Table of Contents
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
Honoré Gremot wanted careful arrangements. He had his sketchbook… Page 3
Honoré had composed what he felt was a rather poetic… Page 64
In the dark, he dressed hurriedly. The windowpanes… Page 158
« Ma sœur, mon frère, je m’adresse à vous. Je m’adresse à votre cœur… Page 181
Book Two: 1876
Chapter Two: Possente Spirto
The month was August. The steam-whistle blasted a warning… Page 200
Micah, lost to his parents in 1862; dead fourteen years…nearly as many years now, as he had lived… Page 264
Fraught with mystery. He woke with these words in his mind… Page 300
Ebrach, Richard thought. His father’s breathing, for a time inaudible…Page 315
Chapter Four: The Eye of a Magpie
He was disturbed by the breakfast…Page 394
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 “could 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.”
“Answer me a question,” Müller cut him short. “Because I am curious to know. You have political ambitions?”
Honoré considered. “What good does it do to have political ambitions?”
“That is not for a soldier to say. You are a journalist, and all journalists I have heard of are politicians at heart.”
“I am making a living.”
“Then you are a businessman. Why do you not make a better living?”
Other people, Honoré thought at once. I make the best living I am allowed. He said: “Why do you ask?”
“Because you ask me. What happened at the battle of Mars-la-Tour? I saw men of my own company fired upon by the French artillery. Since that day, I have been thinking…why do we do the things we do?”
“Well, then, I will take your advice,” Honoré told Müller.
Müller regarded him wearily. “Have I given advice? I would not take it.”
“I mean,” Honoré explained, “I will make my living my business.”
If Tweedloe had forbidden him to name the Gazette, Honoré could yet hint broadly. He searched for, in the midst of this bedlam, a low-ranking officer, tapped the corporal on the shoulder and presented Müller’s letter of introduction. He made a show, even, for having been repulsed and threatened with arrest, of standing straighter, nodding with a brisk bob of the chin, and a thoughtful frown…just as though he’d been given some definite instruction (which, in a way, he had). When he climbed onto a transport wagon, he waved this letter, using it to point the driver’s attention to the officer with whom he’d been seen conversing a moment earlier. Thus he had found Dupuy, and come nearer Mac-Mahon’s headquarters, in a shorter time, than it had taken him to reach Beaumont from Reims. Unfortunately, Dupuy had pocketed the letter.
Dupuy, Honoré found, disliked his old friend Captain Müller, just as much as Müller disliked Dupuy.
The Comte de Boussac threw his anchor into the branches of an oak. He did this himself. Such moments called for silence, and Boussac glanced at the disobedient André; a glance of omen sufficient to set his assistant trembling. André would soon be asked to handle the remaining ballast. The weight of responsibility had produced an involuntary exclamation. Owens, the senior of the aeronaut’s two assistants, stood at the ready, unspeaking. Boussac, glass to his eye, calculated. He leaned over the rim of the car. He examined the rope looped to the car’s side, and satisfied himself that its coils were slack and orderly. The moment had arrived which called for exertion. Owens took the great man’s coat. He did not need to be told to do so. Owens was a reverent and forbearing servant, and Boussac valued him. It was less often that his volatile temper lighted upon Owens. André, slow and timorous, invited rebuke. Boussac nevertheless did not, in Owens’s presence, conceal his low opinion of the English.
Continued from “of the English”
Owens peered at the ring of spectators below. Dupuy had set idling soldiers to work dismantling tents in preparation for the day’s march, and among those who stared upwards, one man held a mallet and a wooden stake. “You!” Owens roared out. Galvanized by this voice of authority from overhead, the soldier stepped further into the balloon’s shadow.
“Clear off!” Owens shouted. “And stand by!”
Boussac placed the grapnel with precsion, catching the intersection of two limbs oriented opposite the drift of the balloon. The rope pulled taut. Boussac himself stood taut, his dignity with the smallest of concessions absorbing the jolt. Owens followed his master’s example, one hand at rest on the rim of the car, knees bent in a modest plié; André, though he intended taking after Owens, squatted and tottered, before rebounding.
Boussac reached behind him, slapping fingers against his palm; Owens restored the coat, and as Boussac valved, began to haul one of the sandbags over the car’s edge. He looked at André.
“Be sharp now.”
André froze. What sharpness he possessed blunted easily under scrutiny. Boussac terrified him. André had thus become adroit at sheltering by Owens’s side. He was now on the wrong end of the car. But, he need only cross the limited span of its interior; and, as he did so, André told himself under his breath where he meant to go and what he meant to do when he got there. For this caution, he transgressed.
Boussac required that his servants never pass in front of him. André, looking at his own shoes, had let his elbow brush the Comte de Boussac’s coat sleeve. He shrunk at the realization. Boussac held the ripping cord in his hand, and the moment was crucial. The buffeting wind might drag the balloon and tip the car, now the anchor had been set. He did not trouble himself over André at once, but let out the rest of the gas, and when the balloon touched earth, the car bumping roughly, the bag buckling and laying itself out, the unwary soldier—having stood by, as commanded—making, with scrambling feet and a cry of awe, a narrow escape from being smothered in its folds, Boussac withdrew his glass from his armpit, and smote André brutally across the shoulders. He followed his assistant’s retreat with a malignant eye. This neglect of duty had been the cause of a clumsy landing before witnesses; André’s belated fingering of the sandbag to which he ought to have attended was of no use to Boussac now.
Dupuy, watching, had an idea of supervising; while, on the other hand, he did not know what the balloonists were actually doing. He wiped sweat and grime from his face, straightened his uniform and his posture. A young officer, stout and breathless, descended the hill at a rush, and came to a sudden staggering halt. His tunic was worn in disarray, unbuttoned, as a moment ago, Dupuy’s had been.
Honoré, taking care, had snugged his bulging satchel between two knotted roots of an osier tree. The lieutenant prodded the bag with his boot. “Did you leave this here?”
As he had nothing delicate inside, Honoré gave the officer a momentary indifferent glance, and returned to his sketch. “No,” he said. He considered the question senseless. He had not left the bag, or he would not have been sitting there to be asked.
The lieutenant kicked it, with feeling, then walked a few paces to stand before Dupuy. “Monsieur le chef, I am Lieutenant Champierre…” He stopped, and looked over his shoulder.
“That,” Dupuy told him, “is Gremot. A Belgian. Employed by some London newspaper.” He made no effort to conceal his disdain. For Gremot. For Belgians. For London newspapers. “I cannot leave. I must greet the Comte de Boussac. Either speak to me here, or you will have to wait.”
“I am sent by Colonel Aubermont,” the lieutenant said. Falling in sync with Dupuy’s perspective, he shot Honoré a second unfriendly glance. “He wishes to know if the Comte de Boussac has landed his balloon. His means himself to greet monsieur le comte.”
“Do I need to tell you?” Dupuy gestured, inviting the lieutenant to see with his own eyes. “Then I will tell you. Deliver this message to Colonel Aubermont. The Comte de Boussac has arrived.”
Boussac, with Owens at his heels, approached Dupuy. Dupuy bowed. He adopted a deferential posture. He tried, time and again, to make eye contact with Boussac. Boussac, with an aloof abstraction, viewed the distant hills. Champierre, transfixed by proximity to the famous aeronaut, became a pillar of sweat and disorder. He appeared an accessory to Dupuy; he also, and with embarrassing eagerness, attempted to catch Boussac’s eye. Owens noticed Honoré.
“You!” he said. “Stand up!”
Honoré accepted this invitation to join the group.
“Monsieur Aubermont is riding this way now.” He spoke, in a conversational manner, to Owens. Owens, Honoré surmised, acted as envoy to Boussac. “Lieutenant Champierre,” he added, “will not need to deliver his message.”
“I don’t know who you mean,” Owens said. “So far as the message is concerned, we have strict orders.”
At this mention of his name, Champierre started. He had been able to believe—for a brief hour—that within his birth constellation a bright star had glimmered. He had just seen it fade and vanish. Colonel Aubermont, beckoning from his tent, had tasked the lieutenant with an errand, and Champierre, seeing visions of commendation and promotion, had edged, eager, steadfast, towards the tent’s open fly.
“I have been writing telegraphs all morning,” Aubermont was telling him. “So you see, I can’t stand about waiting. Why Paris won’t deliver messages in the ordinary way, is more than I know. The Comte de Boussac,” he’d added inconsequentially, “is of an old family.” Champierre stopped his sidling and waited, again at full attention. He strained to show Aubermont the face of an indispensable adjutant. The colonel frowned. “The Serrignys,” he continued, “are descended from the House of Burgundy.”
Though his reticence was the product of ignorance rather than opinion, Champierre had nothing to say respecting the House of Burgundy. He ventured, and with a degree of urgency, “My colonel, I will leave at once.” During this exchange, Aubermont repeatedly had lowered his head to peruse one of his own messages, raising, after each comment, his eyes to Champierre’s, and waving the paper in the general direction of the Meuse. He returned to his reading. Champierre coughed. Aubermont looked up.
“Yes, of course. Go quickly.”
But while he could see the balloon, he could not so easily determine the patch of ground over which it hovered. Time was being lost. Champierre had asked one of the men to point out Dupuy to him; had exchanged with Dupuy those few words—now already Aubermont was riding to receive Boussac. Alongside Aubermont, rode his elegant aide-de-camp. Both men, having done no strenuous work that morning, wore clean uniforms. And this insolent journalist, who had no lawful business here in camp, had spoken Champierre’s name aloud before Boussac.
The colonel and his aide dismounted. They approached and bowed to Boussac, who thawed to the degree of meeting Aubermont’s eye; he did not return the colonel’s bow. Neither did Owens bow, taking his cues from his master, but watched with disinterest.
“Monsieur, I am Jules Aubermont. I serve under General Lebrun, and hold the rank of colonel.” Aubermont indicated his comrade. “I present my aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Camaret.” Camaret, with aplomb, bowed once again.
“Commandant Dupuy you have already met.” Aubermont said this with a note of doubtfulness. The Comte de Boussac returned his gaze to the horizon, and said, in a voice imperious and forbidding, “No.”
