Paris – Hurrying Home From Finistere

NO more interesting visitor has dropped in upon us at “Ty Coz” than the eminent American journalist who came for tea this afternoon. Every line in his alert face, the pose of his head, the flash of his eye, marked the man who had mounted the rungs of the Park Row ladder by the ability of keeping continually on the qui vive. He was positive, like all men of his type, and confident in the infallibility of his sixth sense.

Conversation turned upon the anxious weeks since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo. Helen and I were full of apprehension. The immediate future appalled us. Were we never to get away from the trail of blood we had been following ever since those fateful days of April, 1909, when we saw the hopes of a regenerated Turkey disappear in the horror of the Armenian massacres at Adana? Was there before us another chapter this time on a much larger scale of agony and misery through the clash of nations? We could not help unburdening our hearts to the guest who sat calmly sipping his tea.

The American journalist would have none of our presentiment. “I have been waiting,” said he, “twenty-five years for your European war. Many a time it has seemed as imminent as this. But it will not come ! Europe cannot afford a war. There is today such a close interrelationship between big business in the capitals of Europe that an actual conflict is beyond the realm of possibility. The diplomats will fume and fuss. But they know better than to plunge their countries into a colossal struggle that will ruin Europe and set back civilization.”

After our friend had gone, I looked at my wife. “What do you think now?” I asked her.

“I think that I am going to take the first train tomorrow morning to Morlaix to get some money,” she answered, “and that the summer at the. seashore for which you have been waiting and dreaming for six years is going to end rather suddenly.”

July thirty-first.

Helen was as good as her word. At daybreak she was off to the nearest town where there are branches of the Paris banks. To persuade’ myself that I was not at all apprehensive, and that all this war talk was nonsense, I spent the morning writing about the influence of Walt Whitman upon the younger contemporary French poets. How refreshing it is to be able to close your mind to rumors and ephemeral excitement ! The Bard of Camden is a welcome refuge in times like these. There is no more tiring question, even when you ask it of yourself, than, “What do you think is going to happen?”

The afternoon was glorious. Among the summer people none was caring about how Servia answered the ultimatum of Austria,Hungary, or what the German ambassador at St. Petersburg was saying. In the little shop, the Paris newspapers lay on the counter. They had just arrived from Plougasnou. But the people from the hotel across the road were not crowding around, eager for the latest word.

I took the children in the donkey cart to meet the train from Morlaix. A laughing group of young people, French and English, were just leaving the hotel with bathing suits and a tea basket. As we crossed the brook, a voice hailed me from the bushes. I persuaded the donkey to stop. Looking down, I saw a member of the London Stock Exchange busily painting a landscape.

Did n’t you go back to England yesterday?” I asked in surprise.

“Why?” he answered, and paused to light a cigarette.

The shrill whistle of the train on the hill warned me to hurry. I was glad, for it is unpleasant to be taken as an alarmist. Perhaps I was a fool. The future is always uncertain. It is just when you are surest that you make the biggest mistakes. I can imagine no more disheartening situation than that of a pupil in the old Hebrew school of Prophets,unless it be going out to practise the profession after graduating.

As she alighted from the train, Helen said to me, “War is inevitable. You will have to work hard and fast, if you want to finish your History of the Ottoman Empire while there is still an Ottoman Empire. The crash is coming.”

She had got her money just twenty minutes before word arrived by telegraph to cash no more checks on Paris. Gresham’s law was at work in Morlaix. Over night money had disappeared. No one would change a bank note. The earth seemed to have swallowed up all the gold and silver. Business was completely stopped until small paper money could arrive from Paris.

The babies caught the drift of our conversation. Christine, who is scarcely more than five, looked up and said, “There are n’t going to be any more soldiers hurting each other, are there?”

When we were driving into the village, an American woman stopped us.

“Do give me your advice,” she said. “I have places reserved for New York next week on the Vaterland for Thursday and the France for Saturday. Which do you think I had better take?”

“You have a more important question than that before you,” I answered. “Have you got any money?”

“Money? What do you mean? I have my letter of credit, and travelers’ checks besides.”

It was the first time that it had ever been suggested to this woman that she might lack money. I could not explain to her that bankable paper was for the time being no good to her. She smiled incredulously. We left her standing in the middle of the road. She looked offended, and her eyes echoed what her lips had kept insisting, “I can always get all the money I want.”

On the Brest Paris Express, Saturday noon, August first. We reached Morlaix just in time for a hurried bite at the hotel. Helen came over to the station to see me off. After I had registered my baggage, we entered the waiting room. A guard of soldiers had stacked their arms in the center of the room.

“Is it mobilization?” I asked the corporal.

“Not yet,” he responded. “We were sent here just an hour ago. Detachments have also been stationed at each end of the bridge across the valley.”

So I am off for Paris. It does not seem real, this sudden ending of my vacation in midsummer. I remember vividly the day, scarcely more than a year ago, I spent on board the Austrian battleship Radetzky, in the harbor of Gravosa. After lunch in the wardroom, the Austrian officers spoke freely to me about what was ahead of their government if Servia was successful in the Second Balkan War, just entered upon two days before against Bulgaria. When I got back to the hotel that night, I found a telegram asking me to leave immediately for Belgrade to follow the Servian operations. I did not go. For there was a baby ten weeks old in Paris, and her father had not yet seen her. A year ago I went away from war to Paris to my family. Today I am going away from my family to Paris to war.

