It was a beautiful sunlit evening, and as I was standing at the rail watching the tide, which ran robe de mariée pas cher
out to sea like a mill-race, suddenly there was a splash and we saw one of the Belgian soldiers lying on the water, his face downward and his arms and legs outstretched and motionless. He was being carried out to sea with incredible speed by the tide, and it was evident that he was trying to commit suicide, as he made no effort to struggle. The sailors were all busy elsewhere getting out the mail-bags and trunks, and for a few minutes nothing seemed to be done. Suddenly there was another splash as, from the deck above, a man dove after the Belgian. It was Lieutenant Shirk, an aviator in our marines, who had not even taken the time to throw off his coat or leather puttees. A life-saving belt had been thrown just previously and floated with the tide several yards ahead of the Belgian soldier, but both were carried along so swiftly that it was some time before Lieutenant Shirk could reach him. As he approached, the Belgian promptly kicked at him, and it took several moments before he was overpowered and dragged toward the life-belt. In the meantime a boat had been lowered, but so swift is the tide in these waters that when the boat reached the two men, they seemed like two small black spots in the distance. The excitement and enthusiasm when they were brought back to the ship may easily be imagined.
Lieutenant Shirk proved to be a well-to-do young business man from Indianapolis, who when the war broke out had immediately enlisted, leaving a wife and children and large important business interests to give himself whole-heartedly to the service of his country.
If you “tell this story to the marines” they will refuse to acknowledge that it is anything extraordinary, and they will also tell you that that is just a way they have of dealing with any emergency on land or sea.
The sad part of this heroic rescue is that a few days afterward, meeting one of the Belgian officers in Paris, he told me that the soldier, soon after landing, had succeeded in his effort at self-destruction, and had shot himself in a fit of despondency. He had been away from Belgium for four years, and during all that time had had no news of his wife or children; his little farm was in the hands of the Germans, and there was neither hope nor desire to live left in him.
We all had to assemble in the saloon of the ship to present our passports, and when it came to my turn I was politely told to go to my cabin with two secret-service men, that they might question me further regarding my mission. One of these men was silent, but the other a very voluble, polite Frenchman. But even the visé by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the French High Commission did not seem quite to satisfy him. The fact that I had been born in Germany evidently impressed him unfavorably. He asked me finally: “Do you intend to take any money out of France?” “On the contrary,” I replied, “here is a letter of credit, every cent of which is to be used on French orchestra musicians.” In corroboration I showed him the cable from the Ministère des Beaux Arts offering me the use of the Pasdeloup Orchestra, the conductor of which was M. Rhene Baton. The face of my secret-service man suddenly became wreathed in smiles. “Ah!” he said, “M. Baton! Why, before the war I used to play third horn in his orchestra in Bordeaux. Everything is all right.” With a bow he handed me back my passport, and at this point his silent companion suddenly gave me a most genial wink, the nationality of which could not be mistaken. I said: “You are American.” “Sure!” he answered, and thus I was enabled to land at last in France with colors flying.
The next morning saw me in Paris at the little hotel “France et Choiseul,” to which I had always gone on my visits to Paris during twenty-five years preceding. I found the same courteous, smiling directeur, M. Mantel, to receive me. Even the old canary-bird, hanging in the courtyard, was still living, but either corpulence or old age had stopped his musical demonstrations.
It would take a man of much greater eloquence than I can claim, to give an adequate picture of Paris at that time. It seemed to me more beautiful and more noble than I had ever seen it during my many visits in times of peace. The streets were almost empty, there were no tourists, no pleasure-seekers, no idlers, and therefore that part of Parisian life which usually stands out so prominently and which, alas, is generally the only part that the average visitor sees, was entirely absent. One saw only the French people going about their daily tasks and the soldiers of France and her allies. The Champs-Élysées, the Tuileries, and, above all, the Jardin de Luxembourg seemed more charming than ever, but the tragic note was that the lovely children who in former times crowded these gardens were all gone. Constant air raids and the frequent bombardments by the “Big Bertha” had driven them away. It was said that a million and a half people had left Paris, and that, owing to the nearness of the German armies, the entire evacuation of the civilian population was imminent. Rumors had it, furthermore, that all the banks had sent their securities to Orleans and that the embassies and various relief organizations were ready to leave Paris at a few hours’ notice. There was not the least sign of panic, but an indescribable sadness brooded over the city.22