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.
The facing page showed the camp in panorama—an ordinary drawing, lacking the show-offish cleverness that had made Dupuy think of the view through a spy’s field-glass. Impatient, he seized the book, orienting it properly. He could not object to the drawing; he objected to Gremot.
“What,” he asked, “are these soldiers”—with both hands, he held the book and shook it at Gremot—“these, bending over the ground, meant to be doing?”
Honoré, always deferential to Dupuy’s temper, said mildly, “Knowing nothing, I mean nothing. They may have been playing a game.”
Dupuy had been turning over in his mind a conceit, one elaborate in its construction for the meditative powers of the mind in which it turned. He saw a difference between doing useful work and watching the work of others. He saw a state of decay in a world where grave affairs—two Powers on the eve of battle—could be spectated upon by neighboring gadflies. However…Dupuy shrugged, and thrust the sketchbook back into Gremot’s hands. The point could not be made if the men had been gambling.
But it was unacceptable, this pretense—indeed, Dupuy had a suspicion about it…this canard of Gremot’s, that he made only picture-notes for the jogging of his memory. Müller’s letter, suggesting as it had, Gremot’s employment by one of the London papers—“…and therefore, my good Dupuy, as these correspondents consider it their business to report all they see, you must allow him to see those things which will do credit to our army”—assumed without question that a reporter might be a necessary evil; that news reporting was a profession at all. Which, Dupuy felt, it was not.
He feared, though, that in expelling Gremot, he would prove to have made the wrong choice, and was shrewd enough to know he must not do anything definite about Gremot, because…because it was a bad thing, to be definite, and to be wrong. Müller, though only a captain, had family connections: a Lemeistre on his mother’s side had married a Serrigny. The matter might be one of great secrecy. Dupuy understood this—that there were such times when men agreed privately to do what they could not do officially. He knew also, that when one has been denied promotion, one cannot ask why.
He had frustrated himself, therefore, with this task of watching over Gremot. Let the so-called reporter make a mistake, let him show himself deserving of arrest…let him do anything other than be always underfoot, excusing himself: “You must trust me, that I know it very well, Monsieur Dupuy…unless you tell me I have your permission, I can report nothing.”
No, this was duplicitous! Dupuy could accept responsibility, but he could not give permission.
He stared down at Gremot’s bowed head. The innocuous little drawings. He was certain of it…some coded message must be buried there.
“You,” said Honoré, “attended St. Cyr.”
“I distinguished myself at St. Cyr.”
“I apologize, M. Dupuy, for putting you in the position of needing to say so.”
They had been resting on a prominence above the Meuse, a suitable redoubt for observing the opposite bank. The winds that bedeviled Boussac bent the grass and rippled the waters below. As the gust subsided, the buzz of insects swelled. A bird arced from the trees and skimmed the river’s surface.
“Monsieur Dupuy,” Honoré said, “I ask your opinion.” He stood, rifled his sketchbook, found, near the front, an early drawing. He unfolded the loose sheet of paper, and Dupuy saw a mechanical device, dark shadings and patches of white giving the appearance of shining steel.
Honoré invested something worshipful in his gaze. “Distinguished, as you say. I have great respect for your expertise. You have been kind enough to see something in my drawings. Of course you know what I’m showing you?”
Dupuy hazarded, “A detail…from a field piece, I will assume. Not one of ours. I have seen better work.”
“A breech block. I saw the gun exhibited at Paris.”
Gremot had stepped forward two paces, before offering this remark. He scanned the empty horizon. Dupuy felt needled once again. He felt he ought to defend…he dismissed the thought. Gremot knew nothing; no man of knowledge doubted the superiority of the French guns. Yet, in the heart pained a moment ago by an unfathomable envy at the exhilaration of racing wings, Dupuy felt a fresh stirring of unease.
He felt acutely the heat of the day. He must be in uniform; he could not appear bareheaded before the men. Gremot, like a peasant, was in shirtsleeves, and hatless. The winds brought no relief, but bore, enveloped in shimmering humidity, riverbank smells, churned mud and crushed grass; camp smells, horse manure, the smoke of the forge. Or, perhaps, smoke from distant fires, of smoldering villages. Dupuy had spent early years in Illy. The seasons of the river, planting and harvest, were native to him. He did not like his picture of the past trampled over…and tried to find, within it, the specific locus of his mother’s grave, as it might appear to a Prussian gunner.
But the noise intruded. Each note of metal on metal, the thud of boot on turf, the straining, winching sound of a rutted wheel…everyone shouting the same thing, all at once. One officer calling for silence. The same officer calling the men imbeciles, unfit, agents of the enemy, servants of the devil. Dupuy realized the smoke came from a cooking fire carelessly tended, that had spread dangerously near the wagons.
The sergeant had Dupuy’s sympathy, but he had his priorities out of order. The men showed equal interest both in the dressing down and the fire’s progress; ineffectual efforts were being applied towards putting the fire out. Dupuy left Gremot, and went to take charge.
On a late August morning, Honoré had left Paris. That same afternoon, in the city of Reims, he’d left his train, and had on the evening as he undressed for bed, decided for the second time—and upon direct receipt, rather than hearsay—to take the American’s advice. He’d known the face, and more, knew the voice; at the Hotel Ste-Anne, when again he’d happened upon Fulner, it seemed to Honoré that smiling fortune, whose companionship he had for a time enjoyed, remained his ally.
“I know you, don’t I? That’s right, sir, you remember me, I’m Fulner—well, I’ll just take this seat.”
Honoré had nothing but admiration for the American, and meant to add Fulner to his repertoire. He sat, as he often did when idling in some public spot, behind a copy (by now badly dated, but this could not be helped) of his own newspaper. His eyes were drawn to Fulner’s cuff-links, gold, glinting with the movements of the hand aloft above the armrest. The hand smacked this, ricocheted up, and sliced the air again; Honoré saw Fulner’s red sideburns, the rounded curve of his hat brim. He could not (ruling out conspicuous gymnastics) hide his face behind the Progressiste and also study Fulner’s seatmate, but heard him murmur:
Le Brun addressed Fulner by rank—that had been a bit of free information, worth knowing—and Fulner, lieutenant-colonel, knew better than to suppose Le Brun spoke only French. He carried on in English; Le Brun, sucking in a peevish breath, fell into it himself.
“…a classmate of mine. West Point, Mr. Le Brun.”
“He lives with you in California.”
“No, sir. But I see what you’re trying to say. No…lives in Ohio, I think.”
Fulner had tapped his shirt-cuff, calling attention to the insignia stamped in gold; he did not say so, but invited Le Brun, Honoré thought, to surmise, as Honoré surmised (as he later jotted in his sketchbook, in case the detail might impress his readers), that Fulner’s friend of military school, and the general who “would put him in right with anyone he needed to see”—and whose place of vantage was the camp of the Prussian king—were the same man.
“But listen, Mr. Le Brun!” Fulner called out across the station’s echoing concourse, and his companion turned. Honoré, bag in hand, ears pricked, walked close behind, with the excuse of making for the same exit. Le Brun proved not to be, as Honoré had feared, a plain-clothes policeman, but a small, balding Parisien whom Honoré recognized after all—he had seen him there among the ranks of the press.
“Get yourself a room first. Be surprised, if it don’t take half the afternoon to find you one.”