The colonel felt the rebuke, but decided he would not, under this circumstance, make the introduction. “It is my honor to be entrusted with a message from…” He hesitated. He noted the pouch which Boussac held tucked under his arm, its imperial insignia plain to be seen.
“Do you suppose you are to be entrusted with this message?” Boussac asked. “Where is General Lebrun? Where is de Failly?”
Aubermont had no answer to the second question. Lebrun was on the march. The twelfth corps’ rearguard had stopped to merge with de Failly’s men; the group as a whole, under their present orders, moved towards Stenay, where Mac-Mahon was rumored to have camped. Aubermont weighed the diplomatic aspect of the question.
“Monsieur,” he began, “you must please allow me to deliver this message into the care of General Lebrun.” He felt he had chosen his words wisely. He himself had authority to act on behalf of Lebrun; if the general could not be found, Aubermont would be expected to take charge of the matter in any case. He had, therefore, told no lie.
“The message,” Boussac said, having none of Aubermont’s cautious hair-splitting, “must be delivered into the hands of the Emperor.”
Honoré looked at Owens. He decided to regard Owens as a friend. He hazarded a friendly observation. “A man with a fast horse might easily ride so far.”
At this, Lieutenant Camaret allowed himself to notice the stranger. He found the young man, after a cursory study, unacknowledgeable; yet, he was alert to the remark’s import. “My colonel,” Camaret said. He raised the riding crop he carried, sweeping it before him, encompassing a theoretical scope of endeavor. “You will have bestowed upon me a very great honor, should you command me to deliver this message to General Lebrun.”
Aubermont again hesitated. He was a man mild-mannered and methodical; therefore, he relied for energetic action on his aide-de-camp. Camaret had a quick understanding. He carried out tasks with despatch. These were the hallmarks of ambition, but Aubermont, who hoped for an end to war and a peaceful retirement, saw no reason the Camarets of the world should not rise to the level of their ambitions.
Boussac, whose methods were scientific, and whose manners ruthless, repeated: “The message must be delivered into the hands of the Emperor.”
Honoré decided to take a risk. Aubermont, he believed, was safe enough temperamentally. Boussac had no authority here…though if, in this bedevilment, Honoré miscalculated, Tweedloe might yet need to send regrets to his father. Once more, as though merely engaging his new friend in conversation, he spoke to Owens:
“Should a message―we may say it is from the Empress―fall into the hands of the Prussians, I think they would ask a ransom for its return. I mean that in the political sense, they would exact a price. Should the Republicans acquire such a message, I think they would break the seal and use the contents to embarrass the Emperor.”
A remark of this nature was impossible to ignore. Owens looked repressively at Honoré. “From the Empress? Do you suggest that you take it upon yourself to speculate on such affairs? I do not know you, sir. I don’t know why you should speak to me.”
His indignation had riveted the group’s attention. Honoré made his face contrite. “Monsieur, I take nothing upon myself, and I am very sorry if you understood me to have done so.”
Aubermont’s mind could encompass at one time only a small number of preoccupations; he’d had a dim perception of a disturbance to his sense of order, one that reminded him of an ill-disciplined infantryman’s exuberant whoop…he’d found it necessary, on that occasion, to stare at the sergeant in command with an unseen eye, his white moustache and lowered cap-brim eloquent of disapprobation. Just now a voice, young and irreverent, had intruded where protocol demanded silence. Aubermont saw Boussac’s volcanic gaze rise from the valley below, leaving the pennant of blue sky framed by the shaft of iron that extended above the church tower, and by the haphazard angled roofs of simple houses; these looking, as they climbed the hill, like pieces in a game of strategy. (Was this village Balan, Aubermont wondered, as he envisioned the swarm of hieroglyphs that had rendered his map nearly unreadable; was it perhaps Bazeilles…or did it matter?)
Now Boussac turned in the direction of the camp. He did not look at the stranger, but to the left of the stranger’s bare head. The river remained a peaceful mirror of the sky. Smoke gathered in the low places; two armies wheeled, massing on their opposing sides. Late August heat boiled the air.
Aubermont knew his tardiness had been a false step, that he had put himself in the wrong with Boussac. Yet, this shirt-sleeved irritant did not belong to the army, and was assuredly in their midst without Aubermont’s permission (if he learned he had given it after all…well, he had been distracted that morning with so many contradictory reports―orders countermanded; countermands retracted). Had Boussac wanted a journalist, he would have brought one of his own. The colonel looked at Dupuy.
Dupuy looked straight ahead, lacking words to extenuate Gremot, or unable to choose from among so many words. Aubermont was not Dupuy’s own commanding officer, and though Dupuy had never failed in his duty as a soldier, he saw here a maneuverable gap, one that neatly fit his personal axiom—act, don’t explain. Dupuy pursed his lips. “Colonel Aubermont, I apologize. I make no excuse for my poor judgment. If you give me leave, I will at once…”
One present, however, felt the bite of injustice more acutely than did Dupuy. He had watched Gremot, had listened to him, and with an obsessive, enraged disbelief. Thus, without the intention of doing so, Lieutenant Champierre had picked up a useful gambit. He was surrounded by officers who outranked him. He was socially inferior to Boussac. He addressed himself to Owens.
“This Gremot would like to know what the message says! In his courtesy, he worries that our Emperor might be embarrassed by his enemies. Embarrassed!” Impassioned, Champierre stepped from Dupuy’s side and accosted Owens. Other junior officers, those able to read the forbidden English papers, and with whom Champierre passed idle moments, had told him about the offenses of the foreign press. Champierre’s heart told him, in turn, that his friends could not have exaggerated. It was their way, the English, to put themselves in the high seat; they had always done so. Was it any surprise then, to find that they made intrigues with Belgians? How could it be that to dwell on French defeats did not effectively give aid and comfort…and to whom did it give aid and comfort, but to the Prussians? If the English were friends to the Prussians, than who was their enemy? This pretense of neutrality―
“These English!” Champierre flung a pointing finger at Honoré. “Play a game, merely, as this war is no concern of theirs! Anyone who wishes to see a thing can see it easily enough. They make us out to be…”
Boussac had cut him short, fixing Aubermont, where before he had been not quite able to see him, with a penetrating glare. Champierre loosed his fingers from Owens’s sleeve. He had seen Gremot offer Owens a commiserating, close-lipped smile; yet, Champierre noted bitterly, he did not dare address himself to Boussac, but stood nodding in the wake of this outburst…a little twist to his mouth, and a shaded glance for the lieutenant.
Owens rubbed his arm. He was seeing manifestations of danger that, to an intimate of Boussac’s, were familiar signs, and knew himself to be at fault. He had spoken to the journalist when he ought not to have done. Boussac, although capable of fluent English, did not concede civility to a servant. Owens was required to speak French at all times. The typical Englishman’s French accent was well known to Owens, and he did not believe Champierre’s assertion. Neither had the name sounded English…supposing Gremot to be a name. It was a point to seize hold of, and through which to seek redemption.
“You,” he said. “You’re not from England.”
“I have not said so.”
“Are you even any sort of journalist?”
“I,” Honoré smiled, “am in the employ of a gentleman whose reputation would impress you, if it were necessary to mention such things.” He offered to Owens a worldly chuckle. “The journal to which he corresponds is considered by everyone the only source, when they wish to read the truth. Of course, there is no more to say.”
Owens felt that here were delivered three glib lies, the last most dubious of all. Certainly, there was more wanted saying. He had nearly pshawed aloud, when he checked himself. Boussac had begun to pace.
“Monsieur le colonel, you conceal what you would like to hide.”
François-Marie Serrigny de Boussac also, had Owens known it, sought redemption. He would be forced by this intolerable delay to betray a trust, an errand he’d accepted with an ill grace; but perhaps with grace enough to mask his belief that she insulted him, did her majesty the empress. Yet…if success had proved impossible, defeat could not be helped. It was natural that he should blame Owens to a degree; far more did he blame Aubermont. Aubermont―this insignificant officer―meant to deceive him.
Much of the nation’s failure at arms could be attributed to the doings of the bumbling Bonaparte and his generals. The power to govern, Boussac told himself, had fallen into unworthy hands. Humiliation had France endured; ignominy did she deserve, willing as she was to cast her lot with an upstart―yet (for an instant, twenty irreconcilable years caught at Boussac’s throat, but―noble of birth―he set old grievances aside and concentrated on the one at hand)…yet, if no officer of rank were present to accept the message, why would Aubermont not say so at once?
She had summoned him to her private salon. She had beseeched him.
Given his singular knowledge of the ballooning art, could the accomplished Monsieur de Boussac not help…at this, she had broken off, distrait; risen, and gone to the window. The female attendant, at all times by her mistress’s side, followed, and passing Boussac, stared―as though he could have spoken to his empress with discourtesy.
And her private counsellor the admiral, seated in an armchair (when he ought to have been standing), had been silent throughout, watching this audience from beneath an arched brow, the corners of his mouth drawn―even his thin hair had seemed to express dubiety. Of course, a Serrigny could not be won over to the Bonapartist cause. But what did it have to do with the matter? This was war, and Boussac was a Frenchman in any event.
She had taken up her theme, half turning, fixing him with an over-the-shoulder gaze, showing to him eyes that welled; and to her credit, (this much Boussac conceded), she had spoken for herself. She gave no sign to her advisor, by not even a glance had she sought his approval. If monsieur le comte would help, she would regard his service not merely as an honor conferred upon a great house for the glory of France, but in the light of a personal kindness; yet if he would not help…reluctantly, she must rely on a man of lesser merit.
“Monsieur, I conceal nothing. I will deliver the message myself.”
“You will not.” Boussac felt that it would be as well if the world knew of this embarrassment. He glanced at the journalist. “Did I risk my life? Did I cross the enemy encampment, did they fire upon me? Did a shell from the Prussian cannon come near destroying me? And at such peril, and without complaint, have I not kept my promise, have I not tried within all reason to complete my mission? Only,” the Comte de Boussac, while stalking to and fro in agitation, gestured at the air as though grasping for a weapon, “only to learn how lightly our military regards matters of state? I might have entrusted the message to my servant André!”
