent weeping, those fixed, gray faces, staring faces, each with a hidden character now sharply revealed in a flash-light picture of human emotions! Fear, anger, despair. Men in shirt-sleeves, working-girls, the women of the quarter, with their work still in their hands, shocked dumb. They couldn't seem to believe the catastrophe was possible. I saw some pull out dirty little note-books and stubby pencils and copy down the notice word for word, to take home in proof that the long-dreaded-summons had come.
One big man in a blouse; a butcher, I suppose, shouldered his way out of the press, met a friend, and looked at him as in a dream, shook hands. "C'est ça!" he said, as one who might say "Amen," and then walked off, still shaking his head. That day, with the million people suffering simultaneously, proved to me that mental vibrations could surely be felt. Indeed, I was fairly submerged by them; there was no escape.
But wait a minute. War is big, too big for words. So is a sunset gorgeous, but a description of it is a bore. So let me say merely that Paris was in a panic; and, superlatives always being unconvincing, let me try the comparative degree. Well, the atmosphere in Paris wasn't like that of a lynching, with angry, radiations; as hot as flames. The panic of Paris wasn't like the fear which strikes men icy cold. No, the air of Paris, at six o'clock that Saturday night was thick; it was more like a fog. I could scarcely breathe. It bore down on me so heavily that I felt as if the sky were coming down lower and lower over my head.
So in that fog I groped my way down another street, another. I didn't know where I was going; but wherever I did go, I came upon those miserable creatures weeping. And how silent it was now! It was as if the fog were changing to slowly falling snow, muffling every noise. I recalled dimly passing a doorway and seeing a girl, a bright English girl, come out. She stopped, gave one look, and exclaimed, "Why, what 's happened?"
Why was it so unnaturally still? I had to stop and think. Oh, that was it! Not an auto-bus on the streets! Here, where only yesterday I had been all but run over by one of those great hurtling, thundering, top-heavy chariots that charged laboriously through the streets, wildly up and down, now hardly a sound. Only an occasional scuttling taxi-cab, tooting an important, urgent horn, bearing a white face thither; or a hurried fiacre, its bony horse paddling along under a lashing whip, jingle, jingle, jingle up the street, fainter and fainter.
Paris seemed fading, dying, already doomed, and I felt sad almost to faintness. Perhaps that was why I suddenly stopped at one of those revolving-postcard racks. I know I had a feeling that I must make sure of something tangible, some of the wonderful things in Paris; and so in my excitement, whirling it round and round, I flipped out picture after picture—the Panthéon, St. Etienne-du-Mont, the Tomb of Napoleon, the Arc de Triomphe,. Pont-Neuf, and others, and more and more. It almost seemed as if I must in some miraculous way save Paris; as if it were slipping from me, and would be gone before I knew it, and—well, I would have the post-cards, anyway. And when I forced my money into the hand of the tranced old man in the doorway, I thought that he himself might have been figured on a post-card as an image of Grief.
Up the rue de Rennes—-oh, those stricken faces everywhere, those broken-hearted women!—and into the rue d'Assas; the wide, double doorway of a courtyard stopped me. No, this woman wasn't crying. In fact, I hardly saw her at first, except as a part of the picture.
No, she was not crying; but coming down a broken stone stair, she stopped and stood, thinking; just thinking, as if suddenly gripped by some hideous thought. She gazed straight ahead at nothing. She looked out at me without a smile. "C'est triste!" she said, and closed the doors.
Paris, old, old Paris, magnificent and drear! Oh, oh, if those weeping women, instead of crouching under those crumbling, historic walls, could have looked up our fresh, new, lusty avenues, to inspiring white skyscrapers, might it not have lifted the gloom a little, that dreadful Saturday? But instead, the pathos was augmented; the stage was set for sorrow; and, as those heartbroken spirits passed, the huddled, careworn mansions and proud, decrepit palaces seemed to say: "Don't bother me with your troubles; I've had mine. I've seen the Commune and the Terror. Pass on! pass on!"
And soon I had come to the Boulevard St.-Michel. I had been wondering if even war could ever change that gay and irresponsible "Boul Miche," the student's rendezvous, the merry heart of the Left Bank. But what a change an hour had wrought in that once care-free thoroughfare! For the second act of that day's drama had begun. It was the realization now, the adjustment.
Do you see what I mean? Well, this: the first crash of war was a blow. No pain at first, they were stunned, lost. But now had come the awakening to intolerable suffering, and in that adjustment the million individual private pangs had begun. A million lives had been suddenly uprooted; and, to me, as I made my way among those men and women, how much more poignant was the pathos now! The shock was over; they had accepted it. "C'est la guerre!" Now on the women's faces I read, "Are you going to your death?" On the men's, "Oh, what will become of you!" Affection was the dominant emotion on that boulevard. I never saw such a sincerity, such a surrender to feeling, expressed with absolute unconcern for any one who saw or heard.