M. Fulner had been wise. Honoré had at length found a room, and the finding of it had proved a costly exercise. The only cheap small hotels he’d known of in Paris were far from the city’s heart, therefore he relied on his own supposition: that a hotel could not have undesirable—thus negotiable—rooms, unless it had a great number of rooms altogether. His enquiries began with the larger hotels along the street opposite the station.
One entered the second of these through a sort of turret; this, thrusting to the corner of the street and vaulting four stories high, had on its inside a rounded and tiled foyer, and a flight of curved steps, atop which a heavy brass-trimmed door led to the lobby. A second door exited directly into a ground floor restaurant, and Honoré, in passing, gritted his teeth against the smells of coffee, and potatoes browned in hot grease.
The carrying of his own bag signaled his class, awareness of which the concierge had at first confirmed by ignoring him. But, though he’d expected his diffident opener—“…an attic accommodation, possibly? Or anything you may have available for one night, monsieur, priced, please, under five francs”—might be scorned, Honoré learned they had no room whatever, not at his, nor at anyone’s price. The concierge told him, “No. I have let my own, in fact. It’s the war.” He shrugged.
Honoré, who so attuned himself to the moods of others that he reproduced the disingenuous face—also widening his eyes and looking, too, at the carpet—guessed it probable the concierge knew another of the hotel’s staff with a bed to offer. But he could not afford that particular surcharge.
He’d continued down what seemed a cross-street, found to his surprise that he could see at the bottom of its descent, a bridge; that over rails supported by tall brick stanchions, and screaming warning of its arrival, the next train had begun the long process of braking. There was a hotel here, as well, just across from where he stood—its jewel-box trim painted with a new gloss.
In time, Honoré came to know that the sacrifices he’d been brought to might have been made more profitably at the outset, and by choice, than piecemeal by surrender. But on that August afternoon, he had known only that he was lost in the city of Reims, and that his bag was heavy. He yielded to the expense of hiring a cab; because, also, cabmen being typically knowledgeable—of their environs, of the latest gossip—he might by doing so achieve two things at once.
“I would like to go to the best place you would advise.”
This, undiscouraged, Honoré had meant for an opening sally, to be followed by bargaining. But the driver took him up at once, and throughout his speech gestured away argument.
“My sister keeps a house at Montbré. Yes, monsieur, if you want to stay in the city, you won’t like it there. But, if you intend going on to Chalons…Monsieur Lebrun, as you must know”—(Honoré had for a moment been startled, yet Lebrun was a commonplace name; and it was to the general the driver referred)—“has taken command from Trochu. He has gone back to Paris, to knock down the trees and burn the houses of the bourgeoisie. And Mac-Mahon has left by now, yesterday…but you will take the shorter road and beat him to Metz.”
“No, monsieur, I think not.” Honoré was polite; he had known these things already, and in a personal way, but let his reply be indecipherable. To his disappointment, the driver must hope with these jocular hints (he had lowered his chin and enunciated somewhat forcefully each of the names mentioned) to pry, rather than offer, intelligence. But the Regency’s dispositions, Mac-Mahon’s advances and retreats, had been threshed among the passengers on the train, and Fulner, whose voice reached to the corners of the carriage, had played this same game with the journalist Le Brun, his every disclosure a public announcement, while Le Brun’s replies had been evasive.
The Hotel Ste-Anne had a bed for Honoré; as well, it had its own dining room. But having expected neither the shock of his cab fare (happily resting his feet, and relieved of his bag, he had accepted Montbré, supposing it to be a suburb of Reims), nor a night’s lodging at six-and-a-half francs, Honoré thought he would have nothing at all to eat that day, or else he would dine as a condemned man dined, and hope to escape before sunrise, by window, and without paying his bill.
He was sorely hungry. He had brushed his hair, washed his face and hands; and deciding that here, in service to the greater cause, he must part with strict law-abiding ways, had gone down the stairs. From the adjoining room, he heard Fulner, unmistakably Fulner, speaking to a waiter; and found the American seated alone under a yellowing map of the Aisne valley, his table lit by an open casement that overlooked the road.
“Monsieur Fulner, I will take this seat.”
“You will, will you?”
Showing excellent manners, Fulner pushed back his chair and stood.
“Well, mister…think I saw you on the train. Pretty sure Le Brun never called me by my Christian name—William Fulner, sir. Special correspondent to the Chronicle.” Fulner wiped his fingers on his napkin, thrust out a hand, and gripped Honoré’s.
“I am Honoré Gremot, Monsieur Fulner. La Revue progressiste des travailleurs. Do you go to Chalons, monsieur?”
Honoré nodded. Fulner motioned to the chair behind which he hovered, and resumed his own seat.
“Well, I’ll tell you, Mr. Gremot. I’ll be in the neighborhood for a day or two. I’ve stayed before at this same hotel. Rooms not going too cheap round about here nowadays, what with the army. Eats’re still pretty good.”
Honoré looked up from the roll of Fulner’s he was buttering, and nodded again.
“I’ve got a telegram to send out, and when I get my answer, I’ll know where I’m going. How about you?”
Honoré did not know where he was going.
“Verdun. Take my word, Gremot. You’re looking to catch the Emperor, you need to get yourself in position ahead of the army.”
Fulner’s expectations, like those of the cabman, had seemed optimistic; his notion of pursuit, strategic…he was, of course, not only a correspondent, but a militaire. And the excursion to Verdun might prove a fool’s errand. Of their sporting ways, his competitors had by now taught Honoré something. But when the train out of Reims, which had been meant to reach Verdun, came to a stop; and the compartment showed itself bathed in the green light of sun filtered through leaves (Honoré, dozing where he sat, was jarred awake, and could see beyond the window only forest), he’d known one thing of importance. He had committed a desperate act to get to this place.
“Jump on any train you see headed through here, it’ll be going that direction—’less it’s going down to Chalons…but you’ll know the difference, Mr. Gremot.”
Fulner divined these certainties, as Honoré guessed, from measuring his expectations against his own experience. Honoré doubted he would know the difference—he was not such a man of the world he could tell the countryside by looking at it…but perhaps, taking practicalities into account, there was no difference. He could not afford to travel by rail.
The morning of August 25th found Honoré departing the village of Montbré as expeditiously as he was able, and with the intention of guiding himself, in any case, by the path of the railway; while also he allowed a half-formed notion to take root beneath conscious thought—that of doing what he was not certain Fulner had suggested.
He had made a show for the innkeeper’s sake, patting his clothing down, exploring each empty pouch of fabric with what he hoped to have been a tedious thoroughness…but was unable to better eighty percent of his debt to her. He’d fished loose a number of small coins, counted them out one by one, beginning two or three times anew—“Only because, madame, I would be sorry to cheat you. I confuse myself!”—until, with a snort of impatience, she began snatching away each as he produced it. But Honoré kept also, for exactly such trials as this, a round metal slug cached in an inside pocket.
He shrugged extravagantly, as for the second time his fingers probed its depths. If she would quit tapping her foot and glaring at him with such vigilance, he would drop this, listen for its ring against the floorboard, spin round as though following the coin’s trajectory with his eyes, and note―as it might seem―its coming to rest near the door. He would show to Madame Masle the bright face of discovery. Then, feckless, idiotic, moving at a crouch, he would say, “Ah, I see it, just there!”