It was then that Dupuy heard the whisper of some personal devil. He’d resolved that he would keep Müller’s letter to himself, that Gremot must be his burden to shoulder alone. But Boussac had made a remark of interest.
“Monsieur,” Dupuy, with submissive courtesy, began. “I apologize. I ask, merely because you mentioned a shell…one fired, as you believe, from enemy cannon. I have myself done a course in artillery, and know how these calculations are made. The message you bring may contain intelligence of value. Equally, you will realize, that you may also have gained information of value. Perhaps you recall your coordinates; perhaps you made note of your elevation.”
Boussac’s ancestor, Charles the Bold, might have eyed a rebellious tradesman of Liége as Boussac eyed Dupuy. Dupuy felt a chill.
Owens was not aware of the incident to which Boussac alluded; whereas he had always heard that…a thing which hadn’t happened could not well be disproved. He put the best face on it that he could. His master had turned towards, and begun to study, Lieutenant Camaret.
“I ought to have marked those things down,” Owens said.
“We profit from any news of the enemy. Where would you estimate that they had placed their guns?”
Owens, bending close, appealed to Dupuy in a low voice, “I have no idea of guns, sir.”
“From the air, you should have clearly seen the muzzle flash. Your work calls for some general knowledge of reckoning one’s position, does it not? The Meuse is a notable landmark.”
“Well.” Owens tried to think. He foresaw that he would soon be caught in a trap. “I can’t say I actually saw the shell, myself. I had more of an impression of it.”
Dupuy shrugged expressively. “Possibly, there was no shell.”
“I say there was.” Boussac rejoined the discussion.
“Monsieur, you may perhaps have noticed more than your assistant.”
Boussac would not permit the game to be played. “I noticed only a whistling noise, and some heavy object, which passed close by.”
“It may have been,” said Dupuy, “only a large bird.”
A phenomenon akin to the exploding of a shell took place. Boussac spun, strode two paces towards Camaret, put a bracing hand against the aide-de-camp’s shoulder, and forcibly wrested away his riding crop. He attacked Dupuy, lunging, and sweeping two violent strokes across the officer’s face. The first sent Dupuy’s kepi flying. The second was deflected somewhat by Dupuy’s flinging up a defensive hand. Boussac hurled the riding crop to the ground. Soon after, a tirade of virulence directed at André carried to their ears from the balloon’s mooring place.
“I’m sorry for that, sir,” Owens told Dupuy, who was dabbing with his sleeve at a stripe of oozing blood that bridged his nose. “It’s a dangerous business,” he went on, lowering his voice to near inaudibility, “to let monsieur get hold of something.” Owens stooped, and picked up the riding crop. He handed this to Camaret, who bowed from the waist, and in a near whisper to match that of Owens, said, “You must apologize for me to monsieur le comte.”
Owens nodded, his eyes somewhat disbelieving, then trotted to where the balloon was being packed, and busied himself calling out instructions to André. André, through some nervous exercise of will, and with a surprising nimbleness, was seen to scuttle up the oak’s trunk, his descent to earth measured by a series of cracking noises, these preceded by the anchor’s reappearance, and followed by André’s. The officers maintained a stiff military posture; Champierre, who had assumed this stance from the moment of his mistake with Boussac, was by now red-cheeked, his face beaded with sweat. Honoré slipped back to the osier’s shade and began, comfortably cross-legged on the grass, to annotate his drawing of the balloon.
Aubermont lowered his cap brim. A minute or two elapsed. From this cavern of thought he emerged, and to his aide-de-camp said, “Lieutenant Camaret, we must offer monsieur le comte every assistance in departing, you and I. Perhaps he may change his mind. Commandant, your Colonel Chrêtien has ridden away, do you think?”
“I believe, Colonel Aubermont,” Dupuy answered, “the order for Mezières no longer stands.”
“Well.” The two men put their heads together; they spoke in asides, their voices muted, mindful of Honoré’s ears. “I will ask you to wait for me in my tent. Bring that other man with you.”
Aubermont’s white moustache indicated Lieutenant Champierre.
“Lieutenant Champierre will escort you from our camp,” Aubermont told Honoré. “What is your name?”
“That sorts with Dupuy’s account.”
Negligently, Aubermont sat leafing through the sketchbook, showing (his purpose, Honoré thought) that several of its pages had been torn away. Not knowing whether dismay would read to Aubermont as proof of guilt; or if, on the contrary, effacement would show to him a spy trained to anticipate such a moment, Honoré merely thanked the colonel, and saw Aubermont’s reflect his own cordial smile.
“Monsieur Gremot, I will circulate a description of you. Should you be found speaking to any French soldier or officer, you will be placed under arrest. I ought,” Aubermont added, “to put you in a cell today…but then, I would need to find one, and arrange for someone to take custody of you. To tell the truth, monsieur, you are not important enough to make delays over. We are at that point where we must choose our battles!” He laughed. Honoré laughed, not happily. He feared himself important enough, at any rate, for Champierre’s attentions, and that needless suffering would result from the license given to the lieutenant.
“I can’t do otherwise,” Aubermont finished. “The press may reasonably write of these events after they have taken place. You journalists must stop this practice of putting yourselves in the middle of them.”
He handed across the sketchbook, and nodded permission. With one hand, Champierre gave his colonel a heartfelt salute; the other dropped onto Honoré’s shoulder, pressing down with increasing force, as Honoré fastened his bag, until, positioned with his head over his knees, he perceived that Champierre was now twisting his collar band. He muttered, “Please, monsieur…”
And on the strength of this word, the lieutenant seized the initiative, hauling Honoré to his feet, hustling him from Aubermont’s tent. He dealt as roughly as he was able, first shouting orders to an infantryman to come along and bring the offending bag. Swinging this over his shoulder, the soldier followed Champierre’s example, and gripped Honoré’s other arm above the elbow. They pitched him forward, jerking him off his feet; they grabbed the open ends of his trouser legs, lifting his ankles above the ground. He was in this fashion frog-marched to the camp’s boundary, where Champierre stopped, allowing the leg to fall. His helper did likewise. Champierre said, “Put that bag down and go.”
Once they were…not alone, but isolated, the other soldiers busy with breaking camp, Champierre thrust away the arm, into the flesh of which, and with trembling anger, he had been pressing his fingers. He flapped his hand, irritable, as though Honoré were filthy, and had himself imposed this contact. Then, with design to intimidate, Champierre held Honoré’s eyes for a long moment. The lieutenant’s face was sunburnt, his own eyes pale blue.
Continued from “eyes pale blue”
The two faced off at the foot of a hillside. A barrier of growth divided the meadow from the road. White and yellow flowers punched through thickets of green grasses. These, rooted in mud, broiling in sun, thrived; the sun-bleached hues of the meadow were by contrast exhausted, deadened into straw. Eyes on Champierre, Honoré crouched, and picked up his bag. He took a step backwards.
“Aubermont may be a fool,” Champierre said. “But I am not a fool. I would like to know what you keep in that bag.”
Honoré thought about this turn of events. He was unarmed, their conversation out of earshot…little, if anything, of what might happen next likely to be noticed. The infantryman―the only witness―Champierre had sent away. Honoré let the bag fall, and backed again, another two paces.
“Nothing of value, monsieur. Take it.”
Champierre took this as an insult. He snatched up Honoré’s satchel, and with a grunt, swung it by the handholds, letting it fly in the direction of the ditch. Honoré watched his bag bounce and roll, then tumble through the grasses, leaving a gap where it disappeared. He’d been on the verge of offering Tweedloe’s notes to Champierre, if it might do any good. The lieutenant, huffing air in and out of his lungs, his face set with a powerful resolution, turned and stalked off…and Honoré amended this thought. On the pride of Champierre, outright bribery would have acted badly, amounting to a second error.
He found his bag submerged in a scum the color of bile. A host of gnats danced above the ditch, rising in the heat, batting against Honoré’s forehead and neck, and lodging there, stuck in a sheen of sweat. He put his hands among the clusters of tough, knife-edged leaves, pushed them apart, and saw that he could not catch hold of his bag without lying flat on the bank and submerging his arm to the elbow. Grass cuts met stagnant water and burned, sucking mud held fast; the sour smell of roiled ditchwater was underlain with one more disgusting, as though his things had been dumped in a latrine.
Honoré crawled, dragging the satchel with one hand…unbuckled it, loosed the folds of his suitcoat, and tried tossing this out of the way. It was like flinging a lead weight. Flailing arms snapped water into his face, crumpled over the skirt, the coat then landing not far from Honoré’s knee. His white shirt was stained brown, his silk cravat limp as he held it up to the sky; both were ruined. Collars and cuffs, never used, worthless now, trousers he’d worn only once or twice… Waylaid by this bargain, Honoré had paid a clothier to fit him out like a gentleman, for when the important interview was granted (with that man of sound judgment, one day to claim he had first recognized Honoré Gremot’s potential), he meant to dress the role—barring his good hat, which he could not have worn because he’d sold it.
He bridled as though the suggestion had come from someone else, and protested within himself that he did not play a role. He was proprietor of a paper of which, at this date, sixty numbers had been published; a paper subscribed to by (Honoré blinked, grasping all at once Tweedloe’s jibe)…well, more than dozens. One hundred and eight, at Gilbert’s last count. He had a right to report the news. He peeled away half the brown paper he’d used to separate his clothes from his paint box.
When summoned to Aubermont’s tent, Honoré had gathered his things in haste. Placed then, in the restless hands of Champierre, he’d been able only to burrow the sketchbook in among them. The artwork and notes done in pencil were not much damaged, the ink and watercolor studies not worth saving. The pots had emptied of their pigments—
His charcoals would dry, however, and he might scrape them clean again. He set these aside. The paintbrushes would be all right. His hair brush, his clothes brush…but not the little tin of tooth powder, which he did not trust. This he winged back into the mire with some emotion, and satisfaction at the splash it made. On the pile of things he wanted, Honoré put nail scissors and razor, socks…socks were not difficult to wash, his good shoes…however…could these be salvaged? Would the leather not shrink and mildew? He tied the laces. Shoes were expensive. His toothbrush…no, it would have to be boiled in a solution of lye, he thought. The other tin, in which he kept his shirt buttons. Yes, why not? He considered the state of his spare handkerchiefs. No, handkerchiefs cost little enough.
