A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalite
Honoré had composed what he felt was a rather poetic, stirring appeal to his readers. As yet, he must envision his readers. They might be refugees from the Paris suburbs; they might be soldiers of the national guard; they might be starving malcontents of the tenements―his neighbors, sleeping, as Honoré did, in shared beds, in unheated rooms. But (though Broughton believed so) this poverty did not represent an excess of frugality. Honoré despised frugality.
“Pride is not bread”, as his friend Garond put it. The war would soon wind down, as everyone knew it must, to an unhappy end. One day Honoré would publish a Paris edition of the Progressiste. He would use money of his own, and Broughton would have nothing to say about it. At present, his medium was the placard, censored organically, as it were, by lack of paper and ink. At this thought, he laid his cigar across the top of an empty ink pot, and said to Broughton, “Tell me if you like this very much.”
“I’m certain I shall, however…” Broughton stopped to write a line. He read it over. He said, “It’s a pity we can’t find anything to burn.”
“But you may sit on the floor. You can burn your chair only once. Then there is not much help.”
“I have thought of it, lately…and come to the same conclusion. It will be a long winter. We must not be rash.”
Honoré took up the scrap on which he’d written his preamble. He scrutinized the small map he’d drawn for himself in the margin. (Safe streets changed from day to day.) He had an afternoon’s politicking ahead, his rounds to make among the cafés; a heartening number of which still scraped together a menu―of some species―to offer their customers. He did not mind the gendarmerie; should he be arrested for speaking in public, he would have a great deal to say. But here, in Broughton’s place of business, they spoke only of quotidian affairs. Honoré was certain the greater portion of the papers he handed out to all comers were burned at once.
“I am reading to you,” he informed Broughton.
“No, not yet, please. I ought to finish this thing for Tweedloe. He inquires, by the way, after your health.”
Ruminatively, Honoré touched his tongue to his broken tooth, and supposed he might see a dentist, but he would spend his money on many comforts before he would do that. He had never liked dentists…he’d had enough of doctors…and he would not use money acquired by good fortune for things associated with illness and sorrow.
“Monsieur Tweedloe thinks he will not be paid. I have a plan, you may tell him so.”
“I see no reason to answer a civility with a threat. I will put down that you appear quite yourself.” Broughton huddled into his coat. He wrote carefully and conservatively, wasting nothing.
Honoré had begged the officer to look at his proofs of identity. These were a letter of introduction, drafted by a friend; and a safe-conduct of sorts, which testified to the trustworthiness of the bearer, and was punctuated with a number of impeccable names. The Minister of War had signed this, Count Palikao’s signature followed by that of M. Pietri, the Paris prefect of police, a General Schmitz (no less an officer than M. Trochu’s chief of staff), an uncelebrated colonel, also a prominent banker. At a jaunty angle, seals both purple and red had been affixed. Honoré ought to have discarded the document, and its unwieldy bulk, long since, but had not been wholly convinced he would never find a use for it. As Gérard Costa had argued, how would the Prussians know good from bad? Yet, faced with an actual Prussian officer, Honoré felt that he would know.
And of real proofs, he had none. He had crossed into France without passport or visa. He’d kept his legitimate employer’s card (M. Amédée, however, could not be appealed to; he would say that Honoré, by coming to this place, had violated their agreement), inside the folded letters, buttoned into his waistcoat lining, to be produced when the matter was non-negotiable. Authority might commandeer these things, worthless to it…while M. Sarrazin’s letter in particular―surprised as he would be to learn he’d written this―gave Honoré a name, and a home.
Seeing Baum’s murderous look, Honoré had pleaded, urgently, and without pride, “Monsieur le capitaine, I am Belgian, neutral! You cannot make a prisoner of me!” To which the officer replied, “You are not a prisoner. Still you must be held until your claims are proved.”
If being held in a prison camp, among prisoners of war, was distinct from being considered a prisoner of war, Honoré missed the logic. Frantic, he began unfastening buttons. The officer narrowed his eyes, and Honoré recognized his mistake. Holding out his hands, then, in an open, unthreatening gesture, he added, “Monsieur, I am a correspondent. I have come only to report the war…monsieur, I was born in Huy; I will answer anything!”
But the officer shook his head, refusing. “A soldier can discard his uniform. Anyone might have papers. Look around you. See the dead in the street. If you are known here, someone may come forward. Otherwise, you must go with the others.”
Honoré looked for La Roche. Beyond the least acquaintance, the curé did not know him, and might reasonably refuse to vouch for him, but La Roche had been kind. And Honoré had no other hope. He looked, and the watchers’ faces were unfamiliar. He did not see La Roche, or the Paquettes. The officer sent him away, with that proverb of tyranny, “If you have committed no offense, you will have nothing to fear.”