And, once within reach of the door, bolt.
The plan would not be easy to execute while toting a heavy bag…it had been as well that Madame Masle, rather than insist on her money or the gendarme, had put her face close to his, looked him up and down as though memorizing both features and costume, and turned on her heel, saying, with her back to Honoré, “You had better go, monsieur. Since you are unable to pay your bill.”
He waited for the train to pass. It had scarcely—as it rattled along the village outskirts, with as many cars coupled on as the locomotive could pull, each loaded beyond capacity―picked up speed. Yet the last of the rolling stock was now in sight; Honoré must leap or choose not to. He’d nearly counted himself finished. He had never jumped a moving train; he was certain he couldn’t do it…but, with a shake of the head—and drawing a breath to brace himself—he muttered: “No, I have got this far. I ought to try.”
He began to jog, swinging an arm back and forth. He saw a door—to his dismay, a car’s length distant—appear to open itself from within. He mustered the whole of his strength, broke into a run, heaved the satchel as he came even with the car’s center compartment, heard a crack as the wooden paint box packed inside knocked against some outcropping of brass trim; heard a muffled impact as the bag landed…where?
The exertion had caused the leg that bore his weight to fly into a skid, throwing Honoré onto one knee. Before he could jump to his feet, the trace of the bag’s trajectory was drowned by an explosion of shouting, hooting, whistling, thumping. Every window that could be lowered now had a head thrust out of it. He flailed onwards, frightening himself, coming so near the wheels…yet the train’s pace continued torpid.
“Put up your hands!”
“Come closer! Watch your feet!”
Two men crowded onto the little platform by which passengers stepped up into the compartment; but only the first, the skirt of his tunic bunched in the grip of an unseen comrade, had the freedom to reach any distance. He clasped forearms with Honoré. The other, who had flattened himself against the hinges, now lunged, pivoting from the hand that anchored him, and caught Honoré by the trouser seat. Together his rescuers, after a difficult few minutes, hauled him aboard. Once more, he gasped his thanks and apologies; he had done this, by now, three or four times. Disheveled, embarrassed, out of breath and stifling a cough, Honoré lowered his eyes, and let himself be shoved forward. He then coughed three times, tripped, swiveled on one foot, took a single meticulous step between a pair of boots―
Something weighty sailed over the seatback from the adjoining compartment. Honoré flinched; the projectile collided with his shoulder and dropped into his path. It landed canted against another pair of boots. His satchel had come back to him. He was caught from behind.
“You had better stop just here, and sit on your bag.”
Air rushed whistling past, a clean, bruised scent of pastureland eddied warm into the close compartment, and Honoré, swaying on his feet, felt precarious with his back to the open door. Up the car, down the car, as sun and shade flickered over a veil of dust motes, he squinted. There was no better seat. There was no other seat. Even at each division where benches met back to back, someone sat with a knee on either side, a hand pressed flat against the carriage ceiling. Honoré noticed one or two passengers wearing civilian clothes. Indeed, M. Le Brun sat in a dim corner, crunched against a tiny wedge of seat-cushion, elbows over his knees, staring fixedly at a scrap of paper, and jabbing at it with a pencil.
“Make room, make room! Kick that baggage out the door!”
Threat or joke, Honoré sank, straddling the satchel with his knees; at the same instant, as though a shot had felled him, the door banged shut on a gust of wind. He looked up into the face of the speaker.
“I apologize.” The point seemed worth making again. “You have all been very kind.”
“On the contrary, we have all been waiting for you.”
Patently—the officer’s grin proved it—this was the beginning of an extended joke.
“Yes, the Prussian has won a scuffle or two, and he has become too much encouraged.” On the face of it, he addressed this new arrival, for whom they had waited; but as each man, whether smirking or mock-sober, fell silent, the captain sat up straighter, and nudged his boot across Honoré’s knees, propping his heel on the edge of the seat opposite. He then leaned back and settled the other heel over his ankle. With a show of making way for his superior’s feet, a sergeant lifted the cap and coat he held on his lap, and dropped them―first the cap, onto Honoré’s head, then the coat, which he draped over the cap. Honoré, not entirely humiliated, felt almost safe sheltered in this temporary darkness—but he could not breathe.
Continued from “cound not breathe”
“We know,” the captain said, “that these superannuated colonels of the Crimea, whom the army has employed to trawl the streets for volunteers, having netted themselves a prodigy such as this, a man whose strength in battle must be fearsome…will you stand up, monsieur?”
On unsteady splayed feet, Honoré rose, freeing himself from the coat and folding it, with inward irony, and with care, over his arm. He removed the cap by its brim, and held this at his waist. He inclined his head towards the others, one at a time. He gave each a half-smile. When the mockery ended, he fell again onto his bag and the captain went on:
“Monsieur, when we arrive at Verdun―I don’t know why they have omitted to provide you a uniform…” Abruptly, having got little more from Honoré than this blank-faced passivity, the officer abandoned his sport. “And what is your name?”
“Monsieur le capitaine, my name is Honoré Gremot. No, I am a”―he thought of Fulner―“a special correspondent. That is all, monsieur.”
“Ah, then the war is lost.”
The foot soldiers of the garde mobile took a lively interest in the new development. A not-well-defined path, but one worn in irregular patches alongside the rails, veered from these at a place where the trees thinned; this thinning so marked that the train’s locomotive had stopped well clear of the small wood. Really, it was no forest, after all. The majority of passengers belonged to a regiment sent from Paris, and seeking its place of rendezvous with Mac-Mahon’s army; or, failing that, seeking to attach itself to the rearguard of any regular division whose general had been summoned to join Mac-Mahon, and who had not yet caught him. Failing that, the moblot was eager to fight at whatever place the Prussian offered him a fight. Several hundred had detrained; they began, after twenty minutes or so of unhurried milling, to clear the footpath and to assemble along the road.
Half the rumors, that burst audibly amid guffaws, were only the product of the same bantering Honoré had endured on the train. They had orders to return to Paris, they had better start, then…pushing the cars back to Reims. No one had thought of inspecting the bridges…to see if they were still there. Or, the war chest had run empty…the rail trust would not extend further credit to the government.
“We will come to the aid of Bazaine, but it is a long walk to Metz. We will rescue him in good time.”
Yet Honoré could tell for himself that battle was being waged, not far from this place (its name, he had not yet learned; but close by, someone had said, stood the town of Sainte-Menehould). There was a smell in the air, something like a pot of beans that had boiled down and begun to scorch; puffs of black smoke rose, their fresh color fading into a lowering haze of grey. He could not guess how many meters off the guns were; the trees that lined the road blocked the horizon too well…but he could hear the boom of them, and would have been excited to see the fighting. He might even, though lacking any advisor to point the significance of the uniforms, and explain to him what the troops were doing, build a story from his own observations. If the tone were amateur, unschooled in the military science, this would be mitigated by the fact that his eyes had seen these things, and his (putative) critic’s had not.
He took a step, and felt himself pulled back with decision. A hand had slipped into the armhole of his waistcoat.
“Monsieur, we have an affair to discuss.”