Here was a tall blond-bearded man kissing a weeping girl in a doorway; on a bench was a gray-haired old lady, bent over, one hand on her son's shoulder, just watching, watching the smoke of his cigarette without a word. Then came a couple arm in arm, looking into each other's faces, he fumbling her ring.
Oh, what expressions! What pantomime! Such snuggling up, such never-let-you-go gestures, poses of despair, hungry, last looks! An absorbed couple walked right into me without knowing it, without stopping their conversation; and walked on, still oblivious. I saw a woman picking so nervously at a chain about her neck that she couldn't unfasten it; her man unfastened it for her, and kissed it, and put it round his own neck. It was a big bearded man in knickerbockers; he looked like a professor. There were so many pictures! I know I am choosing the wrong ones, but I take them as they come up before me again—that young fellow who was counting out bank-note after bank-note to a girl on a bench till she dropped them all on the ground in a sudden fit of weeping. And that handsome, dashing chap with the brown canvas haversack over his shoulder, with a loaf of bread sticking out. How he kissed that girl, and gave her a look, and walked away, and came back to kiss her again and again, and then broke off and hurried away, pulling his hat down over his eyes. Handkerchiefs everywhere. Shopkeepers standing in doorways, watching, shaking their heads, and saying, "C'est triste! c'est triste!"
Never, I must confess, since my arrival in Paris had I quite got used to the frankness of the French—that is, of the French one sees in public, the bourgeoisie off guard. Always thoroughly themselves, one felt sure that there was never a whispering: "Oh, my dear, do be careful!" in their ears. "Don't talk so loud. Some one will hear you!" Polite? Oh, surely! Well behaved? Why, yes, I suppose so; but, well—they were always French, never, never Anglo-Saxon. Never afraid to do just what they wanted to, just when they wanted to. And so now, when in this great calamity they were stricken to the very depths of feeling, their intimate revelations were so unconscious that I felt like an intruder as I passed. Why, they might have been in their own homes, so absorbed was every one with his own desperate problem—a problem that must be solved immediately, solved that very night.
"'La Patrie!' 'Le Bonnet Rouge!' 'Le Matin!' La Presse!'" With the screaming of the newsboys racing up the street, their papers fairly fought for, torn apart by frenzied snatchers, the note of emotion leaped up into a high, excitable soprano. "'l'Intrasigeant!' 'Le Temps!' 'Le Soir!'" The kiosks were fairly mobbed for the latest extras.
So many things were happening simultaneously, with every one on the boulevard, electric lighted now, shop shutters coming down hours too early, cuirassiers galloping up the street with horsehair plume streaming from helmet, tricolor flags appearing by magic, that it was not until, encountering some friends, I had dropped into a chair outside the Café du Pantheon, that I noticed—Good heavens! did you ever turn over a stone in a country field and watch the ants scurrying in every direction? Well, that was the taxicabs in Paris at seven o'clock that night.
Oh, those loaded taxi-cabs and fiacres! Those honking automobile horns and the rattling of carriage wheels upon the pavement!
Trunks, trunks, trunks, roped on, held on, piled in, with bags and baskets crushed in between, with a box jammed in here and a portmanteau that just would be squeezed in there! Oh, those chauffeurs, trunked in till there was nothing to be seen but a cap! Fiacres, with the coachmen balancing trunks like jugglers, and spilling things.
Where were they all going? Up the boulevard to the Gare Montparnasse, down the boulevard to the Gare de l'Est, and to every other station in Paris.
Who were they? Heaven knows. That gaunt, tall woman in crape urging the cocher on with her umbrella, might be the wife of some petty bureaucrat of Tours or Orleans, desperate to get back before her husband left for the front next Tuesday. Every provincial who had come to Paris must get back home and pack and bid farewell and go. I saw American girls with their fathers and trunks, and English women with their daughters and trunks, and officers with leather impedimenta piled about them, and Frenchmen of all sizes making for their casernes to report, to jump into their uniforms, and hurry on to the first line of defense at the frontier.
"Voilà les Allemands! Là bas!" I looked. Need enough had those Germans to hurry, with every Frenchman jeering at them, and only a day now to escape. Shut and locked would be the gates of Paris by Monday night, and the city under martial law. And then no exit without a permit, and no getting to Berlin for them! Prisoners of war!
