|Archduke Franz Ferdinand and family|
It was the summer of 1914, and Philomene sensed that family peace was threatened by her husband’s mustache.
Henri stood, hunched slightly forward, before his shaving table. He had finished with his razor, splashed his face with the aftershave whose scent she liked so much, and now he was plying a small bristle brush in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, shaping the mustache which he was growing back before joining his reserve regiment for summer maneuvers. His suspenders hung empty at his sides, and she could see the outline of his shoulder blades through his summer undershirt. She tried to judge if those shoulders were tense, if he was still angry. She wanted to go to him, to run a hand over those shoulders, to pull him close and say, “I love you, Henri. I do want you. I do, but--”
It was that but which hung between them, making the two paces between his shaving table and her dressing table seem a gulf.
That morning, as the sun of a summer morning had streamed in through the lace summer curtains of the bedroom, Philomene had lain awake, looking at her husband’s sleeping face, and thinking of the past. She was intensely glad that she was no longer an officer’s wife. No more long, lonely days in small lodgings in some depot town far from home. No more slights toward her accent or her religion from other officer’s wives. And yet, seeing the mustache again, Philomene felt herself drawn back twelve years: Mademoiselle Philomene Mertens on an easter-season visit to Paris, and the army officer with his mustache and crisp blue and red uniform who had approached her as she sipped coffee in a cafe and bowed to her with a smile she never after that moment forgot.
With those memories stirring in her that morning, she had pulled him close and woken him with a kiss, a kiss which he had returned and responded to. For some blissful moments she had felt at one with him, both remembering, both close, both feeling -- until, with his increasing pressure against her, she realized that he thought she had changed her mind. For an instant she’d felt betrayal in that gentle thrusting pressure, a betrayal that made her want to cry in frustration. Surely he could understand that she wanted to be close without wanting that? As quickly she pushed away her irritation with him, feeling angry with herself instead. She knew this path so well, and its inevitable end. Why did she insist each time on setting out upon it, believing that it could be enjoyed without leading to its unwanted destination?
She’d pushed him gently away, rolled over to turn her back, and then drawn his arm around her.
“I’m sorry, Henri.”
She could feel him pressed against her back, but he was still now. He did not reply.
She put his hand to her lips and kissed it. “I’m so sorry. I can’t have it happen again this year.”
Still no words. Then a gentle kiss on the back of her neck, and she felt him throw off the bedclothes and get out of bed. She knew he must be angry with her, must think her a teasing woman to have pulled him close and yet not wanted it -- not wanted what he wanted. Tears were misting her vision and she blinked them away. She did want him, and she wished there was some way to express that feeling to him in a way that would not cause him more frustration. And yet more than anything she wanted to avoid what had happened last year. Last year, in the month before his reserve duty she had given herself entirely over to her feelings. And what had followed? The loneliness of fatigue and nausea during four seemingly endless weeks of Henri’s absence. And two months later, the long night of cramps and blood and sobbing on Henri’s shoulder as that child, whose arrival she had half-resented until it was torn from her, was lost.
She had three precious children, the sounds of whose breakfast were just audible from downstairs. Three children God had given her to raise and all the cares and duties that went with them. Surely at thirty-seven He didn’t ask her to risk fear and pain and heartbreak again. She was too old. And so the image of Captain Fournier and his uniform and his mustache and the way he looked at Mademoiselle Philomene Mertens must be put from her mind.
Henri was still absorbed in his shaving mirror. Philomene pushed aside the more difficult issues of the day and instead contemplated her jewelry. Would Madame Perreau think her garnets too showy for a morning call? Or would she think the opposite: “Garnets. How like a shopkeeper’s daughter.”
It was not merely the color and the setting that made them dear to her. Henri had seen her gazing at them through Monsieur Deniaud’s shop window. The next week, when she stopped to look at them again and saw they were gone, he had placed a hand upon her shoulder and said, “Ah, well.” Then, on the anniversary of their wedding, he had handed her the flat little dove-grey box.