The voice was that of the carriage guard. Honoré had thought of him a moment ago, thought of running away, which he might have managed for a short time, going to earth among the trees—if first he had been able to work through the throng of soldiers. Then he’d heard the guns.
He heard a volley of them now, and twisted round to face the guard, who would not allow his fingers to be wrenched free. Honoré hadn’t quite sorted the words he wished to use in making his appeal…but in the pit of his stomach, he felt the rightness of it. This petty concern over rail fares, when standing in the teeth of battle―
The unmoved eye that met his own seemed to quell such sentiments. Rather than appeal at all, either to glory or fair treatment, Honoré lied. He took a sidelong glance towards a carriage that might not have been his.
“Ah, you see. My friend, Monsieur Fulner, has taken tickets for us both; and when he returns, of course…” The story hadn’t needed finishing; the furrow that deepened between the guard’s eyebrows told Honoré he knew its ending. The name of Fulner had not, for that matter, wrought any magic…but, there had been the chance it might.
“And in the meantime, however,” the guard told him, “you must write for me the name of your friend, and his address, and I will try to find him for you, by telegraph or by post, and if he cannot be made to answer, then I am afraid I must hold you…”
“I do answer.”
The servants of the railway had suffered from the moblots’ humor, as had Honoré; but Honoré’s position had become too equivocal to form sympathies, one way or the other. The sergeant wore his cap. He remained otherwise―and sensibly, given the walk in store for him, and the day’s heat―half-dressed.
“You,” the guard sighed, “are this man’s friend. You have paid his fare, and can show me the proof?”
“Monsieur, I will write for you my name and address. My wife will read your letter, if you like…she is the only one at home―but, she will tell you a thing if you ask her, be sure of that. Also I wonder for what, since we have not got anywhere on this train, you are collecting money?”
Honoré, at this pass, had been liberated by a shout; the guard in response began to recede slowly against the tide, mumbling, well within earshot: “I can do only one job at a time…I suppose he travels with the moblots…then why should it matter to me?”
He thought what had spilled from the ladle had been chunks of sausage; that was how the stew had smelled, pepper and onion, garlic, red wine…real cream, it might have been, to thicken the broth. Honoré had seen at least one loaf of bread, passed and bitten into thirds—gone before he’d straggled close enough to stare at it hungrily, perhaps then to be included in the feast. They had cheered him, though, from the time he’d appeared within their sight, and the first moblot to spot Honoré had pulled off his cap and waved it over his head in circles.
Here, two houses faced the road; another, behind a white fence that bounded its garden at an angle, stood off ninety degrees, yet like the others, faced the highway, which made a sharp curve as it assumed for a space the guise of a village street. The road then stretched onwards over the fields, until it met the trees and vanished.
Through a hilltop clearing, where a hedge divided these outliers from the first row of attached houses, Honoré saw a parade. Or, perhaps, a spontaneous festival. Down along the street the moblots sat on benches, or on chairs that had been carried out-of-doors. Before a house of whitewashed stucco, chimneys flanking either side of its tiled roof, a piano had been rolled onto the walk, and a circle of men and women, some wearing rosettes of striped ribbon, sang the anthem of France. They were accompanied by a tattoo, a flourish of six quick beats at the end of every stanza; otherwise, the drummers pounded a continual, passionate rhythm, the whole cacophony joined at leisure by clusters of moblots who had not yet descended to the place of reassembly.
When the shouts had died, and Honoré had come near enough to benefit, one said: “The general has arrived…now finally, we will be told our orders.”
“If Gremot is our mascot,” observed another, “it doesn’t say much for us. He is slow, and he is late.”
He was slow, losing his breath at any prolonged exertion. Walking at speed for Honoré devolved quickly into a futile attempt to catch it, and this led to fits of coughing. The moblots had doubled their pace, after the last had fallen in line; in the time it had taken Honoré to reach the village, they had got food, drink…and silk upholstered chairs, belonging to the dining room of what must be a rather fine house. These they had dragged out to make a salon on the grass. Two occupied the seat of a velvet divan, the boots of a third between them, this one balanced on the scrolled rim of wood that topped its back. They had foraged out a painted serving table, and a pair of library chairs.
A child, trailing an improvised pennant—red neckerchief and white lace antimacassar—ran up the hill, outstripping a wagon brought stationary by foot traffic.
“Amélie, go inside the house!”
A woman holding a basket against her hip crouched, hooked her fingers in the handle of a yellow cup, and lifted it from the grass, where a moblot, rising to march at his sergeant’s order, had just discarded it. She remained stooped while taking a step forward, and reached for another. The stew, as Honoré guessed, had been warming on the stove, and the husband of this woman had brought their lunch, as well as a number of their cups and plates, to the soldiers. Carrying the pot cradled against his chest, the householder moved aside for an officer―the same captain who had quizzed Honoré on the train. One of the men shouldered Honoré’s bag, another had thrown an arm around his neck, and was by this means ushering him towards the wagon.
The captain was sober now; he pointed, using the bottle in his hand, and told them, “Take your places!” Honoré was released. He felt the bag thud near the toe of his shoe. The captain turned to him. “Monsieur Gremot…we are to engage the army of the Prince Fritz! He has got within four thousand meters of this spot, where we stand. You hear the guns?”
“Yes, monsieur le capitaine, I have heard them all this time.” Honoré gave the officer his congratulations, and the captain, tapping it encouragingly against Honoré’s stomach, gave him the bottle. Its weight, as he grasped it by the neck, told him it was at least half full. In accord with Honoré’s, the householder had murmured his own congratulations; then, meeting Honoré’s wistful eye, he smiled a gentle smile…and withdrew, carrying the dregs of the pot back to his kitchen.
The captain patted Honoré on the shoulder. “Adieu, my Gremot! You understand, of course. I have not been given the authority to have you killed.”
He’d eaten no breakfast, nothing after cadging from Fulner’s supper the evening before. Honoré toyed with the idea of offering his help in restoring the furniture…once having crossed their threshold, and they owing him a debt of gratitude―
A neighbor slipped through the gate of the angled house, sank onto the divan, and exhaled, heavily.
“Marie!” She patted the seat beside her, the other put down her basket of crockery, and joined her friend. Coming to rest, she also heaved a great sigh.
“What do you think, will they come?”
“The Prussian pigs? No…” The woman, who’d begun these words with a frown, deepened it, and repeated, “No!” She closed her mouth. Honoré had been inching closer to them. Marie gave him a look askance.
“Madame”―there was no reason not to make the attempt―“may I be of help to you?” At this, her face became so frankly exasperated, that he at once added, “Or, is there a restaurant…?”
“Go to Monsieur Charles, ask him―”
The other got to her feet, pointing. “You see, there is a sign.”
M. Charles, whose coat, pinned with its tricolor cockade, lay draped over the piano keys, pushed, his back to the street, the piano filling the open doorway―and no practical assistance that could be given. Honoré followed him inside.
“Ah, you have got the spoils.” He nodded at Honoré’s bottle, straightened, drew breath, and added: “Perhaps it came from my house to begin with. Monsieur, you had better take a room. You will be my only guest. I may not have much in my larder…I will have to see! And my son will knock at your door when I am able to serve you.”