The bag was empty now, there was nothing else. Aubermont had confiscated all the articles Honoré had copied out and saved, all his letters from Gilbert. He tugged up his shirt-tail, and used this to dry his razor. The handkerchief from his pocket―though not especially clean―would do for a carrying pouch. He tied its corners, gathered his paint box under his left arm, hooked a finger through the knotted ends, snagged the shoelaces, then toted both together over his right shoulder. He stood a moment, eyeing those things he’d brought from Bruxelles or had bought for himself in Paris, and was now leaving behind.
But the bag, jammed to bursting with everything Honoré had owned, had been heavy for him. To accommodate these things, he’d had to stop often and rest before walking further.
“And I still have money.”
There now, Tweedloe’s generosity had been a lucky chance. It would further his luck, provided he did not worry luck away. Honoré spoke aloud, because he was alone, and because it was comforting to hear himself say it: “I will buy what I need in the next town…I must come to one soon.”
As he walked, Honoré found himself passed by every sort of conveyance, a commune’s worth of old men and wives, refugees with bundles on their backs and infants in their arms, sidling on foot as he did himself, along the verge of the road. The army passed, plowing aside these civilians with its commandeered vehicles—city cabs (the journey that had brought them so far evidenced by their mis-fitted wheels), farmer’s wagons, pony-traps, handcarts. All creaked along more slowly for being overburdened with cargo and hangers-on. With equal urgency, horses were whipped up the road that stretched ahead of Honoré, and down the road the way he’d come, neither direction favoring any guess as to Mac-Mahon’s plan.
Honoré had no cause to doubt Aubermont’s word, but the conditions imposed on him were becoming a hardship. He was tired, his feet ached, and he could not flag a ride, for fear of speaking to a soldier. In this region it seemed no one could bide quietly and await the coming battle, but all must move about animated by an anxious energy soon to be released. Marked this day was some patch of hillside or field, where life tomorrow must be staked down by bullet or bayonet; and the man who had crossed and re-crossed his own grave, felt…perhaps he felt nothing. No shiver, no presentiment.
As he shuffled to the high point of a low hill, Honoré saw a caisson guttered in mud, at the trough below the incline. Rainwater puddled here, deep ruts had been gouged by the milling traffic. A company of foot-soldiers, their formation broken by this roadblock, their commander arguing precedence, exacerbated the confusion. Honoré took himself out of the way, edging in among a group of four: camp followers, or field workers, men of middle age who carried osier baskets slung over their shoulders. He greeted them, and though the attempt cost an effort, forced the corners of his mouth into a smile. They did not speak. He heard a shout.
“Cattle! Half-wits! Stand off!”
Honoré stumbled over a foot. His own feet were nearly crushed as a rider spurred towards the crowd, backed heedless, snapped his horse’s flank with the butt of his crop, and drove further among them. He veered at Honoré, tugged his bridle sharply at the last second, and swung his horse back onto the road, grumbling as he departed: “Here we need the Prussian guns.”
Honoré said, “I apologize.”
The man pushed past him. By now the wagon had been unloaded, and a bare-headed officer, who’d thrown his tunic to the grass, held the harness of a riderless horse, careless while debating the best means of rigging the animal to the wagon. The horse pivoted in a restive arc, sending spatters of mud with every plunge of its hooves, effectively herding bystanders from the low place, while making its condition less passable. At least an hour had gone by, and Honoré, rather than escape, withdrew to a bare patch of grass, and waited there for traffic to thin. He was afraid to strike off across the fields, without knowing what might be found over the rise. He could not know where, to a watcher, he might appear to be going.
The wooden box, so painful to carry, with its sharp edges that bruised his ribs, had needed constant shifting. To accommodate this, Honoré had begun to swing the handkerchief and shoes at his side. And all the while he had been losing possessions one at a time, not hearing them fall, their small shoosh into grass and mud drowned by so much shouting and stomping. The discovery of the near-empty pouch gave Honoré pause to consider the question of unwanted weight. It seemed absurd to him, now, that he’d kept his clothes brush and jettisoned his clothes. He decided also to discard his shoes. What did it matter? Tweedloe would like this story of the balloon; indeed, would probably be entertained by Honoré’s expulsion from the camp. And if all Tweedloe’s money must be spent on Tweedloe himself; still, after Honoré had sent word―My dear uncle, I report to you again that I am safe (supposing he could find a town large enough to have a telegraph office)―there might be more money, perhaps a good deal of it.
He opened the box, worked his sketchbook loose, found a blank unsullied page, and began, after chafing his darkest lead against his shoe-heel, to jot down reminders to himself, couched in the form of a letter addressed to his dear uncle.
Near sunset, he felt he had got nowhere. The sun having at last lowered itself to a distinct position, Honoré, limited in skill at reading signs, judged the human stream to have floated him onto a northwesterly course. Whether this direction were a good or a bad one, he had run out of intelligence to determine; but battle circled all round this place, and the circle tightened. He would not miss his story. What he wanted was a corner to lie down in, and food—any sort of food. He had passed one or two farmhouses, but none securely beyond sight of the road, on which the army’s authority remained, at this hour, well represented. He did not wish to find himself charged with some local crime, only because Aubermont had circulated his description, and he had knocked at a stranger’s door.
Dusk came on, and at this season in the high hills, nights grew cold. Honoré began to think so many new experiences had affected his senses. For all its wet and foul condition, and forgetting he would have to have worn or carried it, he told himself now that he might at least have taken away his coat. The stink could not offend, unless someone were there to take offense. And he was alone. He would rather have been warm.
But he found he was not alone. He could hear heavy breathing, interspersed with a high-pitched, anxious noise, like an inhaled bleat. A dog’s nose nudged his hand. Clearly a cautious-tempered dog, one wanting to call its master’s attention to a discovery of import, yet unwilling to bark.
“Don’t you be afraid.”
He supposed he ought to answer. Possibly, the man addressed the dog. Honoré said: “What do you call your dog?”
He stood still and the man caught up. He was taller than Honoré, carried a stick, and wore a shirt of a light color. There was scarcely more to be seen, under this darkening sky. But the stranger, at any rate, wore no uniform. Honoré introduced himself first, hoping the man had never heard his name.
“I,” his new acquaintance told him, “am Jean-Louis Paquette. I saw you as I was coming along the way there.” He pointed, lifting his stick. Honoré could make out a row of trees, bordering what might be a footpath or streambed. “You move slowly. I knew I would soon catch you.” Paquette’s manner seemed forthcoming. “Do you live in town?” He thrust out his neck as though he tried to study Honoré’s reaction to this question.
“I am only walking along the road,” Honoré told him. “This place is unknown to me.” Paquette offered no advice. He snapped his fingers at Sophie-Jaune, and using his stick to push himself, ambled on. He stopped, and Honoré, following, stopped as well. Paquette said, “I was walking…” He swept his stick upwards; Honoré heard the gesture’s whistle and saw a wink of reflected light. “You see the hill there. Do you know the name of it?”
Honoré saw the hill silhouetted like a stone axe against an amber ribbon, a fading, melancholy, sunset. He shook his head. Of course, he knew nothing. He realized Paquette might not have seen him. He said again, “This place is unknown to me.”
Paquette went on: “The circle of an old tower lies just below the crown, on the other side. We call the place Le Sort. Do you know why?” He seemed to expect Honoré to answer, as though he disregarded what twice now Honoré had told him.
“I have never heard the story.”
Paquette laughed. He set off again. Honoré caught up and walked next to him, Paquette keeping a slow pace. “I found a man…about your age, I would guess…had taken shelter there. Now this was curious, because I know of a family who farm nearby. They had gone out, all of them, to dig their potatoes. They had left the house empty. Why not? We rarely see strangers here. On that day, someone had gone inside and stolen…ah, well, I can’t recall what. This man I am telling you about, when I found him, he wore a soldier’s uniform.” He paused, and left Honoré to envision the significant look which might have accompanied Paquette’s next statement. “A deserter.”
Honoré began to form an understanding of Paquette. The darkness made estimating his age unreliable; likely, he was near forty, unfit now for soldiering. He walked about with his dog and his stick. His eye was on the stranger. Paquette suspected Honoré of being a thief or an army runaway, and in telling his story, had wielded or withheld detail. Had Honoré been dull-witted…had he been guilty of something, he might have been cozened into trapping himself.
The dog, Sophie-Jaune, trailed, or alternately, trotted in front. Her panting grew louder, and she touched her nose against Paquette’s hand. He patted her head. She angled towards Honoré. He also patted her head. She sought this attention repeatedly as the men walked. Paquette, Honoré assessed, needed to be important. He was not dangerous. A dog belonging to a brutal master suffers the first blow, his wife and children second, helpless bystanders third. Sophie-Jaune was a congenial dog; Paquette must, at heart, be a congenial man.
“I cannot write down your story,” Honoré said, after many silent steps at Paquette’s side. “I must try to remember.” He could not see the other man’s face. He could only listen. He heard the rustle of Paquette’s clothing, and a falter in the rhythm of the stick as it struck the road.
“I don’t see why you should…” Paquette changed his tack. “I asked you if you were staying in the town.”
“I have never traveled this way,” Honoré reminded him. “I hope there is a town nearby.” He meant to keep giving these unsatisfactory answers. Paquette could quit his game, ask his questions directly. Honoré wanted nothing but food and shelter for the night. Paquette walked unspeaking. He stopped. Then, with decision: “You must come to my house. The army is camping everywhere about. You’ll find no quarter here.”
They passed a sign-post, unreadable. Honoré saw a row of cottage lights. He saw the river, reflecting from its surface starlight and village lamps. The dog, Sophie-Jaune, piped and panted—finally, having struggled against the impulse, she barked. A lantern swung towards them.
