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Passports, Gentlemen by A. H.

The close of July, 1870, found our party tarrying for a few days at Geneva. We had left home with the intention of "doing" Europe in less than four months. June and July were already gone, but in that time, traveling as only Americans can, Great Britain, Belgium, the Rhine country and portions of Switzerland had been visited and admired. We were now pausing for a few days to take breath and prepare for yet wider flights. Our proposed route from Geneva would lead us through Northern Germany, returning by way of Paris to London and Liverpool.

We had intentionally left Paris for the last, hoping that the Communist disturbances would be completely quieted before September. At this time their forces had been recently routed, and the Versailles troops were occupying the capital. The leaders of the Commune were scattered in every direction, and, if newspaper accounts were to be believed, were being captured in every city of France. Especially was this true of the custom-house upon the Swiss frontier, where report said that more than one leading Communist had been stopped by the lynx-eyed officials, who would accept no substitute for the signed and countersigned passport, and hold no parley until such a passport had been presented.

In view of these facts, the American minister in Paris had issued a circular letter to citizens of the United States traveling abroad, requesting them to see that their passports had the official visé before attempting to enter France, thus saving themselves and friends a large amount of unnecessary trouble and delay. Nothing was said of those who might think proper to attempt an entrance without a passport, such temerity being in official eyes beyond all advice or protection. Influenced by this letter and several facts which had come under our notice proving the uncertainty of all things, and especially of travel in France, we saw that our passports were made officially correct.

While at Geneva our party separated for a few days. My friends proposed making an expedition up the lake, while I arranged to spend a day and night at Aix-les-Bains, a small town in the south of France. My object in visiting it was not to enjoy the sulphur-baths for which it is famous, but to see some friends who were spending the summer there. I had written, telling them to expect me by the five o'clock train on Wednesday afternoon. As my stay was to be so brief, I left my valise at the hotel in Geneva, and found myself now, for the first time, separated from that trusty sable friend which had until this hour been my constant companion by day and night.

The train was just leaving the station when a lady sitting opposite to me, with her back to the locomotive, asked, in French, if I would be willing to change seats. Catching her meaning rather by her gestures than words, I inquired in English if she would like my seat, and found by her reply that I was traveling with an English lady.

I should here explain that although I had studied the French language as part of my education, I found it impossible to speak French with any fluency or understand it when spoken. My newly-made friend, however (for friend she proved herself), spoke French and English with equal fluency.

In the process of comparing notes (so familiar to all travelers) mention was made of the recent war and the unwonted strictness and severity of the custom-house officials. In an instant my hand was upon my pocket-book, only to find that I had neglected to take my passport from my valise.

The embarrassment of the situation flashed upon me, and my troubled countenance revealed to my companion that something unusual had occurred. I answered her inquiring look by saying that I had left my passport in Geneva. Her immediate sympathy was only equaled by her evident alarm. She said there was but one thing to be done—return instantly for it. I fully agreed with her, but found, to my dismay, upon consulting a guide-book, that our train was an express, which did not stop before reaching Belgarde, the frontier-town.

I would willingly have pulled the bell-rope had there been any, and stopped the train at any cost, but it was impossible, and nothing remained but to sit quietly while I was relentlessly hurried into the very jaws of the French officials. The misery of the situation was aggravated by the fact that I could not command enough French to explain how I came to be traveling without a passport. As a last resort, I applied to my friend, begging her to explain to the officer at the custom-house that I was a citizen of the United States, and had left my passport in Geneva. This she readily promised to do, although I could see that she had but little faith in the result. After a ride of an hour, during which my reflections were none of the pleasantest, we arrived at Belgarde. Here the doors of the railway carriages were thrown open, and we were politely requested to alight. We stepped out upon a platform swarming with fierce gendarmes, whom I regarded attentively, wondering which of them was destined to become my protector. From the platform we were ushered into a large room communicating by a narrow passage with a second room, into which our baggage was being carried. One by one my fellow-passengers approached the narrow and (to me) gloomy passage and presented their passports. These were closely scanned by the officer in charge, handed to an assistant to be countersigned, and the holder, all being right, was passed into the second room. Our turn soon came, and, accompanied by the English lady, I approached my fate.