Honoré sympathized with the innkeeper’s hopes; he understood that M. Charles would like to make money, having within the hour lost so much of it―but the plan was impossible. He had one twenty-centime piece left, a coin which he had withheld from the Hotel Ste-Anne’s proprietress; his budget could withstand a plate of soup, possibly, or the stale remains of yesterday’s baking. But he’d been told many times that empty pockets attract poverty, and liked keeping a single coin in reserve. It might multiply itself. He knew also that if one admitted to having so much…by happenstance, whatever one sought to purchase cost so much.
“I apologize,” he told M. Charles.
There was still hope the battle would overrun the highway. Honoré wished the moblots only success; but he wanted to see this success, and write about it. He followed dust, and a few shrunken figures still visible, that had by now marched far ahead. Soon, they passed the rise of the road, and he could no longer see them. He took gulps of champagne, breaking every twenty paces, until he’d drained the bottle.
Alcohol on an empty stomach began to affect him as he ought to have expected. He leapt the ditch, and the swing of his bag tipped him flat. Pushing onto his hands and knees, Honoré crawled, dizzy and clumsy, dragged the bag behind a tree, tried sitting with his back against the trunk…decided, after brushing a second ant from his neck, that this would be uncomfortable. He lay flat on the ground.
It seemed good to rest here, within sight of two cottages. His dream returned him to the velvet divan, where he savored a phantom stew; Marie with her eye warding him off her grass…and something, conscience perhaps―conceivably his own―nagging that he had not done his work, that he wasted the hours, that it would soon grow dark. The sun, in fact, sat much lower when Honoré’s lids parted, and blearily he squinted at an unfamiliar canopy overhead. He came to one of those abrupt, verge-of-waking decisions. He would get up, and would do so now.
The first of the cottages stood open-shuttered. A venerable collie lay on the threshold stone, asleep; yet, the front paws paddled over the edge, the lips drew back, the ears twitched. Neither the flies that, after each such spasm, resettled to probing the dog’s eyes, nor the scent of Honoré’s proximity, roused it. A flock of chickens bobbed at a pile of cow-dung. And no one appeared at the window.
He sat cross-legged, and scooted, towing his bag to a spot that seemed more of the road than of the cottage, where he could not be thought to trespass. He began to rummage. The wooden box that held pigments and brushes, ink and charcoals, palette and corked water bottle, served Honoré also as an easel. When his purpose was to please rather than merely record, he brought this out.
Usually, the sight of an artist at work brought out an audience as well. He glanced over his shoulder at the second cottage, further back and situated above the streambed dividing, as he supposed, a pair of tenants; their homes, and the fields they cultivated.
He began with the chickens. Black feathers like fish scales, white-tipped, rippling iridescence; with this juxtaposition, that dark edge, this dot of color, his brush implied movement and play of light. The lowing of cattle grew louder, the dog shook itself, barked, looked at Honoré, barked a second time, then trotted off along the road. Honoré broke his trance…he was ready to lay down the brush, and lift his first painting to arm’s length.
Driven by switch, and just emerging from the dust plumes kicked up by their hooves, came four cattle, stocky, short-legged, snorting and balking, pestered, as had been the collie—as was Honoré himself—by flies, that spun around their ears and flanks. In the sun, their coats shone white, changing, under the shadow of a stand of plane trees, to the color of sand. Their owner had driven his cows to graze for the day in a distant pasture; one, as Honoré concluded, where the passing armies would not note their presence.
A painting, properly conceived, was entertainment. Honoré took trouble over studying his subject―the subject, naturally, being whomever he expected to give the painting to, the first stage of an extended conversation. Of all the wages Honoré had ever earned, most had come from the street. He listened to the talk of onlookers as they gathered, picked out from among those who lingered, peering down at his artwork, the man most likely to be enchanted by his own portrait…better still, that of his wife (although men did not always walk the avenues with their wives).
He wondered if he’d been wrong, then, to leave Reims at once. He had not tried this before. But he had not come so far (or, looked at another way, come so near returning to his own country, and empty-handed) only to ply his avocation on a farmer’s doorstep. He had come to watch the Emperor of France make his stand against the Prussian king. This was to be Honoré’s salvation, his deliverance from debt and imprisonment, and no lesser story would serve.
He flipped the sketchbook page, and made a fresh start. He’d got the perspective wrong; the challenge of it―the cows, the man ambling beside them, man and beast alike ascending with heads up, the road dwindling beyond to a curve, fading into summer haze―distracting him from hunger.
And that night, having fallen by a good distance short of his goal; the goal itself Honoré had revised downwards to simply “getting someplace”. The map in Honoré’s head held no features between the town of Sainte-Menehould and the city of Verdun. He rolled himself in a borrowed blanket before the hearth of a family called Legère; his evening meal, and this roof over his head, given in exchange for a small study…and his assistance in a private matter.
Honoré’s first customer had viewed his offering with wondering gratitude; the farmer had whistled over the chickens, chuckled at the cows, patted Honoré’s arm, and praised his gift―“So much like life!” But he had not told Honoré his name…and had not understood the nature of the bargain. Such disappointments befell the entrepreneur, of course. Honoré had, as always, disclaimed his intentions: “Please do not, monsieur, suppose I ask you for money. All the pleasure has been mine in making these. But, you may like to allow me to give you one…”
No, a long march from civilization, where it might have bought him a meal and a night’s lodging, money was of no use to Honoré. He’d hoped instead to be asked to sit at the farmer’s table. He had not been asked. He had walked on past sunset, starved, but not, for having napped away the afternoon, tired; yet, with a growing despair at the sameness of the darkening landscape, the mist that had just begun to rise above the river and deflect the dying moon, disguising any house that might be hidden here. Until he’d seen the crack of yellow through the Legères’ curtain, then doused his shoes in marshy earth climbing to their door, Honoré had nearly decided he must, to preserve the tidy brushing he’d given his coat, turn its lining out, and sleep in the dew by the roadside.
He’d wanted not to alarm them, appearing out of the gloaming in this fashion; not to see Madame Legère open her door wider, to reveal her husband and the barrel of a musket. He’d got to the point at once. She had looked from his tousled hair, to his unshaved face, and down to his oozing shoes.
“You had better eat, for a start…but yes, Legère will like another hand with the digging.”
They slipped out to the garden under cover of night, monsieur and madame, grand-mère and guest, following Honoré’s second plate of potatoes, and second cup of warm milk. For having been fortified in this way, he proved not quite as strong at turning a fork as Legère’s elderly mother; and in amends, Honoré felt he must keep his promise. Madame Legère chose of her loveliest, cleaned and dried half a dozen fat, round potatoes, which Honoré then memorialized in hues of rose, low-lights of terra cotta, dazzling his hosts, as he’d sworn he could, with the quickness of his work.
“Look…! Well, now, that is becoming something.” Pleased, Legère nudged his wife’s elbow, as Honoré laid shadows over a patchwork of medium flesh tones, that by themselves showed nothing. He began to add detail, using his finest brush, and the old woman, wearing a faint smile on her lips, resolved into Legère’s mother.
“Ah, ma petite maman!”
Legère grinned, and the elder Madame Legère grinned at her son in turn…but, the change to her face was unimportant. Honoré had her already. She sat beside the hearth, the potatoes held displayed in her lace shawl. The lines that from the corners of her eyes met the cross-hatchings of her cheeks, made a pattern intricate as the lace, yet softened by lamplight, as Honoré portrayed her. Madame Legère’s long-seeing eyes were steady with purpose. The purpose, the determined plan of the trio, was to stow the family’s store of food in sacks, then hook these away safely inside the chimney.
“If,” Legère, said, checking the windows, and extinguishing the lamp, “the army even thought of paying for this, what’s the use? What is money?”
“Dupuy is in the vanguard with de Failly—all his stars have aligned.”
“Your old friend.”
The cavalry officer’s remark had had every appearance of irony. The man who answered was corpulent, middle-aged, his beard overhanging his shirt collar. He was not a soldier. A correspondent, a name, no doubt, Honoré thought, if only he knew it. England being neutral, the London papers were free with opinion and detail on the themes of French folly and Prussian depredation. They competed; they sought prestige through writers of repute.
“Dupuy has talents,” the officer conceded. “He will be pleased to see the Emperor.”
He looked up. Honoré, using his sketchbook as a pretext, stood nearby. He nodded as though he felt so, too. Although these two conversed amicably, they might yet find some point of contention, and Honoré, by making himself agreeable, by bolstering the argument of one over the other, might be asked to sit at their table. To these men, the scraps they’d left on their plates were nothing.
“He will be pleased, then,” said the other, “to be seen by the Emperor.”
“It is always my hope,” the officer said, glancing at Honoré, then looking across the table and meeting the eye of the correspondent, “that ambitious men will, by the grace of God, live to see their ambitions realized.”
The correspondent allowed this opening to linger. His hand rested on the table, holding an après-déjeuner cigar. He took this up, puffed three or four times, frowned, noticed Honoré. He half turned. He studied Honoré more closely, turned away, and slapped his unoccupied hand on the table.
“These people are infernally slow.”
The officer said nothing.
“As we speak of the Emperor,” the correspondent continued, “we may mention that he appears perched, as it were, on the brink of witnessing the culmination of his own ambitions.”
The officer, his meal finished, his cup drained, had no business with which to occupy his hands while he prepared his riposte. Honoré felt, however, that some emotion had been stirred.
At length, the officer said, “I disagree.”
His companion seemed startled.
“Well…you may do so.”
“I disagree. Emphatically, I disagree.” The officer stood. “You have a way of saying things, monsieur. You have not been so subtle with me, that I do not understand you.”
“To my own knowledge,” the Englishman answered, “I have not been as subtle as all that. You have somehow mistaken my meaning.”
“Your meaning.” The officer folded his arms. “I will say it plain. You call the Emperor a coward.”
The correspondent put a hand out, without bothering to turn his head. He waved twice, missed once, made contact the second time, seizing Honoré by the sleeve. Honoré stepped closer to the table.
“I appeal to you,” the man said. “Have I suggested anything of the kind? Did you hear me speak the word?”
Honoré felt himself in a delicate position. The man who clutched his sleeve, claiming him as an ally, he had at first disliked. Out of envy, he admitted. Being proprietor of his own paper, Honoré could not pay himself an allowance, until he’d first earned it…but the selling of papers came after the scouting of news, and the writing of articles, and these things were more readily done on an allowance.
Continued from “on an allowance”
He’d been surprised to learn, though the Legères were kind and honest, and Legère avowed it―“No, when I walk to the town…I will say it takes me an hour, but perhaps less”—that his trek from the halted train to their cottage (and as arduous as this had seemed to Honoré) had brought him a scant two kilometers from his starting place.
Setting out at daybreak, then, he’d forced himself to put one dogged foot before the other; had tried, even, to achieve briskness, by shifting his bag from hand to hand, slowing his pace, rather than sit down to rest. A wagon had stopped for him. The wagon carried barrels of gunpowder, and Honoré, invited to make a place for himself if he could, nestled in among them, laying his head on his bag, drawing up his knees, and waking to find himself at a crossroads, where soldiers tramped behind, before, and around a battery of guns, the whole of the convoy extending in either direction as far as Honoré could see, the limbers drawn by as many as four or six big draught horses—needed to drag forward the cannons’ weight.
“You see that smoke ahead?” the driver told him, and pointed with the butt of his whip. “Beaumont!”
Easing his feet to earth, hauling his bag over the edge of the wagon’s bed, teetering to the left as the bag also came to earth, and righting himself, Honoré here, in parting ways with his benefactor, invested humility and regret into his “adieu”, and said no more. He had thanked the driver already; offering money risked the danger of its being accepted.
The smoke had been from the town’s chimneys, not yet from battle. But its near appearance also had been deceptive. In reaching Beaumont’s most westerly inn, Honoré felt he’d blistered his feet for a considerable time, and that his watch, had he not sacrificed it in Paris, would have confirmed the passage of hours.
He found it painful now to watch a fellow journalist lunch extravagantly, on the strength of a generous sponsorship. He watched for a reason, however—and his reason was to obtain entrée. This man was providing it. Thus, Honoré at once reversed his opinion…he liked the stranger. Yet, the officer promised to be of greater use.
“The Emperor…” Honoré coughed. “Is not known to be a coward.”
“Well, we are hardly disputing that.”
The English correspondent began to rock back and forth. He retained his hold on Honoré’s sleeve. As the chair moved inexorably backwards under pressure of his girth, Honoré took alarm at the implications. But on consideration, the man seemed to recognize this was impractical; this use of Honoré as prop. He relinquished his grip, thrust the cigar between his teeth, placed his hands flat on the table, and with effort pushed himself to a standing position. He removed the cigar. He caught his breath, and pivoted on his feet.
“I merely contend,” he went on, addressing the point to Honoré, “that one needs to have said a thing in order that one may be accused of having said it.”
“We, in our profession, do at times choose our words. We do this so not to be accused of saying…”
“I do not know your name, sir,” the man interrupted.
And you will not, when I tell you, have gained much for knowing it, thought Honoré. He said:
“I am Honoré Gremot. Special correspondent, La Revue progressiste des travailleurs.”
“Tweedloe. The Gazette.” Tweedloe offered his hand.
“The Gazette did also before the war, have a celebrated writer to despatch from Paris.”
“Paris…” Tweedloe pronounced the s, as though correcting Honoré’s mistake; his pause seemed to weigh the possibility of insult in Honoré’s grasp of English. “…is not at present the seat of action.”
“C’est vrai. You and I together find ourselves at Beaumont.”
Tweedloe gazed at him dimly. He smoked, and considered a response. “My intelligence,” he said at length, “is unlikely to be the equal of yours. You operate by the observational method.” He gestured with his cigar, and a trail of ash littered Honoré’s sketchbook. “I, being neither modern nor continental, gather news by interviewing subjects…”
The officer stepped forward. “Monsieur Gremot, my name is Xavier Müller.” He bowed.
Honoré bowed in return. Tweedloe interposed: “Captain Müller hails from Woerth. The town was bravely defended.” He looked askance at Müller. Müller remained placid.
“This watchtower on the marches, this beacon of enlightenment, this worker’s consolation, of which you speak,” Tweedloe met Honoré’s eye, lowered his head, and raised his brows. Honoré nodded, attentive.
