Passage: part one
In the dark, he dressed hurriedly. The windowpanes, even on the inside, were covered in frost. Honoré’s train would leave at the earliest hour; the knowledge had made sleep impossible.
During his convalescence, he had been given the things he needed: his toiletries, and the few articles of clothing he now possessed. These, with an insomniac’s agitation, he had packed in Broughton’s travel case; he had fussed over the folding, the symmetrical laying in place of each garment. Honoré had made his bag’s interior impenetrably tidy. After which, he had nothing to do. He’d lain awake on his cot, waiting.
The large front room was quiet, and bleak, with its shadowed, uninhabited benches. Through the shuttered windows ambient light, strengthening to a grey daybreak, was light enough for his fingers to find the key. He drew back the bolt, and stepped outside, bag in hand. He closed the door behind him, locked it, and left the key on the window ledge. He felt cast out.
Before the house that he believed he would never see again, Honoré paused. A few days earlier, snow had fallen; near the step dried leaves were mounded, pushed there by the wind. He set his bag on these. He adjusted his muffler, and the brim of his hat. He reached into his coat pocket, found his pass and Broughton’s letter of introduction, and took them out. He meant to carry these in his hand. On the street at this hour, he could see only soldiers on duty, uninterested, or able to guess his business by the bag he carried. Still, Honoré did not want to be stopped, detained, kept standing in the cold, questioned and called a troublemaker, because he had lost track of his papers.
At the station, he had asked what trains went to Compiègne.
“Do you have permission to travel there?”
He was disgruntled with Broughton, but Honoré’s faith in Broughton had not yet been shaken. Of course, if he were meant to go to Compiègne, and if some official leave must be obtained, Broughton―who produced suits of clothes, riding lessons, a travel case and a purse of money―would have attended to such a detail.
“Yes, never mind. Tell me what time.” Others waited in the long queue; Honoré had himself done so for nearly an hour, each step shuffling him forward by the length of a boot.
The clerk raised an eyebrow.
“You must have a paper to show me first, or I cannot sell you a ticket.”
“I see.” Honoré undid the top button of his coat and reached inside for his letter. The clerk, after a cursory and disdainful glance, shook his head; he spoke to Honoré, but with a commiserating face, nodded to the man who crowded Honoré from behind.
“I don’t want to see this. Do you not understand me?”
He did understand, now…that Broughton meant to test him.
“Please, monsieur, where do I go, then?” He heard a snort from the man whose business his ignorance delayed, and was told, in a voice impatient and incredulous, “But, where do you imagine you are to go? What house have you come from?” Unable to believe such naïveté, the man pushed Honoré aside and stepped to the counter.
“I am next,” he told the clerk.
Honoré’s friend Hartmann had taken four of his silver coins.
“Herr Broughton is your employer?”
“What is his address in Paris?”
“I will ask him.”
Broughton ignored Honoré’s sullen mood. “You have obtained information of value, Gremot. I had not been aware of this procedure. My own travel arrangements will benefit by your efforts.”
Now, Honoré held, rolled in his gloved hand, his right―being employed as clerk by Edmond Broughton, publisher, whose premises were located on the boulevard Montparnasse―to travel from Sedan to Compiègne. Honoré, with resentment, believed Broughton had known from the start that he would need this.
Shafts of burnished sun crowned a bank of wintry clouds. The street was nearly silent, the air brittle. No vehicle’s approach could have taken him by surprise. He was surprised, however. He had not heard the soft footfalls of the man who had attended him through his illness, walking towards the center of town as Honoré walked away.
“Monsieur! Monsieur Bellet!”
He waved his papers in the air, and crossed at a trot. Now Bellet no longer had reason to visit, Honoré had not seen him for many days, and then only by chance. Bellet waited on the balls of his feet, restlessly poised to move on—a symptom, Honoré guessed, of embarrassment. Nonetheless, he thrust the pass and letter into his coat pocket. Setting his bag on the pavement, he caught hold of Bellet and embraced him. “I apologize, monsieur. I will not detain you for a moment. But I have so much to thank you for. And as you see, I’m leaving now.”
At this, Bellet looked decidedly embarrassed―but in the way of one conscious of having been ungracious.
“You are making your way home,” he said.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)