“I would have come to get you.” A child’s voice.
“Are you not coming to get me?” Paquette asked.
“But you’re here!”
“I live here,” Paquette told Honoré. “Did your mother, Thérèse, tell you to be very careful?”
The child giggled, swinging a chaotic arc of yellow light; her father bent, and gently commandeering the lantern by its handle, patted her between the shoulders. She ran away from them, the lantern as Paquette raised it showing the pathway leading to his cottage. The door stood open. Among flowers dimly seen beneath a second lantern that hung outside the door, waited another child, picking leaves and throwing them to the ground. A cat came out, turned, and went back inside. Madame Paquette appeared.
“You ought to have been here.” She spoke in a low voice. She looked at Honoré. She turned her face to Paquette, and said, emotionally:
“We have a guest.”
“Well, so we do.”
Madame Paquette threw her hands in the air. She hurried back indoors. Paquette stood aside, and motioned for Honoré to precede him. The little girl shrieked, and with her brother by the hand, darted past. The air in the Paquette’s parlor felt a degree or two colder. The stone fireplace framed by the chimney-piece and the cottage’s east wall were one; beneath so vast a hearth, the weakness of the banked fire, that neither illuminated the room nor heated it, made a sad contrast.
Four others sat at the table. One stood, and Honoré saw the reason for Madame Paquette’s worry. The local curé was paying a call.
“I am Guillaume La Roche,” he told Honoré, taking a step to the right. The man seated beside him put his hands on the table’s edge, and rolled his shoulders. The chair seemed to stall and grate against the floor. La Roche took a step to the left, as Honoré reached across the table. They achieved, he and the curé, an awkward embrace of forearms.
“I am Honoré Gremot. Monsieur Paquette has kindly asked me to visit his house.” Honoré was not, in truth, certain he might not be under arrest.
“Monsieur le curé, you have made my wife nervous, stopping here.”
This was jest, but Paquette’s wife, wringing her hands at her waist, oscillated in a semi-circle about the table. She touched plates and glasses, cast numerous anxious glances at Honoré.
The curé peered at his soup plate. Mme Paquette must have, only a moment before her husband returned, laid on the table those things she could provide. La Roche told Paquette, “I have been visiting this house and that. I confess to an embarrassment…you will forgive me. I find I have eaten quite enough this evening. As your wife,” he met Mme Paquette’s eyes encouragingly, “will not wish to see good food wasted, she must offer these things to your guest.” He inched behind the place to his left, at which an older son was seated, and gestured towards the empty chair.
“That, monsieur le curé, seems to be the answer.” Paquette drew a chair from the outside corner of the table, angling it to face the door, as though another visitor might soon knock. And seating himself in this position, he turned his back to his wife. He said to Honoré: “Sit. Be pleased with what you get.” He pointed, his manner less polite than the curé’s. “I have told you the army has been camping hereabouts, Monsieur Gremot. Three times we’ve had them at the door. They have left us a stick of firewood and a crust of bread.” Paquette laughed. Madame, looking first at Honoré, then at La Roche, said to her husband:
“He has come to speak to you, Jean-Louis.”
“I had some idea of that.” Paquette kept his back to the room. “Please, monsieur le curé, stay a while with us. Ask our friend Monsieur Gremot about his affairs, that bring him far from home.”
Honoré thought this gambit rather admirable. He’d placed his box in Paquette’s reaching hands, after sidling against the wall to the middle seat. He’d picked up the plate, downing soup even as he sank onto the chair. The soup proved little more than gruel, potato thinned with milk, seasoned with sprouted garlic that gave a bitter taste. Honoré bolted the bread…this, despite a smearing of fat, dry. He drank the sour beer, and felt, at the end of this meal, almost as hungry as he had to begin with.
Paquette had of course known Honoré would not lie to a priest. He must fall back on his earlier strategy. “Monsieur le curé, I am a journalist. I do not need to tell you the name of the London newspaper that…” He cut himself off, gave to Paquette, rather than La Roche, whose eye he could not quite meet, a breezy, cosmopolitan wave of the hand. “I will not even mention to you the importance of my assignment; but, as you might well suppose…”
“Why should you say so?” Paquette interjected.
“Why… Because you may believe me, or you may not. Assume that you don’t. Why, then, should I wish to introduce my employer’s good name? I will have lost his confidence, and I have not gained yours. You may suppose me to be dishonest. If on the contrary, you choose to see worth in a stranger, your character does you credit, monsieur…but, if not, you do yourself no credit, and me no good, supposing that I might have impressed you with a name. So again, I say I do not need to mention my employer by name.”
La Roche laughed. He had, in university days, spent pleasant hours constructing such sophistries. He recognized the form. Paquette, doubtful, said to La Roche, “You had better speak to him.” He shifted his chair around to face Honoré, while still he addressed the priest. “He has never heard the story of Le Sort. Like Monsieur de Failly, he travels this country but knows nothing of it.”
The man seated at Honoré’s right caught Paquette’s eye. “It’s a poor night for putting the devil to the test. There may be souls he’d better like to steal, abroad these days.”
“Clotilde, clear the dishes.”
Mme Paquette had calmed herself, seeing the curé unperturbed, and had taken up a station before the hearth. Clotilde said nothing, only sat beside her father sheltering herself with crossed arms, head bent over her lap. She lifted a pale, freckled face; she rose…her white lace cap riding forward on a loop of hair. Honoré picked up his plate, and held it out to her. She leaned across the table, reddening, one hand pressed to the crown of her head.
She surprised him, then, by meeting his eyes; her own were wide, moist. She glanced at her father. Honoré scooted back his chair, and stood also. Clotilde gathered dishes, drawing them with trembling fingers to the table’s center. She thanked her father’s friend in a whisper as he, driving his own fingers hard against its edge, skidded his plate across to her. The man’s deliberateness held a message, and Honoré saw this Paquette daughter read its import; whereas he could see in these mannerisms only…mockery, it might have been, or warning.
He picked up his cutlery, reached for that of his tablemates, and gave to Clotilde one knife, one fork, at a time. Two cups tottered at a summit of plates. A strand of hair fell over her cheek. Their fingers touched…touched again; she looked down at her work, she looked up into his eyes. With a ringing clatter, a knife fell against the table. Paquette said, “That’s quite enough.”
There were two doorways leading from this common room. Honoré could see through the first the furnishings of a bedchamber. He watched Clotilde back across the threshold of the second, watched the door close quietly, pushed from inside. It led, he surmised, to a scullery. Madame lifted one sleeping child, and snapped her fingers at Sophie. Thérèse made a game of following her mother, grabbing at Sophie’s ears, pretending to be pulled off her feet. The door closed.
The man on Honoré’s right told him, “I am Émile Baum.” In introducing himself, Baum did not get to his feet; he did not explain his presence at Paquette’s table, nor did he offer his hand. Honoré sat down.
“This place, Le Sort, I think must be haunted,” he said to Baum.
“The hill is consecrated to the devil.” Baum was solemn; but he smiled then, in the way of one making a mordant joke, the remark directed not at Honoré, but La Roche.
La Roche said, “Monsieur Paquette has, very sensibly, asked that I tell the story of Le Sort.” La Roche had moved to stand beside an open cabinet. He was not so rude as to lean against his host’s furniture, but rested a hand lightly on its edge. Now, coming round the table, he took Clotilde’s chair. She did not return. The curé nudged an oil lamp to one side, lighting his own face, shifting Honoré’s into shadow.
“Monsieur Gremot, you know that the wine grapes we grow here are superior. The reason lies in the bones of the earth. Here the rock is soft, and centuries ago, as you may picture it, shepherds watched their flocks on the hill they name Le Sort. Suppose, then, that such a one, sheltering in the old tower ruins, gazes upwards, half dazzled by the sun…and all at once, two of his lambs, perhaps his good dog, vanish before his eyes. Imagine the cottage, where they expect him day by day. He does not return to his wife and child. He is never heard of again. They locals say among themselves, what can have happened? Or perhaps there is some poor imbecile, harmless, watched by the village, but left to wander. One day seen no more.
“I, in my time, have never known of a case that conforms to the legend. Yet, as the peasants have it, Le Sort came to be called the devil’s abode. Those accused of some crime would be tried there by ordeal. That, I think, I need hardly explain.”
“He must stay the night in the ruins, to prove himself innocent?”
La Roche shrugged. “You will suspect the nature of this mystery. The rock gives way at times. The earth opens. It can be quite sudden. The hill has claimed true victims. On the other hand, those who believe in sorcery and vengeful spirits punish themselves. They torment their own minds with fear…and it may be to the death.”
“If I were accused, I would leave at once,” Honoré said. “So, in the morning, I suppose they would say I had gone to the devil.”
La Roche smiled. “But, there it is, the people here tell this story. A condemned man may, in an earlier day, have been dealt with in this fashion; I have never spoken to anyone who admits seeing it done.”
Paquette’s son laughed suddenly. His father’s guests turned expectant faces. “Some friend of yours, Henri,” Paquette said, “has told you another story.”
“No.” Henri crossed his arms and looked down at the table. “I think it’s funny. Why wouldn’t you walk away?”
Baum answered. Paquette kept silent, but for a moment studied Honoré. “The devil knows his own,” Baum said. “He has work to do if he chooses. They will be placing their guns on Le Sort before the sun rises.”
“And I have come to say,” La Roche told Paquette, “as I have said to all the holdouts, please think of your family. Please leave tonight, while the road is open.”
Paquette stood and crossed to the front wall. He had placed his gun cabinet with an enemy in mind. One forcing entry through the door, or peering through the window, would not see this—that Paquette could both arm himself, and shelter here, in ambush.