If it was unclear what message Madame Perreau would read in the garnets, she hoped that at least Henri would see them as a sign of her feelings about his present, and thus about him. She put the earrings and necklace on, then turned. After waiting a moment to see if he would sense her gaze, she spoke. “I’m to call upon Madame Perreau this morning to ask if we may hold the fete in her garden.”
Henri’s pause before responding was an instant longer than usual, enough to allow Philomene to wonder if he would not reply at all. Then he set aside his grooming tools and turned to her.
“Which will win, do you think? Her pride that her gardens are so sought after or her desire to keep the unworthy away from her shrubs and flower beds?”
The humor was a blessed relief. He was not angry. Or, if angry, he understood. She felt like rushing to throw her arms around him but knew that physical closeness would again create division. For now, sharing light conversation had to be closeness enough. “The Perreau garden is so much larger than the convent garden, and people will come simply to see it.”
Henri was buttoning his shirt and hooking his suspenders over his shoulders. “And, of course, there are those who would feel a trifle too holy attending a fete in the convent gardens, but would be happy to be the guests of the Perreaus.” His smile was lodged in the right side of his mouth, and he ran a finger over his mustache.
It was the old gesture, the old smile, which she remembered from the very first time she had met him. She took it as a sign of forgiveness and returned the smile with feelings of happiness and relief.
She rose from the chair before her dressing table. Henri held out a hand and bowed slightly, “Shall we go down to breakfast?”
The other occupants of the house on the Rue des Remparts were also setting about their day. Down in the kitchen, Madame Ragot issued the children out into the garden to play and ordered Emilie, who doubled as part-time kitchen maid and house maid, to spread a clean table cloth before Monsieur Mertens came down. That gentlemen was in his bedroom. While Henri and Philomene’s room, situated over the storefront, spanned the building with windows looking out south towards the street and north towards the garden, Louis’s smaller, dimmer room had windows only towards the garden. Across the landing from Louis’s room, the children’s sunny nursery had only windows looking south.
Louis Mertens was using a clothes brush to remove stray dust and hairs from his coat, the slightly shiny surface of which showed the effects of this daily ritual. His tie was already fastened in a tight knot, and tucked into his waistcoat. Satisfied with the coat, he took it from the hanger stand on which he had been brushing it and shrugged into it. Then, his last stop before leaving the room each morning, he knelt down on the wooden prie-dieu and looked up at the plaster crucifix that hung on the wall above it.
It was a piece of art of the sort whose design suggested that its author believed the physical agonies of Christ were among the most fruitful areas for prayerful contemplation. The body of the corpus was twisted in pain to such a degree that it was difficult to look at: The jaw was drawn as if in the middle of crying out in pain, and copious blood flowed from the crown of thorns and the pierced hands and feet. Few who considered themselves well versed in art would have had anything good to say about the crucifix, but it had been Louis Mertens’ companion through many years and had silently soaked up his fears and sufferings.
Many times during his wife’s long illness he had looked up at the drawn features and copious blood and seen in that image of suffering a mirror of and comfort to his own.
Even before tuberculosis had at last taken Charlotte Mertens from them, the slow progress of the disease had withdrawn her gradually from her family, in particular from young Philomene, in whose earliest memories her mother had already been a pale, quiet figure, in bed for weeks at a time, and often guarded by a nursing sister. Mère was a sacred but distant figure, who would invite Philomene to scramble onto the pile of comforters that covered her bed and then stroke her daughter’s hair and tell her how beautiful she was and read her story books in a soft voice.
These stories had come to form the context for the person. Her mother became connected in the girl’s mind with the mysterious protectors of fairy tales -- the mother’s ghost, the good fairy, the talking doll -- or the color plates which illustrated her book of saints, in which those destined for heaven seemed always to be pale, thin, and looking upwards towards the glories ahead. It was Père who was her daily companion and protector in the real flesh and blood world, and as his wife was gradually taken from him Louis clung more tightly to the little girl who shared her mother’s reddish blonde hair, broad cheekbones, and blue grey eyes.