Dazed by the confusion all about me, I sat at that sidewalk café, marveling at the progressive changes in the mood of Paris within three hours. From andante to allegro it had gone, and, as the café filled, the movement was fast rising to presto.
"Haven't you got any cheese? You'll be all night on the train, you know. Here take some of mine."
I turned, to meet a new scene of the ever-changing dramatic nightmare that I seemed to be in. There was no sadness to this group just entering, or, at least, it was not visible. Instead, congratulatory whacks on the back, handshaking right and left, friends hailing them all over the café. Three of them, in flannel shirts and old clothes, wore haversack-looking things of brown canvas, "musettes" hanging from their shoulders; and the man who had spoken was emptying his out on a table—woolen socks; handkerchiefs, toothbrush, package of chocolate, piece of soap, huge junk of bread, and finally the cheese, wrapped in newspaper.
These three musketeers, leaving tonight, were the heroes of the tumultuous café until a real "piou-piou" in complete regimentals, blue coat, red trousers, knapsack, tin pans, and rifle, paraded grinning triumphantly down between the tables, followed by two girls waving little flags, bringing up a "Vive la France!" to his feet and another and more and more, rousing everybody to an echoing chorus of the "Marseillaise" till he dragged the whole café with him, escorting him to his kisses and cigarettes, and messages for the Kaiser Wilhelm.
We jumped up and followed him. How could we help but follow him? Everybody was going that night to see the first men depart, those who couldn't get taxis going afoot, singing all the way to the station.
The Gare de l'Est! Tired as I was, I was glad I went that night; I am glad I saw what was to me the third and greatest act in that day's drama. Can you imagine a cruel, high iron fence, shutting off the stone paved area in front of the station? Can you see three gates guarded by soldiers, where the militaires enter, to take trains to their respective barracks—Toul, Belfort, Verdun, or wherever they have to report next day? Those three gates were where the farewells took place—the last words, the last kisses. Outside the fence a thousand people were gathered, two thousand, more and more every minute; and pushing through this throng, the reservists coming up on foot, coming in cabs and taxis, coming in trams and carts, coming in their old clothes, with their haversacks slung over their shoulders, coming with their wives and mothers and sisters and all they loved.
"Oh, look over there! Oh, quick—look at her! D' you see that one at the gate? At the gate, see?" Oh, how my friends annoyed me! Yes, of course I saw those partings at the gate, those kisses arid embraces; I saw those men show their little military books, and disappear, many of them forever. Yes, I saw that it was often the husband who broke down, not the wife; and I didn't miss that woman who clung to the lips of that man till she had to be pulled away. And I watched that mother, too, crowding her way back to the fence to call out "Charles! Charles!" and hand her son his forgotten medicine. And the lady who pulled off her ring and screamed, the prostitute who wept down her paint, and fainted. Yes, but what interested me most was not those dramatic scenes at the gate—such sights I had witnessed before that day—I was now watching just two women, strangers to each other, who had turned away, both weeping. One was a motherly-looking old soul, gray; the other was a smartly dressed Parisienne. A movement in the crowd—a big man elbowing his way in—brought them together, face to face. The big man passed by me. When next I saw them, the girl's arm was round the old lady's waist. And the look on their faces! Why, wasn't it the same look that passed between that pretty young girl in crape and that tawdry, tear-stained creature of the streets? And now, as I watched closer, wasn't it about me everywhere? Wasn't it knitting those suffering people closer and closer together with a glorious, inspiring bond of sacrifice? Oh, if I had seen Paris shattered into atoms that afternoon, with its myriad sufferers each oblivious of the others, now it was wonderful to see how those individual lives were brought together by their common grief, just as if they were one big, sympathetic family!
Somebody nudged me and brought me back.
"Say, look at that old codger with the medal on, over there, will you?" "Veteran of 1870" said some one somewhere. I looked. Dear old man, God bless him! Mounted upon that cart, he jabbed with his umbrella, enthusiastically delivered bayonet-thrusts one after another— "Comme ça! Comme ça!""—showing the boys how he used to repel cavalry charges in "the terrible year." But again it was not he that interested me most; it was the faces that were watching him—the faces that were, despite their tears, kindling and beginning to burn with a newer and higher emotion—patriotism. "Vive la France! Vive l'Armée!" till the stirring chorus of "La Marseillaise" marching five hundred strong up the Boulevard Sebastopol, swept through that whole throng in a conflagration of idealism—an idealism that was to make of this catastrophe not merely a war, but a war against all war.
As we were leaving, I suddenly caught my friend's wrist—a woman's agonized shriek! Another one had gone through the gate. Oh, how many, how many more would go before the war was over!
All the way home we met the men, and more men, tramping singing to the station. Late as it was, the streets were crowded all the way up the Boulevard St.-Michel, all the way to the pension.