“Undoubtedly, your publication is subscribed to with enthusiasm. By hundreds, if not dozens. You yourself, Gremot, may have written of these early disappointments, soon,” he smiled at Müller, “to be rectified by the army of Chalons.” He returned his smile to Honoré. “I am a humble Londoner and know nothing of the reputation your work has earned for itself within your native canton. I have none of your sway with French officialdom; I confess to having witnessed no mighty conflicts in arms thus far.” Tweedloe’s gaze drifted above the heads of his auditors. To Honoré’s puzzlement, he seemed to have placed mild stress on witnessed. “Müller, however, fought at Mars-la-Tour. Am I incorrect, Captain, or did your cavalry unit also witness action at Woerth?”
Müller, on the instant, departed. The light from the sweeping door arced briefly across tables and faces. Honoré and Tweedloe squinted. The door banged shut.
“Hmm, well, I rather thought so.” Tweedloe shrugged. “Of course, I hadn’t an inkling the first time. One learns, Gremot,” he continued, affable. “Follow along if you have been haunting me in hopes of employment. I believe I may be able to accommodate you.”
Honoré’s intention had not been to find himself apprenticed to Tweedloe. As Müller had observed, Tweedloe had a way of saying things…he was speaking now, and had turned his back to the table…to the bones not yet sucked clean of meat, to the heel of a loaf, and the plate still swimming in grease and gravy that Honoré might have mopped up with this. He was leaving, and Honoré had no choice but to stay by his side.
“They have made away with my walking stick,” Tweedloe confided. “We must insist on having it back. I suffer badly from gout.” He followed thought with action, this time placing a hand on Honoré’s shoulder. His weight was almost more than Honoré could bear. Slowly, they threaded among still-crowded tables, Tweedloe favoring his left foot, until they came to the passage that led to the door.
The shout induced a start. The nearest table fell silent…but Tweedloe did not object to an audience. His trumpeting had been for the benefit of one man in particular; one who had shifted about-face on Tweedloe in passing. Possibly to shelter the tray he carried.
“My stick, Gouin. I mean to settle with you in the currency of France. You will have to like it.”
The innkeeper straightened his furtive posture. Three men, uniformed, watched the byplay between Gouin and Tweedloe; and Gouin, seeing them lift their heads, lifted his chin. With a quelling air of duty, he jerked his shoulder from the finger Tweedloe rested there. He approached the table. Disregarding protocol both social and military, he stood before the youngest man, fixed this officer with a narrow eye, and said, “You, monsieur”, clinking a glass onto the tabletop. Twice, Gouin repeated the process; twice he offered his accusatory courtesy. He placed the bottle in the center of the table, and inquired unpleasantly of his customers if he might serve them in any other way.
“Gouin, you must never mind about us, but settle first with the English gentleman.”
This officer might have been near sixty, and had charge, to judge by his collar, over his two companions. The trio seemed in unoffended good spirits.
Gouin vanished behind the wall partitioning the passage from the dining room. He emerged with the stick…and whatever Gouin’s hopes, or whether Tweedloe accused him falsely, he restored it with a shrug. This object—a thing of worth without question—proved no disappointment to its audience. The ebony stick’s gilt handle was molded in serpentine design, the yellow metal of its ferrule unadulterated by the green undertone of brass.
Tweedloe flourished a one hundred franc note. “I am paying for the house, Monsieur Gouin.”
He chuckled at Gouin’s panicked face; then, played offstage by cheers, and a rhythmic slapping of hands on tabletops, Tweedloe moved, at a snail’s pace, through the door. At something less than a snail’s pace, he descended the single step, again with a hand weighing on Honoré’s shoulder. If Tweedloe had a destination in mind, he did not disclose it.
“Gremot,” he said. He pitched the butt of his cigar onto the street, rooted in a pocket, and extracted a card case, gold and monogrammed. “You will write your name on the back of this card. I distrust these French names ending with ‘oh’. They might be spelt anyhow.”
For Tweedloe’s edification, Honoré included the name of his newspaper. He glanced up, and as Tweedloe’s face remained composed, patience showing no sign as yet of giving way to peevishness, Honoré added the number of his boarding house in Bruxelles (this also his office of business), where with his partner he shared an attic room. Here, in early winter, when the air had not grown too frigid, and their numb fingers could still be thawed at the lamp, or on spring days when the faint cooling breeze through the crack of the window could still make headway against the heat (at other times, they wrote on café tables), he and Gilbert composed letters. These were closed with suggestive pseudonyms and admirable addresses, and disputed the Progressiste’s editorial contentions, all for the sake of stirring partisanship—thus, as her chief correspondent hoped, interest in the Progressiste.
Having four pages to fill, and able to employ only themselves, Honoré and Gilbert accepted any report or rumor as worthy of publication, and published as often as they had scraped together the cost of printing.
Tweedloe, with a grunt, approved this initiative. He gestured for Honoré’s pencil. He tilted, advanced his stick, allowing his weight, like ballast, to carry him forward. By this means, a total of six labored steps, he reached the outer wall of a bakery; against this, he propped the card, wrote, and handed it back to Honoré.
“That,” Tweedloe said, “is my offer.”
The sum was in British pounds (or fractions thereof); the calculation needed to make francs of it, unknown to Honoré. He could not agree, for any sum, to do a job without being told its nature. Because he stood, and studied the offer, and said nothing, Tweedloe assumed he negotiated.
“Five shillings, then. If,” Tweedloe lifted his walking stick, and emphatically struck the paving stone with its tip, “you bring me anything exceptional, I will permit five shillings above your usual wages. Strictly on the basis of value for money. And I have every right”—he struck the stone again—“to know the sort of work you of which you are capable, before I can be expected to pay you anything whatsoever.”
“What,” Honoré tried, “would I bring, that you would find exceptional?”
Tweedloe raised his eyebrows.
“Well, I suppose the question is fair.”
He began the process of shifting forward. Honoré fell in, so far as the pace demanded. “I, as you know, write sublimely. I do not say so myself; I merely refer to that general opinion, held by the reading public. However, I find myself at a disadvantage, in this country…as one can no longer depend on the trains. It is quite impossible for me to travel by wagon. Knocks me about dreadfully. My health will not permit.”
He stopped. They had progressed the length of the outer wall. The bakery faced a cross street. And here at the opposite corner another inn, the St-Omer, was within reach. Tweedloe browsed upon the question, fingering his beard. “Exceptional? I should suppose you must strike off independently, to the extent you find it possible to do so. Always taking it into account that we write for the undifferentiated horde. This is sentimental. It feels safe among its own kind. You must remember that the public…in its private moments, as it were; and though it would rather no one catches it, enjoys a shock. Battlefield gore thrills it. I prescribe, Gremot, a vignette couched in patriotism, with only so much unpleasantness as illustrates…well”—he fixed an eye on Honoré—“the gory details depend, don’t they? You will have to do your best at finding an angle of your own, while still bearing all these things in mind. And I suggest you leave your God out of it. Give me peasant twaddle about angelic apparitions manifesting in cannon smoke, and I will omit to pay you.”
Honoré thought he understood most of this…and that Tweedloe, having insulted his own countrymen, had insulted his prospective employee’s as well. He could not undertake, in English, to argue against this designation of peasant; but was quite prepared, nonetheless, to report to Tweedloe, enabling Tweedloe to correspond to the Gazette. Yet Honoré’s own health might not permit a wagon journey, if Tweedloe expected him to begin work at once. He would need to make a direct appeal.