“What road is open?” He unlatched the cabinet; inside, three oiled muskets, neatly aligned, glinted in the lamplight. He closed the door. “I have a plan, you needn’t fear. I expect to die tomorrow. It is not,” he returned to the table, and lowered his voice, “that my faith has given way. I believe that our emperor, if only he knew how his people suffer, would open the gates of his palace…he would protect all France beneath his roof, he who so loves the peasants. But, of course, being a great man, he knows nothing of the pains of small men. It is an easy fault to excuse. The attentions of great men have been more, almost, than we can bear. Yes, I would take the road tonight, certainly, as you say; but I fear I might starve on the way to Paris. I might die with my back to the guns, as a coward dies, to no purpose. I would rather die in my own home, and so I will. I do thank you, monsieur le curé.”
Continued from “monsieur le curé”
Baum, pointedly uncivil when he had met Honoré, now rose. He put a hand on the back of Honoré’s chair, and looking down on him, said, “We have no gun to spare for Monsieur Gremot. Otherwise, he is welcome to stay.” He watched La Roche, however, as he spoke, expecting the curé to take his meaning. La Roche stood. “Jean-Louis, I thank you. You must tell Madame Paquette, as already I have said to her, God is not remote. Each moment, God is present. He has not given us a great task, that we should be overpowered by the weight of it. As we live, as we breathe, as we keep our homes, as we pray, God is present.”
“May God save and protect us.” Paquette’s tone was flat.
Baum said: “God is like a neutral country. He favors no side. Or, he is like a correspondent. One finds him everywhere. So monsieur le curé tells us.”
“You, Monsieur Gremot, may walk along with me,” La Roche said, “and I will find for you a place to stay the night. I myself will not sleep.”
“Monsieur Paquette.” Honoré, delivered thus into safe hands, rose last. “You are a fair-minded man, I think. I wish to thank Madame Paquette for her generosity. Please tell her so. Émile Baum―” The family friend met Honoré’s eyes. His expression was odd…angered, as though he felt affronted by this direct address. Honoré said to him, “Adieu, monsieur.”
On the cottage path, he found La Roche waiting. He yawned.
“You will have to share your refuge with many others tonight. But the church is not far,” La Roche told him.
“Monsieur le curé, answer me a question, if you will. I was born not so many kilometers from this place. Can there be something in the way I speak, that you would say, Honoré Gremot is a Belgian?”
“I am a Belgian myself,” La Roche said. “Did you not suppose so?”
“I did, but you realize it’s a different matter. We are in sympathy, you and I. I want to know why Baum should think so.”
“Baum is a deep subject. I have too many subjects to study. I cannot guess his mind.”
“Answer me this then. To hear Paquette and Baum speak, you would suppose these francs tireurs do not respect the emperor or the army. But then, they are determined to die fighting the Prussians. Paquette, who finds death honorable, also is willing to confer the honor upon his wife and children.”
La Roche smiled, and Honoré, seeing the curé’s face dimly in the ambient light that glowed from the windows of a wakeful town, guessed what he would say. “Ask a question, if you expect an answer. You mean…” La Roche stopped, and ushered Honoré in a new direction, up a side street.
“…that Paquette is a brave man, but he lacks faith. And perhaps, he lacks foresight.”
Naturally, La Roche would interpret Honoré’s curiosity in these terms, all his philosophy invested in the Great Debate—that, under the laws of Heaven, may we not know and choose, or must we only obey, with unarguing trust? Honoré, however, had been wondering about Paquette’s politics. Why should your cause not be a successful one? What attracted a man to sacrifice all he had with the certainty of failure?
“But then,” Honoré said aloud, “one can succeed only by dealing with the enemy. In effect, we cannot afford enemies. If we must be adversaries at all times, we will destroy ourselves, fighting to destroy the other.”
“I would call that pure heresy.”
“Well, I am half asleep. But I wasn’t speaking of God and the devil.”
“The world,” La Roche said, “has been poised between God and the devil for thousands of years. Who can guess the outcome?”
Here, the road leveled off…outcroppings of rock, monoliths standing in a ring, were veiled, half seen. Fog cleared from their faces, while a cold dew beaded on Honoré’s. Strange voices rose and fell. He could not tell who waited there. He saw one, and another, pass behind the stones. He had lost some keepsake he valued. The thought was troubling, the thing he sought close now, then hidden. One voice was insistent, high-pitched and urgent. Honoré was impelled into the circle. He resisted. It meant death to take one further step. A door slammed. He found that it was too late. The door slammed again. And again.
He had fallen asleep on a window ledge, propped against its arched molding. As La Roche had promised, the church contained a crowd of refugees. In the curé’s wake, Honoré had zigzagged among bedding and bodies, offering apologies, balancing on one foot while seeking a clearing, leery of setting down the other in light too dim to know fabric from flooring. Ahead La Roche also apologized, was also cautious in placing his feet. He stopped here and there to accept thanks, to offer reassurance. It took longer to find an open roost in the church for Honoré, than it had taken to walk there from Paquette’s cottage. Glancing at him, La Roche asked:
“Is this how you travel? You have brought nothing with you?”
Honoré looked at his empty hands. He found he’d left Paquette’s cottage without his box. He leaned against the wall. “I have made one or two mistakes.”
La Roche half turned, to note who was within earshot. “Someone here may have a coat or blanket to spare.” An old woman smiled up at the curé; she, like Honoré, had taken shelter with only the clothes on her back, but in worse case, he thought. She looked friendless and frail. A man, who held a sleeping child on his lap, huddled under two quilts, as though it were the depth of winter. He seemed not to hear La Roche.
Then, passed across the backs of the benches, a garment was tossed, landing near Honoré’s feet―a black tunic with a red-pointed collar, a type he recognized as belonging to the garde mobile. A woman leaned over the nearest bench. She motioned to La Roche. “The property of a dead man, he says. Now he does not need this. But, monsieur le curé,” she raised her face, widening her eyes, “you must please come to see him. Do you know what I mean?”
“Take it,” La Roche told Honoré, “and never mind. I wish you great success. Adieu, Monsieur Gremot.”
He fought against waking. He had wrapped the tunic over his head like a cloak, shutting out all light. The cannonade, the slamming door of his dream, stirred the crowd, their whispers multiplying to strange effect under the high ceiling. Finally, someone, of a helpful nature, prodded Honoré.
“Monsieur, the battle is on.”
The walls shook three times more, a barrage of artillery fire enveloped in its own thundering echoes, and the voices of the refugees seemed frozen in their throats. They covered their ears and braced against the church’s solidity. Some crawled beneath benches; some cowered to the floor, crouched or fell on their sides, drawing up their knees…or threw themselves down, pressing their faces into the bundles they’d brought with them.
The guns quieted. And for what seemed a long, fraught time, kept dormant. People stood, stretched a little; families gathered, murmuring to one another. Skittish laughter broke out. Above their heads, a deceptive soft rumble from the bell tower began to rattle the ceiling. The carillon sounded a discordant note. Each impact of the tower’s damaged masonry jolted cries of panic from those hemmed in the nave. Mesmerized beneath the tower, they backed with upturned faces, staggering over others’ feet. The chaos ended. The roof held. But each falling block scooted downwards as though raked by a devil’s claw, and fell, burrowing itself in the churchyard with an earthy crunch.
Answering the last, the cannonade began again.
Honoré found the noise nerve-shattering, the loudest he had ever heard. He got to his feet, and made for the out-scaled wooden doors, feeling boil in himself the crowd’s riotous mood; shoving at those to whom, hours earlier, he’d apologized. The doors pulled inwards, the arms of the men who dragged at them weaker than the press of bodies against them. One man slipped his hand from beneath the handle, wedged his foot in the opening and swung his fist in a wild swath behind him; he did this twice, the second time with greater violence. “Move back, I warn you, move back!” But a fury had caught fire among the refugees. Women stumbled in their dragging skirts, and began to fall. A way was forced―wide and wider―and over the church steps the human tide broke, ratcheting both doors back on their hinges, pinning the garments of those who lay helpless and entangled. He witnessed this, but Honoré did as the others, disregarded the trampled, and ran with the throng into the street.
A small hotel smiled with the face of a lunatic. Its window boxes were painted azure, and planted, each, in verveine, héliotrope, dotted with the diminutive white flowers of some trailing vine. It was a sight of arresting loveliness. Behind the glass, orange flame pulsed to its own susurration, the hotel’s façade exposed to the beams, its roof torn away. Nearby, a squat structure of stucco, with two grudging windows placed high beneath a tiled roof, disintegrated at the strike of a shell, a cloud of paper billowing in all directions. Perhaps this had been a post office. The paper began to settle, leaf by leaf; then, lifted by currents of heat, rippled upwards before again touching the street.
Another round of shelling ended, another silence fell. The ringing in Honoré’s ears faded with the cannonade’s percussion. He woke from a sort of stupor, and found himself standing in the churchyard, clothed as a soldier. As often as the creaking of its timbers foretold the hotel’s imminent collapse, he could hear tremulous voices grow to shouts, then subside to a murmur of anticipation. Smoke crawled along the street, vaulted in the distance to mingle with the clouds.
He had never been in battle, but reason suggested to Honoré that he must cover ground now. He would take shelter at the cannons’ first report. Or, perhaps, never hear it. All that could be seen of the village by daylight showed to Honoré a closing trap, a hell of fire and ruin. He heard a skimming whistle, a bird of prey’s keen. Like one of the entertainments he’d seen at the Paris Exposition; as in some combination of magic lantern show and pyrotechnics, the town hall changed before his eyes. With a boom and a flash, the structure vanished. Flame and foul brown smoke carried a thousand shards and fragments projected in a ring, that sank while grey dust rose…and rose. The town hall reappeared, its side gouged away. Another boom, another flash, the next image in the series emerged: a building smote to rubble.
The final shell crunched with ominous quiet. No further cannon fire was heard. But a warning sound surged, drumming new panic into the refugees, shaking them to their feet, scattering them from their hiding places, driving them into the streets; the thunder of hoof-beats, the jangle of tackle and sabre—the Prussian cavalry bearing down on the town.
Honoré avoided the street. He took the opposite direction, scaling the stone wall at the rear of the church. By fortune, his feet had touched ground on its outer side, when the damaged bell tower exploded. The shock drove Honoré to his knees. Pulverized stone rained over his back, as the remains of the tower, a stump of its former height, became a torch, a rush of heated air that buffeted over the wall like the lash of a whip. He steadied himself, and stood. The hills were to the east. A crack of chassepot fire flared here and there, in the weak and disordered pattern of guerilla fighting.