A pail of water was passed among the prisoners, some having the strength to lift it above their heads and drink from the rim, drizzle slopping down their shirtfronts. Honoré squatted, and with his hands scooped water into his mouth. He had missed the scraps of bread that like scratching chickens the men had competed for; these tossed by the townspeople over the guard’s cordon. Yet, for all the excited speech that had followed this happenstance provisioning, for all the jangling of harness and stamping of hooves, and the forays of the mounted guards as they began to drive the prisoners into rough ranks, Honoré found himself waiting once more. He had been pulled to his feet, gripped by the collar-band of his shirt and held, the heels of his shoes not quite touching earth, while another prisoner crouched in front of him and scuttled away with the pail. Released, he staggered, choking, caught his balance, and hugged his arms to his chest, nervous of both the guards and his fellow prisoners. For a long space nothing further occurred. With a strange clarity, he could see the sweep of a second hand inside the face of a watch. This was an illusion. But he began, at every fifteenth beat, to edge one step apart from the others. He bent his knees just a bit, making ready to spring, once his own lagging pace had caused a gap in the line―
The vision shattered, as the butt of a carbine came down on his shoulder; his startled cry drowned by shouts ringing over the prisoner’s heads. He heard a voice spitting a complicated insult, encompassing whoredom and illegitimacy…and somehow, espionage; at the same time, he received a rough shove, not from a guard, but from a woman whose wild face, all mouth and chin, seemed to loom at him from the street. He felt his sleeve seized and nails dig his arm as though she would not let him go. But a wave of momentum, carrying from whatever place the first of the men had been commanded forward, lurched down the ranks; Honoré, and those nearest him, began at a shuffling pace to creep ahead. A guard shouted, “Madame! Allez!”―and the woman became inexorably detached.
They broke from rubble, and from the chaotic milling crowd, into open road; at once the prisoners were commanded to halt, the line dissolved, the men were prodded by the guards―riding in relays up and down the verge―into closer formation. Honoré found himself two from the left, of four; then third in a row of six, of a column with no end in sight. He heard a funereal drumbeat.
A voice repeated this next directive; another prisoner, but whether alongside or in front of him, Honoré could not tell, mumbled and laughed, for a second time, for a third time, “Eyes ahead.”
He could not have held long to a marching cadence, but Honoré found his lungs not much challenged by this plodding. Often, he heard the call to halt bellowed from guard to guard, while his row, by the time they received the command, had been for some minutes at a standstill.
A pace, he had once learned―a single step―was somewhat less than a meter; two steps somewhat more than a meter and a half; four, then, about three meters. Probably, his steps were too small to be counted in that way. Hemmed in by others, and keeping his eyes ahead, Honoré had no distinct impression of his surroundings. But he thought a man like his father, wishing always to put time to responsible use, would count paces grimly and stubbornly, would tell himself, after an hour had passed, “I have walked a thousand meters!”; after the next hour―“I have walked two thousand meters!” Honoré supposed twice two hours would not carry him so far at this present rate; further, he could not impose such self-discipline, to count, and count, and count…but his father, he believed, would have done so.
They would let him send a telegram. Could there be any reason they would not? Only because he did not belong to the French, and his own government was not required to pay for the conditions of his imprisonment. Honoré defended himself, arguing his harmlessness before a harsh prison camp commandant.
But…yes, I can prove anything, if you will let me send to my friend Gilbert―
Yet was there, he wondered, a sort of ransom to be paid? Still, it must be Gilbert. His father would tear the telegram in half. He would say his son deserved this lesson.
The French authorities, the commandant seemed to hint, are likely to make certain representations―
But what have I stolen, or what law have I broken?
Madame Masle. She had not been happy with what she’d got, but she had not demanded more. Perhaps, like Colonel Aubermont, she had put Honoré’s description about. He had put himself at odds with the army. He had provoked Dupuy. On the principle that an angry man will sometimes exceed his discretion, Honoré had done so willfully, risking all for an exclusive story, not guessing that the school of experience had in store for him such a bounty of exclusives. He had hoped, merely, to please Tweedloe.
Honoré thought that he was not yet earning Tweedloe’s shilling, but that he had been expected to work off the advance on his wages, and although he’d posted a letter (which would be eyed by the censor, and could say no more than they’d agreed), this first effort would not count. Until they could speak face to face, he could give no news to Tweedloe; without intending it, he’d given his notes to Paquette, and had seen Paquette’s cottage reduced to ash.