The only other occupants of the compartment are a young Breton couple who have been married three weeks. He has a position in Paris, and is taking her for the first time away from her home to the Great City. They tell me about the apartment that he has fitted up for her, and ask me if I know the quarter in which they are to live.

But, since they left St. Pol-de-Léon this morning, the first thought of disaster has crept into their minds. He will be called out on the second day, if there is a mobilization. They ask me the old question, “Do you think there will be war?” The answer they want is a negative. What am I to say?

Rennes, 2 p. M.

Coming into the station, we passed barracks and an artillery park. The wheels were off the gun carriages, and men were greasing the hubs. Officers were inspecting horses.

The bride has asked me to see if I can buy a newspaper. She does not want her husband to leave her. I try to cheer her by pointing out that the station employees are not wearing the brassard,’ which is the first sure sign of mobilization on the railway. Let us have hope as long as possible.

Vitré, 4.15 p. m.

Here the news has reached us. As our train entered the station, the call for a general mobilization was being posted. I do not dare to leave my place to read the proclamation. I know well that I should never get a seat on this train again. The crowds on the platform are enormous. Some men entering the compartment say they have been waiting at the station since morning for the word to come. At the very moment given in their instructions, they want to be at their recruiting stations. There is exultation on their faces. They seem glad to go. The moment for which they have been living ever since they were born has come. The feeling communicates itself to me.

But I look across to my companions, who had been anticipating this mobilization call, not as a thing of joy, but as the death knell. There will be no honeymoon in the little nest that he has prepared for his bride. He must go within forty-eight hours. Her head is on his shoulder. The slender hand with fingers clasped tightly round his wrist shows what she is passing through.

Saturday, midnight.

I have reached this little hotel near the Gare du Montparnasse, and am thankful to have found a room.

From Vitré to Paris the train was no longer the ordinary Paris Brest express. It was transformed into a military train, jammed full of men answering the call to arms. At every station, we were besieged by crowds of reservists, until there was no more room and the engine could draw no more extra carriages. Then we crept slowly towards Paris, bearing our offering of human lives. One could feel, mingled with the effervescence, the excitement, the joy of approaching conflict, an undertone of anguish and sorrow, strikingly typified in that white faced bride who in the course of the day’s journey had seen her goal of happiness changed to an imprisonment of weary waiting in a strange city.

An hour ago we reached the Gare du Montparnasse. Fête-day crowds in a Paris railway station are worse than a Bank Holiday crowd trying to get out of London. But nothing in my experience has approached the Gare du Montparnasse as I found it this evening. Every one, including officials, seemed to be moving in some direction without knowing where or why he was walking. Every one was talking to every one else about the subject which made the trial of Madame Caillaux seem a hundred years in the past.

I had foolishly registered my baggage at Morlaix. When I went into the baggage-room, I soon saw the hopelessness of waiting. “If you want your baggage,” said the sole official I could buttonhole, “the only way you’ll get it is to go out on the platform and find it yourself.” I took a look at the plat form. The vans had been emptied pellmell. Mountains of trunks and bags loomed up before me. I should have needed a ladder or a crowbar,probably both. So I decided to allow the hotel porter to wrestle with the problem tomorrow.

The Salle des Pas Perdus was almost empty. When I had gone down the outer stairway, and passed into the Place de Rennes, I caught my first glimpse of Paris in wartime. The great square was black with people. Soldiers had cleared the terrace in front of the station. The entrances were guarded. A host of men, each with his womenfolk around him, formed a long line, waiting to enter. Paris was already responding to the call. Women were already rising to the occasion. Enthusiasm, confusion, and lamentation are the three words which best describe what I saw. But enthusiasm predominated.

On the wall, beside the exit door, my eye caught the huge poster whose words I had been burning to read ever since leaving Vitré.

ARMY OF LAND AND ARMY OF SEA ORDEROF GENERAL MOBILIZATION.

By decree of the President of the Republic, the mobilization of the armies of land and sea is ordered, as well as the requisition of animals,carriages and harness necessary to the supplying of these armies.

Sunday, August 2, 1914.

Every Frenchman, subject to military obligations, must, under penalty of being punished with all the rigor of the laws, obey the prescriptions of his book of mobilization.

Subject to this order are ALL MEN not at present under the flag.

The civil and military Authorities are responsible for the execution of this decree.

THE MINISTER OF WAR. THE MINISTER OF THE NAVY

The date was inserted with a rubber stamp. These posters had long been printed. In every commune in France, in Corsica, in Algeria, and in the distant colonies, in every railway station, in every postoffice, they had been tucked away for years, waiting for this moment that was bound to come.

A man who had arrived on my train crowded up beside me. He read the poster through from beginning to end. I watched him curiously. His only comment was the brief but expressive phrase, untranslatable, “Ca y est!” He then took from his pocket the little “book of mobilization” which every Frenchman carries, and looked to see what he was to do, and where he was to go. This man typified all France on the evening of August first. If France is not ready, it will be munitions and not soldiers that are lacking.

Another small poster announced that the military authorities had taken over the railways, and that passenger services were suspended. I had come through from Finistère on the last train.

As I crossed the Place de Rennes to find a hotel, my way was barred at every step by family groups. Women and children, old and young, were clinging desperately to those who were waiting to enter the station on their way to suffering and death. I do not say to glory, for I have witnessed these scenes at the old Sirkedji station in Constantinople, at Sofia, at Salonika, at Athens and at Cettinje, and I have lived through their aftermath. War is the placing of human affections upon the altar. The sacrifice acceptable in the sight of Mars is the broken woman turning homeward when the man has gone.