He ran, away from the battle.
At the town’s boundary, planted as a barrier against harsh winds, fir trees grew in orderly rows. Beneath these, the earth was blanketed in bracken, smothering the noise of one who moved here with stealth, the song of birds louder than the whisper of Honoré’s footsteps. His racing heart again beat shallowly. The hour was just past dawn; the sun fierce at its morning angle. His feet, on this unstable surface, slid backwards as the incline of the hill increased. Yesterday’s breakfast had been followed by many hours of walking, then a sparse supper at the house of Paquette. Last night, he’d been able to sleep for only an hour or two. He felt wretchedly hungry and tired.
He came to a clearing where dead trees had been culled, where brambles had rooted. He stopped, parted their leaves, and saw nothing edible, not even an unripe berry. He heard voices, loud and peremptory. These men spoke a language which sounded to Honoré like Flemish, but he did not understand them. He approached the summit. Gaining a height where his head might be visible, Honoré lowered himself flat onto his belly, and crept. Here was the grain mill, its wheel creaking rhythmically, turned by a sluice-guided channel. Not all the fluting, repeated notes Honoré could hear were birdsong after all. The stream that fed the mill ran high, breaking in torrents over rocks and fallen logs.
And the mill was overrun. More than a dozen men, mostly on horseback, had positioned themselves in semi-circular formation. The mounted ones had their carbines in hand. Each gaze was fixed on a particular position; those at the periphery watched the black, unrevealing glass of a window under the eaves of the roof. The dismounted men carried lances, and with these, prodded at chinks in the timbering. The mill appeared deserted.
These soldiers were, Honoré thought, those Prussian Uhlans said to move ahead of the army, seeking places where provisions might be obtained, where soldiers might quarter…and where spies could observe, snipers of the francs tireurs hide. The Uhlans had earned a brutal reputation. Honoré believed himself a hairsbreadth from death. He wore a French soldier’s tunic; he could not explain it. He was running from a battle in which he’d borne no part, and had come to this place by accident. He watched…but he did not spy. He inched backwards. All these sights he had taken in at a glance, his eye lighting on the man with the field glass just at that moment when his sweep of the hilltop must have reached the end of its arc. Honoré let his head sink into the bed of bracken, quick but not sudden, and lay flat on the ground, hearing his own constricted breathing, fearing an ill-timed fit of coughing.
Some trick of the mind took him back to a day in June. He had the impression of being comfortable, then his ease was disturbed by a vague anxiety. At the Gare du Nord were men who touted for the hotels and handed cards to new arrivals; Honoré, knowing nothing, had chosen by his hopes and by the aesthetic appeal of the advertising, rather than price, which, in any case, the card omitted. After one night in luxurious surroundings, he had counted his money, and determined he would run through his funds in two weeks’ time, if he kept this room. The hand on his shoulder roused him; from the feather pillow he lifted his head. “I apologize, but I cannot pay so much.”
Waking fully, he took alarm, remembering the Uhlans.
“Forgive me, please, monsieur,” the man said. He wore a collarless shirt. His waistcoat was covered in dust; his face and hair as well, all on the left side. His hands were scraped and bleeding. Honoré sat up. The fir grove had grown still. “No,” he told the man, “you’ve done nothing.”
“I was afraid you were dead.” His face remained anxious. He dug into his waistcoat pocket, retrieving a pitted, misshapen apple—offered it, contrite, to Honoré…or, he had noted the tunic, and wasted his mistaken gratitude. But Honoré, not knowing where he would sleep tonight, or for many nights to come, was not sorry for what other people thought of him, and meant to keep this borrowed coat. It was all he now owned. He shook his head. The stranger, again taking Honoré by the sleeve, thrust forward the apple insistently.
“I thought I had time.” In the distraction of his mind, it was a guardsman he saw before him, and it was to this small authority he appealed. “But I had only got as far as the stairs. I heard them cry. Then I heard nothing. And, monsieur, I am that much a coward…all I have done is walk.”
For charity’s sake, then, Honoré tasted the apple, and found it bitter, not worth forcing down when he’d had nothing to drink all morning, when his throat was parched, and the sun was hot. But he thanked the stranger, and began, as though he himself were setting foot in an unsound structure, capable of collapse, “I am sorry for you…”
Swayed by the trilling of a pipit―sveet, sveet, sveet, sveet; and after the notes had trailed to a grumbling meq, meq, meq―the man sat abruptly, and when the final note ceased, lapsed into staring silence. Honoré touched his shoulder. “Is there a path, another road you know of, monsieur, a safe way to leave this town?”
And saw, with frustration, that the man appeared entranced by an inner despondency, half-closing his eyes, answering to neither the touch nor the words. Yet noises reached Honoré’s ears, of the Prussian circle closing. He must give this up, he knew.
He turned back towards the town, because he had no choice. He could not ford the millstream here, where the water ran treacherously, eddying into pools of unknown depth. There must be a bridge. Paquette, as he remembered, had pointed with his stick, and said: “I was coming along the way there.” If Honoré were not badly disoriented, his meanderings had taken him to Paquette’s starting place. But to follow the stream to the road where they’d met would mean crossing the Prussian line…he doubted it could be done—else, cutting through the town, where pillars of smoke still roiled. And even at this distance he could hear a menacing cadence of boots, pops of gunfire succeeded by the sound of breaking glass.
He had known these cottages before only in darkness. Every house and cellar, stable and chicken-coop, would be searched for resisters. Running, with his head lowered, Honoré scudded down a slope, and came to a brick shed, half its depth dug into the hillside. It was covered in part by a flat roof, and here, under the edge, he crouched. As he tiptoed round to a corner less exposed, Honoré felt an urge to crawl inside. He waited, listening. His fingers dislodged veins of moss that spread through the mortar. To stop here was to throw away every chance but one; yet all roads must now lead to imprisonment or death. He might be dragged from this shelter, and they would ask him, “Why do you hide?” He might flee and be halted by a bullet. And why did he flee? Only to escape this place. The lone hope Honoré could see, was to avoid being seen at all.
He looked for the next place of concealment. Taller houses lined the first street of the town proper, and at the rear of one such, a chimney jutted. There, he might rest awhile, three-quarters of a circle hidden from sight, pressed tight between chimney and wall. Honoré hesitated.
She had spoken his name softly. She had stolen up beside him.
“Monsieur Gremot, please help.”
“Clotilde, where have you come from?” He looked into eyes that seemed uncomprehending. Of her own danger, of the choice she was forcing him to make. She ignored his question. And he had been wrong to suppose she was not afraid…she quivered on the verge of panic. Fretful gasps escaped her; she took his sleeve as though to lead him away, then fell against him, saying, “Oh…oh!”, as gunfire exploded. She wore the clothes he’d seen her in the night before, a dress of grisaille under an apron, cap askew, lank hair falling loose. He put his hand on her shoulder and freed his arm, taking her by the wrist, turning her so that his own back was to the gunfire. He steered her, in this fashion―as though they danced―into the chimney’s protected niche. Honoré stood, for the good it would do, between Clotilde and the enemy. He said to her, “How could I help?”
A carbine fired from the street shattered glass. They heard another bang, another window splinter. They heard shouting, then pounding. Clotilde wrenched from his hold, but did not run. Instead, she caught Honoré’s arm and tugged, backing from him, her feet slipping.
“We are next!”
He’d meant for her to understand he had nothing to offer. But she’d attached herself in this way, and he could only follow. After an awkward few steps, Clotilde let him go and dashed ahead. Tempted, as he passed the shed for the second time, Honoré thought again of curling up there in darkness. But…she’d heard his hard breathing, perhaps; she knew, somehow, that he’d lagged behind. Turning, she found his eyes, and answered a question he had not asked.
Clotilde pointed up the hill, to a fissured wall, to the cottage’s single window on this side, that looked down over the town’s finer houses. The Paquettes’ stood above the town gate, where the road began to curve away, where the cobbles of the main street ended. Two women stood at the glass, hidden to ghostly effect by a panel of curtain—the hollow of an eye, a wisp of blue fabric, dark forms cloaked in lace. He would not have known the Paquette home, approaching it from this unfamiliar view.
“I was so surprised,” Clotilde was telling him, “to see you come down the hill, but then I thought…” She was breathless herself. She led him by the sleeve again, and murmured as she did, telling him what she had thought: “You remembered us.” They came to the cottage rear, where the foundation’s stonework enclosed the cellar, a low door gave entry; and here, beside a trough that collected water from a rainspout, Clotilde stopped. She looked at the door fixedly. Her fingers closed on Honoré’s arm. He also had heard a sound―of metal scraping against stone.
It was too late to enter by the front way. He asked Clotilde, “Where is your mother?”
“Inside.” And her voice fell to a whisper. “Did you not see her looking out at us? But she won’t go to the door.”
That, Honoré thought, had been Paquette’s instruction. But Paquette himself…
He must be sharp with her now. “Does your father mean to wait in ambush? Is Baum there with him?”
“And Henri.” She was, curiously, although despairing, almost defiant. Honoré shook loose his arm. Certainly the words he and Clotilde exchanged were audited by the men in the cellar. He would like to have called them imbeciles. He threw off the tunic of the garde mobile. “Stay where you are.” He held her gaze, until her eyes began to spill tears, and with her fists she rubbed these away, nodding. Honoré put up his hands.
His back to the wall, he edged round the side of the cottage. Before the door, two soldiers stood, their tunics a fair, light blue, their helmets (of which the Paris and London papers had made great sport) ornamented and spiked like ancient armor. One had his carbine leveled at the window. Honoré found the moment inauspicious. The gun cracked, the window imploded. The soldier, lowering his gun, spoke to his comrade. Honoré took one reckless step to peer at them, and felt the muzzle of a gun dig into his ribs. He kept his hands raised, wishing to appear, as he prayed he did appear, harmless and unresisting, and was prodded to the door. He found himself facing another carbine.
He had expected it. With a desperate enunciation, Honoré said: “Ik bedoel geen letsel.”
Though he spoke no German, if he were lucky, the Prussians might divine his meaning from this. He would do no injury to them. He had more to say. “Er zijn anderen.” Of course, others who deserved to be spared; yet, others also against whom to warn the soldiers. And not for partisanship. At the first shot from the cellar, the Prussians would fire the house. Madame Paquette, if she were not addled by loyalty to her husband’s cause, might escape with the children. The danger was she might not.
He glanced down at the carbine. He cocked his head in the direction of the cottage.
The soldiers’ uniforms bore different insignia. Neither appeared to be an officer of rank, yet one seemed to defer to the other. This soldier listened to his superior’s instructions, then marched away up the street. Honoré waited, under guard, at gunpoint.
“You have something to tell.” He heard himself addressed in English. He did not so much as turn his head, risking nothing, but answered:
“The house is defended. A woman and her children are inside.” He was not with the Paquettes; he was not against them. He stated these things neutrally. The officer motioned Honoré away, and his guard seconded this order, clamping his shoulder, backing him with the barrel of the gun across his chest. He saw Clotilde.
She stood where Honoré had a moment ago, shrinking almost to her knees, her fingers white, pressed into exposed stone at the corner of the house. Honoré felt overwhelmed by bitterness. He was now a prisoner of war. He’d sacrificed himself for this daughter of Paquette, less than an acquaintance, because she’d asked his help…he would die, he thought, for this girl’s sake. And she was nothing. She could not do as told, even, not accept the help she was given. Here she had come creeping from cover…and so she might have pleaded with these soldiers on her own. She needn’t have embroiled him.
“She,” Honoré said to the officer, “is the daughter of the house. Let her go in. She will bring the others out.” He waved one hand without lowering it. Seeing Clotilde, the officer beckoned to her. Still she wavered, clinging, and seemed unable to move.
“Murderous attacks, we cannot tolerate.” The officer spoke to Honoré. “We must, of necessity, offer no compromise. We cannot deal differently with this house or that house. Tell this girl, we can show no mercy, if she cannot persuade them to surrender.”
Clotilde had heard these words, of course, as the officer had spoken them. No, and no again. This needed no translation. Charged with an unwanted task, pushed forward by a hand on his shoulder, Honoré glowered at her. “It may be…”
Tentative, he relaxed his stance. His guard appeared to tolerate this. He touched her face…and gently, despite his anger. She might have wept all the while she’d waited. Her eyes were raw.
“…that your mother will understand. Your father”―Honoré considered his words―“will follow his plan. But speak to your mother.”
Two strangers, to his surprise, were the first to emerge. An old woman, leaning on her stick, eased herself over the threshold, and only once did she falter, to pause, lift her head, sweep scorn across the ranks of her enemies…then, bending again, she turned to a young woman who had waited just inside the door, hand hovering near her elbow, should assistance be needed. A Paquette daughter now followed her grandmother, keeping close to the old woman’s side. She was bareheaded, and like Clotilde’s, her hair was a drab blond…she was married, possibly, and did not live with the others. Honoré supposed the old woman to be the paternal matriarch, for she shared―or, properly speaking, had spawned―Paquette’s square forehead and long jaw.
They were a pair of confederates, these two; the elder daughter, as it seemed, the grandmother’s favorite. They whispered apart from the others. The young woman started at the sound of gunfire. The old one gave no sign.
Madame Paquette, if she sought God’s presence on this day, sought Him inwardly―her gaze was abstracted, and in silence she walked, carrying her smallest child. Thérèse, cradling the cat, mirrored her mother. And Sophie, wagging her tail, all her wisdom derived from the touch of her nose to a human hand, circled and would not leave Clotilde, the last of her human charges, who came last from the cottage. In an agony of hesitation, Clotilde dragged her eyes from the abandoned parlor. She saw Honoré. She moved as though she meant to return to him. Or he, not knowing it, had taken a step towards Clotilde. The soldier guarding Honoré raised his carbine, and made a barrier between them.
Up the street now, drawn by a team of horses, came a limber bearing in tow a captured mitrailleuse, its escort forcing way on either side.
“Reculez! Allez! Vite!”
Prisoners were filing in under guard. They clustered into every open space, they moved, like the blown ash, in nervous routs; while the same wind that stirred the fires drove heat and smoke in their faces. As the gun passed, men and women of the town turned their backs, their parti-colored band of clothing making, from Honoré’s vantage, a boundary between the uniformed soldiers, and those standing houses that remained.
Continued from “houses that remained”
One of the Prussians patted the bronze neck of the mitrailleuse. His company had perhaps not seen this weapon in action, from a gunner’s perspective. He threw a conscious glance at his superiors; at any rate, at two bearded men wearing swords who had ridden up on horseback. They spoke; the artillery officer then clicked his heels and turned, bending over the gun. Honoré, steered by his guard, was backed across the street. Once again, he found himself beside the man who’d spoken English…and who did so again, so that Honoré must suppose himself personally addressed.
“Now, do you think they will be sensible?”
He swallowed his meek answer, for one of the riders had given an order to the gunner, who, in a testing manner, cranked the handle of the mitrailleuse. A sound, like the rattle of a heavy chain, preceded the muzzle flash, and the reverberation of the weapon’s discharge mingled with the crack of fresh explosions, while the handle―the gunner having got the rhythm of it―ticked on. In the wake of this onslaught, the façade of the Paquettes’ cottage remained substantially intact. A frenzied man with a hatchet might have chopped at its doorframe; while on its windows, the glass being out already, the effect was less dramatic.
“We have not got them yet.”
The officer continued to offer his comments, as though Honoré were an interested party in these proceedings. He had been brought to this safe area, still under guard, but in the manner of a formality. Some unfathomable transition had taken place. Marshalled now in what had been the town’s center were remnants of the French army, infantry for the most part, put to flight beyond the reach of command, thus left to choose their own fate. They had surrendered…famished, by all accounts, and disillusioned. Mixed among these were a number of resistance fighters, flushed from their hiding places in cellars and attics. Before the ruined town hall, encircled by Prussian cavalry, the prisoners waited.
Yet Honoré was kept here, within sight of the others. He did not want them asking themselves why. He did not want them wondering what words he and the Prussian officer exchanged. He found this punishment, for a regrettable impulse to do good, unreasonable. Unreasonable, to be generally regarded as a willing helper; unreasonable, and frightening, to be thrown in with the other prisoners after being shown to them in this light.
The artillerymen reloaded the mitrailleuse, and took turns firing; twice again with indifference the stone walls of the cottage bore this assault. Paquette, Baum and Henri had been bottled up in their refuge, but they could not be driven out. The trailing echo of the gun’s final discharge met with an unyielding silence. The Prussians chose to be done with it.
“They are signaling the battery.”
Honoré heard the boom of the rocket, some seconds after his eyes had found its plume. “But what, monsieur le capitaine…” He stopped, and seeing that by the use of this rank at which he’d guessed, he had not violated his captor’s dignity, went on:
“…what do we wait for?”
It had been an hour or longer, he thought, they had held him; forced him to stand on his feet—and Honoré felt each of his torments. The ache settled with the weight of lead, cramping his empty stomach, wearying his spine.
“They are signaling the battery, as I say. I suppose,” the captain gave a considered answer, on a topic of which Honoré was ignorant, “they will use the smoke to sight the gun.” The thatch of the cottage roof, ignited by hot, drifting ash, had been smoldering half-heartedly, neither blazing up nor extinguishing itself. “They will want a six-pounder, I think. It will not be of terrible consequence if the shell falls short; but then again, one would almost think of such a target as merely an exercise for the artillery. Well, we will wish them luck.”
After another vacant spell, he saw the captain check his watch. Immediately came barked orders and the clank of raised weapons, the noise beginning somewhere beyond sight, the motion rolling to the fore. Honoré was pushed against the wall of a house, and able at last to rest his back, he minded the waiting less. He heard a thud, a low note that lingered ominously; through his fingertips he felt a vibration. From a ridge-top a thousand meters off, the shell arced, and plummeted with a tinny shriek, through the Paquettes’ roof. The cottage at once combusted, foaming a chalky cloud of plaster and mortar, spitting orange flame, the roof sinking through the crater into rubble, and seeming to rise again in fire.
Paquette was the first to appear, his clothes played about with a lambency, exuding smoke, his face bleeding. He stopped. He had only a second to lay down his gun, and―if he would―to beg for his life. Paquette might have gone to his cellar before this change had been wrought, before his town had been taken by the enemy. Perhaps this sight came as a shock to him…this ruin, these streets overrun with foreign uniforms, the fighters of the French army held prisoner, the comrades of his defiance disgraced, the people unhoused, his own wife and children huddling among the refugees, the ashes of his home―at which he would not look—flung in his eyes. And yet against his cheek Paquette must feel the insistent lick of a furnace.
Perhaps, then, seeing all this, Paquette despaired. But he glanced at these things briefly. What he sought, he seemed to know. He caught Honoré’s eye, and fixed him with a dispassionate gaze, as though he saw a badger or a fox. He raised his musket. At the instant, Paquette was felled. Not by a storm of bullets, but by two placed shots, that rang in harmony.
Baum and Henri surrendered. Heat from the burning cottage distorted the air, and they moved far to the side, as they stepped around from the rear. They held their hands over their heads; they had discarded their muskets. Then Baum, with a savagely defiant face, lowered his hands, took Henri by the shoulders, and turned him from his father’s body. These two bore none of the signs, evident with Paquette, of having been in the cellar when the shell hit. Their clothing and faces were clean; it might have been that, seeing their guards draw off, not knowing themselves pinned in the sniper’s sight, they had left the cellar, and taken shelter in the garden. Perhaps the only true holdout had been Paquette. And did Henri, indoctrinated in Paquette’s philosophy, feel pride at his father’s death?
Baum, so fortunate as to be taken prisoner, stared at Honoré. His expression was not dispassionate, but filled with hateful intent.