As the great door swung open in answer to my ring, and I entered the quiet of the charming court, Paris seemed left behind. The garden, with its trees and shadows might have done for the parting scene of Romeo and Juliet. But in the halls the rows of corded trunks and bags showed that the war had come even here.
"C'est triste!" said madame, as she promised to send me up something to eat. "By to-morrow there will not be many left."
In my room I switched on the light; then just as quickly switched it off. Somehow I couldn't bear that glare—not tonight, anyway. So I lit a candle; and sank down on the sofa. Presently there was a rap. I jumped up.
Have you ever known what it was to go out into your garden, and find that your favorite bush was now nothing but green leaves, except—"Oh, yes, here is one!"—that little pale spray of lilacs way in under? And you know that spring is gone. Well, that was all that was left of Annette's beauty. "Annette, Annette!" I cried, "what is the matter?"
She set the tray down. Never a smile, never a word; she turned and walked out of the room. I didn't know what to make of it; I didn't know what to do. I only remembered' that she had said that it was the prettiest thing she had ever seen; so I snatched that blue scarf from the armoire, and ran to the head of the stairs.
"Annette! Annette!" I called down, "take it, take it! It's yours, Annette! It's the blue scarf!" She caught it; and, with her expressionless face turned up to me, answered mechanically, "Merci, Madame, merci!" and went right on down the stairs.
I returned to my room and sat down. I just looked at that candle, thinking. I know I thought of Annette's baby, and then I thought of the day. And then I would think of Annette. Faintly, I could hear the far-off shouting on the boulevard, and occasionally the honking of taxi-cabs. In a few minutes, my door being still open, I heard a sound that I didn't just like; It frightened me. I ran into the hall, and from a window there looked down into the courtyard.
I remember wondering—it was so dim—who was that over there by the flower bed? Somebody clasped in the arms of a man with a haversack hung over his shoulder. And then—I knew it all. Poor, poor Annette! Why, that must be her husband! Oh, how she was crying! I suppose I should have gone away, but I sat down on the stairs and watched; I couldn't help watching. Her voice was dreadful, dreadful, and how she clung to him! Suddenly he pulled away from her, and I heard her cry, "Alphonse! O Alphonse!" But he only gave a hopeless gesture, and walked away rapidly. Then I heard the big door click, and then Annette was on the ground—she had fallen—and I couldn't move. Then some one was running, and I heard them call, "Annette!" and I tried to run, too. And that s all I remember till I heard a door slam somewhere, and two French voices, men's voices, were coming nearer.
I told them I was all right, only just tired; and I thanked them. There was something about Annette—I didn't quite get it—something about seeing her in the morning; and I went to my room. There it came back to me that they had said something about crying, too. It couldn't have been I—I know I had wanted to all day, but I couldn't. Nothing but that parched, choked feeling tight in my throat.
After a while I went over to the window. I remember drawing aside these clumsy curtains, opening the double casement, and pulling up the massive slat shutters; and I must have stood there a long while, thinking, just thinking about things.
Now it was somebody I really knew! How different everything was now. Somebody I knew! Yes, that's the way. We think we feel, we think we understand; it affects us so dreadfully that we even weep. But do we really suffer, we who are merely in the audience, and not actors in the play? I wondered, for I was thinking of Annette. Somebody who had been a friend to me in this new, foreign world—Annette who had taught me, Annette who had laughed with me, and now she was suffering! Oh, how different it seemed to me now!
And to think that after all I had seen that day, it wasn't till now that I had the faintest idea of how those people felt—those mothers, and oh, how that shriek at the station came back to me now!
0 Annette, if it had not been for you, I never would have known what that day meant! Just one of the spectators I might have been, like one of the crowd that, after seeing Duse or Bernhardt, stroll out, and even while saying: "Wasn't it wonderful? Why, I 'm crying yet!" come back to realities with, "What'll you have, dear, chocolate or vanilla?"
And so I stood, thinking it over by that window. Something was turning over in my mind. And then, suddenly—why, it wasn't Mars any more, it was Paris—Paris for the first time! Annette, you made me laugh; Annette, you made me cry. You brought me all the way—all the way from the old Paris to the new; from the Paris I hated to the Paris I love!
The clock in the Luxembourg struck twelve.
Three priests silently crossed the street and turned into the Rue Vaugirard.
I watched them listlessly, watched them till my eyes fell upon that little advertising kiosk on the sidewalk. There it was again—"CHOCOLAT."
And then before I knew it the tears were pouring down my cheeks. "Chocolat!" How could I ever have the heart to spell it with an "e" again!
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald