That is, we thought so at first. But by evening the Frenchman and the Belgians had been taken away to be held in prison until the end of the war, and for two days the highly efficient local secret-service staff kept the rest of us under its watchful care. After that, though, the American consul, Robert J. Thompson, succeeded in convincing the military authorities that we were not dangerous.
I still think that taking copious baths and getting ourselves shaved helped to clear us of suspicion.
The Grapes of Wrath
There is a corner of Rhenish Prussia that shoulders up against Holland and drives a nudging elbow deep into the ribs of Belgium; and right here, at the place where the three countries meet, stands Charlemagne’s ancient city of Aix-la-Chapelle, called Aachen by the Germans.
To go from the middle of Aix-la-Chapelle to the Dutch boundary takes twenty minutes on a tram-car, and to go to the Belgian line requires an even hour in a horse-drawn vehicle, and considerably less than that presuming you go by automobile. So you see the toes of the town touch two foreign frontiers; and of all German cities it is the most westerly and, therefore, closest of all to the zone of action in the west of Europe.
You would never guess it, however. When we landed in Aix-la-Chapelle, coming out of the heart of the late August hostilities in Belgium, we marveled; for, behold, here was a clean, white city that, so far as the look of it and the feel of it went, might have been a thousand miles from the sound of gunfire. On that Sabbath morning of our arrival an air of everlasting peace abode with it. That same air of peace continued to abide with it during all the days we spent here. Yet, if you took a step to the southwest—a figurative step in seven-league boots—you were where all hell broke loose. War is a most tremendous emphasizer of contrasts.
These lines were written late in September, in a hotel room at Aix-la-Chapelle. The writing of them followed close on an automobile trip to Liege, through a district blasted by war and corrugated with long trenches where those who died with their boots on still lie with their boots on.
Let me, if I can, draw two pictures—one of this German outpost town, and the other of the things that might be seen four or five miles distant over the border.
I have been told that, in the first flurry of the breaking out of the World-War, Aix was not placid. It went spy-mad, just as all Europe went spy-mad—a mania from which this Continent has not entirely recovered by any means. There was a great rounding up of suspected aliens. Every loyal citizen resolved himself or herself into a self-appointed policeman, to watch the movements of those suspected of being disloyal. Also, they tell me, when the magic mobilization began and troops poured through without ceasing for four days and four nights, and fighting broke out just the other side of the Belgian customhouse, on the main high road to Liege, there was excitement. But all that was over long before we came.