Figure begins: Battlefront (pages 1 to 10)
A Figure from the Common Lot
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Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
We are important
Our three letter alphabet
Constructs our limited language
The gravitational center
Draws our attention-seeking message
The message is
I am important
Yet you don’t know me
Honoré Gremot wanted careful arrangements. He had his sketchbook, but the light needed to be right. The wooden box, where he kept his pencils, he preferred to have within reach, within sight. Yet, out of the way. His satchel needed to be where he would not trouble his mind over it; still, he did not want it close by, drawing attention. Three pencils, three qualities of lead: dark, medium, light. Each in its own sphere.
The patch of grass where he sat prevented his arrangement of pencils from achieving satisfaction. They would not remain evenly spaced and wholly in view. He could place them in order, but liked to see that they were in order. Time permitted, however. The balloon he meant to sketch had been buffeted about; it had risen—while seeming to shrink away—to a calmer height, hovered there in abeyance, an ornament of red and gold against a blue sky…and begun its descent, growing again in size. The balloon approached; it might yet land.
M. Dupuy, close by, drew attention. A man of an agitated nature, Dupuy had nothing to do at the moment, no one with whom to find fault. He paced, pivoted, craned to study Honoré’s sketchbook—thus far turned to a blank page. To occupy Dupuy’s mind, Honoré said: “Do you know who this is?”
He allowed the officer to consider the question He saw Dupuy decide, straighten his shoulders; the military man speaking to the journalist. Honoré waved his hand, and added, “No, I am wasting your time. You must ignore me; I am too stupid. Some army message-bearer of no consequence. You, of course…”
“It may be,” Dupuy cut in, “that the Comte de Boussac has brought with him one or two assistants. These men may be, to your way of thinking, of no consequence. François-Marie Serrigny de Boussac has,” Dupuy cast a severe eye on the sketchbook, where Honoré had added treetops, “achieved great fame as an aeronaut.”
“A difficult art,” Honoré observed, shading in the form of the balloon; the trees, by contrast, showing its proportion.
“The wind is contrary today.”
“But this will prove an important message. They have sent an important man to deliver it.”
Dupuy considered the journalist Gremot. He distrusted Belgians. He told himself, had they been French, it would be well enough, but they were Belgians. Was it possible to have no allegiance, no sympathy? He did not believe it; therefore, he felt those claiming neutrality were by nature dangerous. They might spring one way or the other.
“The message,” he said darkly, “might be nothing at all. What is this picture?”
“Well,” Honoré’s tone was humble,”I am a poor sort of artist. You know, as I have told you, I make these little drawings only to remind myself. I cannot read my own writing.”
The Comte de Boussac had obtained better luck with the wind; his finesse at manipulating ballast was noted everywhere. Dupuy felt gratified personally. He knew Boussac only by reputation; in some respects, the reputation was doubtful. Yet, Gremot had implied a challenge to his command. Dupuy had not resisted. Gremot, with his little, needling ways.
When he had first acquired this bête noire, Dupuy had been merely annoyed. A young man of Gremot’s age, even a Belgian, ought to be a soldier…of these idle scribblers, the world had its share already. Dupuy conceded that Gremot appeared weak and lethargic, unfit even for the infantry. He was an infection of lazy habits, leaving his bag about everywhere, coming to rest wherever he might be most effectively in the way. Nevertheless, Dupuy believed in the transformative influence of military discipline. He would particularly have liked seeing Gremot subjected to a forced march.
“Here you are with your sketchbook again.”
Earlier in the day, Dupuy had noticed Gremot loitering, talking to a corporal, smoking a cigar, gesturing with it, pointing at this and that, wearing an inward smile. Dupuy could not concentrate for the vexation. He’d abandoned his breakfast, and pursued Gremot, whom he discovered working an indolent pencil over paper, pausing, gazing—daydreaming, Dupuy supposed.
He crouched, and reaching over Gremot’s shoulder, put two fingers of his right hand on the sketchbook’s left-hand corner. He pushed down steadily. The page Dupuy overlooked was done in stations, designed like a clock face, vignettes of the French artillery—tiny landscapes, from which the center bowed like a convex lens; and within this ring, some aspect of the cannon, or its equipage, was shown in detail: the trunnion by which the gun was raised or lowered, the wheels of the gun’s carriage, barrels loaded on an ammunition wagon, a horse team’s rounded flanks.
(Copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)