“Monsieur Tweedloe, you have honored me,” he began. Tweedloe snorted. “You have, with generosity, made to me this offer. I apologize. But I am embarrassed.”
“Well,” Tweedloe said, “really, you may be embarrassed for all I know. I am a British subject.” He invested into these words the full weight of the lion’s paw. “I know nothing of the arcane customs and practices with which the Belgians hinder their commerce. Perhaps our meeting has fallen upon a feast day dedicated to some obscure martyr of the early mediaeval period, wisely forgotten beyond the boundaries of his native province. Perhaps you mean to tell me that the particular trade guild holding sway over your benighted quarter of Antwerp…”
“Bruxelles,” Honoré corrected, but diffident.
“…never permits business to be conducted on this day. However, you must confide in me; I cannot be expected to surmise.”
“I am embarrassed,” Honoré said, feeling more so, “as the English are embarrassed.”
“Ah. Well,” Tweedloe said again, “now you have enlarged the field considerably. What have you been about, Gremot?”
Honoré sought words. He had never asked for money in this way. The door of the bakery opened, and a woman came into the street. Her back was to them as she held this door; across her shoulders the fabric of her dress formed lines of tension. A few stitches had ripped free, her sleeve gapped at the armhole, while she gestured up and down, side to side.
“Stay away! Get back!”
A dog crossed the street, to circle and dart, whining and snappish. The woman, tethered to the door frame, kicked air in the dog’s direction.
Young men in aprons hurried outside with wooden trays, loading fresh loaves of bread onto an army provisioning wagon drawn up along the walk. The baker himself followed close on the heels of his apprentices. As they leaned into the wagon to distribute their load, he lunged, thrusting a hand with a pointing finger between them. Two soldiers attending the wagon moved to the rear, placed their elbows on the boards, and craned to view the process.
“You! Shift these back. And get rid of those sacks!” the baker said. He spoke to the soldiers…and they obeyed him. A vivid image now chased thought away, the sight of a loaf falling from a tray, rolling, coming to rest in the gutter. Even so, Honoré would willingly fight the dog for it, wrench it away―
Tweedloe said, “I am not myself an adherent of causes; I expect, though I will not trouble myself to investigate, that one religion is much like another. Whether one practices the occultisms of free trade, temperance, or socialism, faith’s charm depends upon its ineffable character. The salvation train is ever expected to arrive; it has never yet been seen to do so.”
Honoré feared he might not have attended closely. He had moved some steps from Tweedloe towards the wagon. He composed his thoughts, and returned to stand beside his mentor.
“These embarrassed circumstances, to which you refer,” Tweedloe continued, “I attribute to impracticability. The only practical socialists are, of course, the civil servants.” He began, once more, to progress along the street, drawing Honoré in his wake. “The St-Omer gives an adequate lunch. Well,” he conceded, “one or two of their offerings are quite good.”
And gout notwithstanding, Tweedloe, on these words of recommendation, had persuaded himself to take a second lunch. He shared with Honoré a platter of fermented cabbage and boiled potatoes, into the steaming heart of which had been heaped chunks of sausage and bacon. Tweedloe, silent at his work, portioned out a tarte. Honoré, taking his first pleasure in the aroma and sight of it, slowly tore away the glossy crust dotted with specks of browned fat. He stretched the melted cheese, watched onions and mushrooms drop onto his plate, dropped these in turn, one by one, into his mouth, chewed in happy meditation…then began to lick his fingers. Tweedloe plunked the bowl, from which he had been sipping a cold soup, onto the table.
“You might, Gremot,” he said, “make greater use of the knife and fork with which you have been provided. You have a remarkable quantity of grease on your glass. Take care.” Tweedloe emptied the bottle, filling his own glass, modestly augmenting the share he permitted Honoré. “This,” he remarked, “is decidedly an indifferent Riesling.”
As the meal diminished, Tweedloe’s commentary waxed. The proprietors were hoarding the cellarage, in Tweedloe’s opinion. Undoubtedly some inducement could be discovered that might overcome the obstacle; undoubtedly, the species of bribe varied from auberge to auberge.
“Gremot,” Tweedloe said, “let us read the signs of the times. France is dismayed. She wears a brave face, but she is dismayed. The people look to the future, and their hearts misgive them. The farmer buries his treasure in a field. The innkeeper secretes away his prized vintage.”
A daughter of the St-Omer feinted at their table; first, approaching from the south, next from the east, seeking a way past Tweedloe’s stick and bulk. Tweedloe allowed her Honoré’s plate and cutlery. He went on:
“This malaise, this unease, these things whispered in cafés, at cottage hearthsides, augur more truly than counsels of state. Gremot, I may find myself surprised. The event would be unprecedented; yet, it may be so. France may win the match. Let us assume that she does not. No, you infernal wretch, have I summoned you?” He spoke to the girl, who had darted towards the empty bottle. With the back of his hand, Tweedloe nudged it to the table’s edge. The girl, with an intake of breath that made Tweedloe wince with distaste, caught at the bottle as it wobbled on the brink.
“Yes, be rid of that. And bring nothing else. I will have no more of your criminal wares.”
Having sent her scuttling, he continued. “Gremot, bring me intelligence of value from the battlefront, and I will send you to Paris.”
“I have seen men cut up in battle,” Müller told Honoré. “This was a sight I had never seen. The shell—I suppose it was a shell—must have hit at the rib cage, below the shoulder. Would it matter? Gremot, you’ve seen blood.” Honoré agreed that he had. “You have seen nothing like this. Not even the spray from a stone plunging into water…” Müller spread his hands, searching for words. “Horse and rider, blood, flesh, bone, a cloud, in an instant…” He became thoughtful. “I don’t feel,” he said, “that we have got the grasp of it. They charged our batteries. And nearly ran us to the ground, but that, Gremot, is not what I find terrifying. We have been instructed to defend our positions to the death. For the glory of France. For personal honor. Suicidal madness. To take an objective, they rode into the face of the guns. Not, you see, to defend a position. It means a great deal, though you may not understand.”
Tweedloe had instructed Honoré, and sent him away. He was not to take liberties. The Gazette knew nothing of him; should he mention the paper by name, he would find himself disavowed. Tweedloe might be appealed to under only the most restricted of circumstances.
“You have parents?” he’d asked.
“My father is living.”
“In that case, you must give me his address. I am quite willing to convey my deep regret, and so forth. In respect of some errand you may perform while in my employ. Should you run afoul, I mean to say.” This delicacy of Tweedloe’s, Honoré thought, would please his father.
Tweedloe ended their transaction by dropping into Honoré’s hands (after a pointed pause over their grease and dirty fingernails), two of his hundred franc notes. “These likely are worthless,” he had smiled. “Consider them, nonetheless, an advance on your wages. Find Müller if you can. Apologize. He had a story to tell…these Frenchmen are inordinately sensitive, which you may perhaps know better than I. Of course,” Tweedloe shrugged, “you’re a Belgian.”
Honoré did not apologize to Müller. Instead, he began the conversation where it had ended. “You were not at Woerth?”
“I was not there,” Müller said. “Which was only luck, but…I think I am not the sort of man who could see his own house burned, and take courage from outrage. I think for me it would be the other way.”