Her passport was declared to be official, and handing it back the officer looked inquiringly at me. My friend then began her explanation. As I stood attentively regarding the officer's face, I could see his puzzled look change into one of comprehension, and then of amusement. To her inquiry he replied that there would be no objection under the circumstances to my returning to Geneva and procuring my passport. Encouraged by the favorable turn my fortunes had taken, I asked, through my friend, if it would be possible for me to go on without a passport. An instantaneous change passed over his countenance, and, shrugging his shoulders, he replied that it was impossible: there was a second custom-house at Culoz, where I should certainly be stopped, forced to explain how I had passed Belgarde, and severely punished for attempting to enter without a passport. I did not, however, wait for him to finish his angry harangue, but passed on to the second room, where I was soon joined by my interpreting friend, who explained to me in full what I had already learned from the officer's countenance and gesture. She thought that I was fortunate in escaping so easily, and advised an immediate return to Geneva. I again consulted my guide-book, and found that there was no return train for several hours, and consequently that I should arrive in Geneva too late to start for Aix-les-Bains that night. This would necessitate waiting until Thursday, and perhaps force me to give up the trip, for our seats were engaged in the Chamouni coach for Friday morning. I imagined my friends in vain awaiting my arrival at Aix, and the smiles of our party when they found me in Geneva upon their return from the lake. But, more than all, the possibility of not reaching Aix at all troubled me, for I was very anxious to see my friends there, and had written home that I intended to see them.

I found by my guide-book that our train reached Culoz before the Geneva return train; so on the instant I formed the desperate resolve of running the blockade at Belgarde, and if I found it impossible to pass the custom-house at Culoz, there to take the return train for Geneva. I walked to the platform as if merely accompanying my friend, stood for a moment at the door of the carriage conversing with her, and then, as the train started for Culoz, quickly stepped in and shut the door. Her dismay was really pitiable: had I not been somewhat troubled in mind myself, I should have laughed outright. She saw nothing before me but certain destruction, and I am free to confess that the prospect of a telegram flashing over the wires at that moment from Belgarde to Culoz was not reassuring. The die, however, had been cast, and now nothing remained but to endure in silence the interminable hour which must elapse ere we should reach Culoz. There we were to change cars, the Geneva train going on to Paris, while we took the train on the opposite platform for Aix-les-Bains. This necessitated passing through the dépôt, and passing through the dépôt was passing through the custom-house. As our train stopped in front of the fatal door, and one by one the passengers filed into it and were lost to sight, I seemed to see written above the door, "All hope abandon, ye who enter here!" It was simply rushing into the jaws of fate: there was not the slightest possibility of my being able to pass through that depot unchallenged. I should be carried on to Paris if I remained in the train; I should be arrested if I remained on the platform; I was discovered if I entered the custom-house. Eagerly I glanced around for some means of escape. Every instant the number of passengers on the platform was decreasing, the danger of discovery rapidly increasing.

I had feared lest some benevolent French officer, anxious for my safety, would be found waiting to assist me in alighting: I was thankful to find that I should be allowed to assist myself, and that no one paid any particular attention to me. As I stood there hesitating what course to pursue, and feeling how much easier my mind at this moment would be were I waiting on the Belgarde platform, I noticed a door standing open a few steps to the left. Without any further hesitation I walked directly in, to find myself in a railroad restaurant. It proved to be a tower of refuge.

No one had noticed me. There were other passengers in the room, waiting for the Paris train; so, joining myself to them, I remained there until the custom-house doors were closed and the guards had left the platform. The question now arose, How should I reach the opposite platform? The train might start at any moment: the only legitimate passage was closed. I knew that the attempt would be fraught with danger, yet I felt that it was now too late to draw back. If I remained any length of time in the restaurant, I should be suspected and discovered; and as I thought of that moment a terrific scene arose before my mind in which an excited French official thundered at me in his choicest French, while I stood silent, unable to explain who I was, how I came there, whither I was going; I imagined myself being searched for treasonable documents and none being found; I seemed to see my captors consulting how they could best compel me to tell what I knew. These scenes and others of like nature entertained me while I waited for the coast—or rather platform—to be cleared. When at length all the immediate guards were gone, I started out to find my way, if possible, to the train for Aix. I have read of travelers cutting their way through trackless forests, of ice-bound mariners anxiously seeking the North-west passage, and, worse than all, of luckless countrymen wandering bewildered through the streets of Boston; but I am confident that no traveler, mariner or countryman ever sought his way with more circumspection and diligence than I in my search for a passage between those two platforms.

As I glanced cautiously up and down I saw a door standing open at some little distance. Around that door all my hopes were immediately centred. It might lead directly to the custom-house; it might be the entrance to the barracks of the guards; it might be—I knew not what; but it might afford a passage to the other platform.

I walked quickly to the door, glanced in, saw no one and entered. The room was a baggage-room, and at that moment unoccupied. It instantly occurred to me that a baggage-room ought to open on both platforms. I felt as though I could have shouted "Eureka!" and I am confident that the joy of Archimedes as he rushed through the streets of Syracuse was no greater than mine as I felt that I had so unexpectedly discovered the passage I was seeking. Passing through this room, I found myself in a second, like the former unoccupied. It had occurred to me that all the doors might be closed, and the thought had considerably abated my rejoicing; but no! I saw a door which stood invitingly open.

No guards were stationed on the platform; so I stepped out, and before me stood the train for Aix, into which my fellow-passengers were entering, some of them still holding their passports in their hands. Taking my seat in one of the carriages, in a few moments the train started and I was on my way to Aix. The relief was unspeakably great. An instant before it seemed as if nothing short of a miracle could save me from a French guard-house, and now, by the simplest combination of circumstances, in which a restaurant and baggage-room bore an important part, I had passed unchallenged. I remember that I enjoyed the scenery and views along the route from Culoz to Aix more than while passing from Belgarde to Culoz.

My friends were found expecting me upon my arrival, and joined in congratulating me upon my happy escape. A night and day were passed very pleasantly, and then arose the question of return.

I suggested telegraphing to Geneva for my passport, but that was vetoed, and it was decided that I should return as I had come—passportless. I confess that the attempt seemed somewhat hazardous. If it was dangerous to attempt an entrance into France, how much more so to attempt an exit, especially when the custom-house force had been doubled with the sole object that all possibility of escape might be precluded, and that any one passing Culoz might be stopped at Belgarde! It was urged, however, that our seats had been engaged in the diligence for Friday morning, and to send for the passport would consume considerable time—would certainly delay the party until Saturday, and perhaps until Monday, which delay would seriously affect all their plans, time being so limited and so many places remaining to be visited. I had passed once, why not again? Influenced by these facts, and thinking what a triumph it would be once more to baffle French vigilance, I determined to attempt the return. There was a train leaving Aix about eight P.M., reaching Geneva at eleven: it was decided that I should take this train. I had arranged a vague plan of action, although I expected to depend rather upon the suggestion of the moment.

It was quite dark when we reached Culoz. As the train arrived at the platform, and we were obliged again to change cars, I thought of the friendly restaurant; but no! the restaurant was closed, and moreover a company of gendarmes was present to see that every one entered the door leading to the custom-house. There was no room for hesitation or delay. I entered under protest, but still I entered.

In a moment I perceived the desperate situation. The room had two doors—one opening upon the platform from which we had just come, and now guarded by an officer; the other leading to the opposite platform, and there stood the custom-house officer receiving and inspecting the passports. It was indeed Scylla and Charybdis. If I attempted to pass the officer without a passport, I was undone; if I remained until all the other passengers had passed out, I was undone. For an instant I felt as if I had better give up the unequal contest. The forces of the enemy were too many for me. I saw that I had been captured: why fight against Fate? A moment's reflection, however, restored my courage. It was evident that one thing alone remained to be done: that was to find my way out of the door by which I had just entered, as speedily as possible. But there stood the guard.

The train by which we had come was still before the platform: an idea suggested itself. Acting as if I had left some article in the train, I stepped hurriedly up to the guard, who, catching my meaning, made way for me without a word. Once upon the platform, I resolved never again to enter that door except as a prisoner. The guard followed me with his eyes for a moment, and then, seeing me open one of the carriage doors, turned back to his post. As soon as I perceived that I was no longer watched I glided off in the opposite direction under the shadows of the platform. I was looking for a certain door which I remembered well as a friend in need. I knew not in which direction it lay, nor could I have recognized it if shut; but hardly had I gone ten steps when the same door stood open before me. It was the act of an instant to spring through it, out of sight of the guard. Why this door and baggage-room should have been left thus open and unguarded when such evident and scrutinizing care was taken in every other quarter, I have to this day been unable to understand. But for that fact I should have found it utterly impossible to pass that custom-house going or coming.

Once in the baggage-room, the way was familiar, and, passing into the second room, I found the door open as on the day previous, and in a moment stood undiscovered upon the platform. Entering the waiting train, I was soon on the way to Belgarde.

My only thought during the ride was, What shall I do when we arrive at Belgarde? I expected to see the doors thrown open as before, and hear again the polite invitation to enter the custom-house. Was it not certain detection to refuse? was it not equally dangerous to obey? The officer at Belgarde had seen me the day before, and warned me not to go to Culoz. What reception would he give me when he saw me attempting to return? Or it might be he would not remember me, and then in the darkness and confusion I should surely be taken for an escaping Communist. That I had passed Culoz was no comfort when I remembered that this would only aggravate my guilt in their eyes.

The case did indeed seem desperate. Willingly would I have jumped out and walked the entire distance to Geneva, if I might only thus escape that terrible custom-house, which every moment loomed up more terrifically. At length this troubled hour was passed: we had arrived at Belgarde, and the moment for action had come. I had determined to avoid the custom-house at all hazards. When the doors were thrown open I expected to alight, but not to enter. My plan was to find some sheltering door, or even corner, where I could remain until the others had presented their passports and were beginning to return, then join them and take my seat as before. The dépôt at Belgarde was brilliantly lighted, and the gendarmes pacing to and fro in the gaslight seemed not only to have increased in numbers, but to have acquired an additional ferocity since the day previous.

As I looked but my spirit sank within me. I could only brace myself for the coming crisis. For several moments nothing was said or done. The doors remained shut, and no one seemed at all concerned about our presence. Each minute appeared an hour as I sat there awaiting my fate. The suspense was becoming too great: I felt that my stock of self-possession was entirely deserting me. At length I began to hope that they were satisfied with the examination at Culoz, and would allow us to pass unchallenged. Just at that moment, as hope was dawning into certainty, the door opened and the custom-house officer entered with a polite bow, while a body of gendarmes drew up behind him upon the platform. He uttered two French words, and I needed no interpreter to tell me that they were "Passports, gentlemen!"

I shuddered as I saw him standing so near, within reach of my arm. There were six persons besides myself in the carriage, and I was occupying a seat beside the door farthest from the platform. Any one who has seen a European railway-carriage will understand me when I say that I sat next to the right-hand door, while he had entered by the left. One by one the passports were handed up to him until he held six in his hand.

With the rest of the passengers I had taken out my pocket-book and searched as if for my passport, but had handed none to him, and now I sat awaiting developments. I saw that he would read the six passports, and then turn to me for the seventh.

The desperate thought flashed upon me of opening the door and escaping into the darkness. The carriage itself was so dimly lighted that I could barely see the face of my opposite neighbor, and I therefore hoped to be able to slip out without any one perceiving it. The attempt was desperate, but so was the situation. The officer was buried in the passports, holding them near his face to catch the dim light. The door was fastened upon the outside, and so, watching him, I leaned far out of the window until I was able to reach the catch and unfasten the door. A slight push, and it swung noiselessly open. I glanced at the officer: he was intently reading the last passport. I had placed one foot upon the outside step, and was about to glide out into the darkness, when he laid the paper down and looked directly at me.

It would have been madness to attempt an escape with his eyes upon me; so, assuming as nonchalant a look as my present feelings would allow, I answered his inquiring glance with one of confident assurance.

He saw my nonchalant expression. He saw the open pocket-book in my hand. He had not counted the number of passports. All the passengers were settling themselves to sleep. It must be all right; so, with a polite "Bon soir, messieurs!" he bowed and left the carriage. My sensation of relief may be better imagined than described. Hardly had he left our carriage when we heard the sound of voices and hurrying feet upon the platform, and looking out saw some unfortunate individual carried off under guard. I trembled as I thought how narrowly I had escaped his fate. In a few moments, however, we were safely on our way to Geneva, and as we sped on into the darkness, while congratulating myself upon my fortunate escape, I firmly resolved to be better prepared for the emergency the next time I should hear those memorable words, "Passports, gentlemen!"