And if he were accused of skipping his fare to Verdun…well, he had paid more than the nominal fare to Reims, to be waived in among the privileged class, men who traveled under the protection of their employers, and could afford to take this freedom of mobility for granted. Honoré had paid a bribe and given away his watch; he had gone without breakfast and lunch, and all these sacrifices were the ordinary affairs of a poor man, for whom, in an inconvenient world, there could be no particular inconvenience, only everyday choice―to pay for the one thing and to do without the other.
But to be called guilty of some offense, even so…an innkeeper, still more a railway company, could scarcely feel the loss…a handful of francs, nothing to them. As the bourgeoisie had it, they could not afford to excuse everyone; therefore, they excused no one. Yet if Honoré were jailed for theft, what a price he would himself pay! It would cost his livelihood. Rather, he might, because he was a prisoner, but of war, use this chance. The thought was striking.
His eyes had been fixed on the back of the man ahead of him, but his mind had carried him far away. He woke to the odd impression of fire burning his temple and cheek, while at the same time his feet were numb…not, he thought, from cold, only fatigue; and at once, the flame of the setting sun went out. They had passed within the shadow of a vast building, its chimneys rising a story above the roof, and so many windows breaking its façade that although the factory stood between the road and the river, through these he could see a glassy copper light reflected on its waters.
An hour or two later, darkness was complete, yet not entire; lamps had been hung around the factory yard, where hundreds of men lay on the ground, rolled in blankets, resting heads on their knapsacks, packed so tight there was no room to step among them. Lamps hung as well on either side of the door past which Honoré’s group slowly filed. On a black hillside, where the Prussian army bivouacked, watch fires burned, or…if the camp were French, its closeness must be a mirage. A sullen light that swelled and dimmed like a guttering candle edged the horizon as Honoré looked back the way he’d come.
The queue advanced, one period of immobility alternating with another of rapid gain, and Honoré at length had come near enough its head to learn the cause of these fits and starts. The men were being counted off and directed, some dozens at a time, into the overcrowded yard, but a few―commissioned officers distinguished by their uniforms, citizen-volunteers (otherwise, hostile combatants)―were taken aside and asked to give their names. A guard patted Honoré down. The papers crackled in his waistcoat lining. He was asked to remove the garment, the guard satisfying himself by crushing and wringing it, that Honoré hid nothing more.
In a pool of light sat an officer, writing in a book on a table in front of him, an adjutant standing at attention behind him, another officer perched close by on a wooden chair, this cocked against the factory’s outer wall. Honoré shuffled, fastening buttons, while the guard handed his papers to the seated man, who, with a great lack of interest, glanced at them, and pushed them to the table’s edge.
“Give me your name and your rank, tell me who is your commanding officer, and what is your company.”
His pencil was poised. Honoré said: “No, monsieur, I am not a soldier. I was told I would be free as soon as I had shown my papers.”
This was a loose interpretation of monsieur le capitaine’s words, but since he could understand none of what was happening, Honoré might misunderstand one thing as readily the next.
“Tell me…” The officer bent over his writing, which Honoré guessed, with a sigh at the routine’s familiarity, to be a description of his appearance. The officer did not look up.
Honoré spelled his name.
He hesitated, and the officer raised his head this time, pushed up his lower lip and stared. The officer found liars tedious, so his expression and his silent regard implied. But the pause had been only deliberation. Might not some age other than his own, Honoré had asked himself, improve his chance of immediate release? He decided that, on the contrary, he must be known to be found.
“Twenty,” he said. “You understand…I will be―in so few weeks that it makes no difference; but, if my father were to…”
“And what is your father’s name?”
He’d slept more soundly and more suddenly than he would have thought possible. His supper had been only a watered-down broth, cold, onion-flavored, if flavored at all, passed to him in a tin cup; and into which he’d stuffed a dry bit of bread, making of it a drinkable sodden pudding.
Half nauseated, half famished, Honoré had felt his stomach protest while he stood wrapped in a donated blanket that smelled like a corpse, and bided his time. He had at last lain down, having made a place for himself by tentative, diffident advances with his feet, and then his knees, finally his shoulders and his back, to widen, wedge into and claim, a gap between two other of the prisoners, who, like most―Honoré did not know why—would not speak to him, and seemed blind to his presence.
He understood, now, that the roof over his head was not a distinction, a thing that marked him out from those prisoners in the yard, acknowledging that his was a special case. Simply, the time for deciding and disposing had run out; the remnants of the long line of prisoners had been ordered indoors a short time after Honoré had himself reached the upper floor, and been permitted to share, luckily or unluckily, an officer’s ration.
Fulner had disappointed him, ignoring him in this way, when he might for charity’s sake have tried to help―