On the day of the funeral, Louis had kept himself under rigid control throughout the mass. At several moments his mouth had tightened and twitched and his eyes had blinked rapidly, but his expression remained closed, tears did not overflow his eyes. In the town cemetery, after the priest gave the final blessing and sprinkled holy water and the casket was lowered into the earth, he had gravely clasped hands or exchanged kisses with all those who had come to show their respects. His voice was steady. It was as father and daughter were returning home that she squeezed his hand and said to him, “Don’t worry, Papa. I’ll take care of you now.”
Louis had stopped and looked down at his daughter. The grave six year old’s face swam and blurred before him as tears at last overwhelmed his eyes, the distortion making her face look even more like the Charlotte of his memory, Charlotte as he had first known her, long before the ravages of disease left their mark on her. At last he had broken down. His legs seemed to give out under him and he sat on the stone threshold of the door to his house, holding his daughter to him and sobbing into her shoulder. Little Philomene had stroked his greying hair with her hands and repeated, “I’ll take care of you, Papa,” again and again.
Nineteen years later, during that spring of 1902, when Philomene returned from her visit to Paris and could speak of nothing but Captain Fournier, Louis had spent several hours kneeling before this image and asking: Why a Parisian? Why an army officer? Why an unbelieving freemason?
The plaster Christ had listened, but seemed to provide no answer.
At last, Louis had forbidden her to marry Captain Fournier.
“You know I respect your wishes, but as your father it’s my duty to watch out for your best interests and your happiness. I won’t allow you to marry that freemason. I won’t have him in the family. You’re not to see him again. Write to him and tell him that he may not come visit you on his leave. Do you hear?”
Philomene had looked at him solemnly with those grey-blue eyes which reminded him both of his long-dead wife and of the solemn little girl who who had been his support, and said, “You know I obey you in everything I can, Papa, but I am going to marry Captain Fournier. I would rather do it with your blessing, but I will do it without.”
Another father of another daughter might have thought that this was mere temporary stubbornness, but Louis knew from the moment that she said those words to him that he would relent, because Philomene was not a woman to speak such words idly and no matter what she did he could not give up the daughter who for almost two decades now had been his love and support.
For three weeks he had fought the inevitability with angry outbursts, long silences, and sarcastic needling. Philomene remained meek but immovable in the face of all these provocations. Every night he had knelt before the plaster Christ and pleaded: Make her give it up. Make her wait to find some good Catholic man, some man here in Chateau Ducloux, or at the farthest from Sedan or Charleville. God, do not take my daughter from me.
Then, the night before Captain Fournier was to arrive in town on leave, he had gone to his daughter’s room late at night, after having once more poured out his fears and desires to the crucifix and felt nothing but silence in reply.
The solemn eyes met his. “Yes, Father?”
“Ma Petite, I can’t lose you. If you must marry him, marry him. But don’t run away with him. If it has to be, marry him with my blessing.”
Before he could say more she folded him in her arms. He held her tight and when he felt a wetness on his cheek did now know if it was her tear or his that he dashed away.
Various inarticulate words of endearment and comfort were exchanged. Then Louis said, “And have a priest marry you. Don’t let him turn you from the Church. Promise me that.”
“Of course.” Philomene pulled back slightly from their embrace and again the solemn gaze met his. “You must know I’ve thought about these things, Papa. Henri knows what I believe, and he’s agreed that I will raise our children as Catholics. I don’t know if he will ever go to church, but I will go and pray for him. And perhaps some day...”
If the words he had poured out before the plaster Christ had been of no avail in preventing his daughter’s marriage, perhaps they were not without effect, for even before their first child was born Captain Fournier had begun to attend mass with his wife, thus bringing a great deal of peace to his wife’s heart and to her father’s.
His morning prayers complete, Louis went downstairs to the dining room.
On the table he found a pot of coffee steaming and the newspapers lying folded next to it. He poured himself a cup of the coffee but left his paper, The Lantern, a local four-sheet printed in Chateau Ducloux and filled with equal parts local news and reprints from the larger papers of Sedan and Charleville, until after he had finished his breakfast. His son-in-law was an avid news reader, and if Henri did not get a first look at the local paper he would be constantly asking, “What do they say about this?” as he read through his own copy of Le Temps, brought to the house fresh from the train station, where the 7:20 from Paris dropped its bundle of Paris newspapers each morning.
Through the open windows he could hear the children playing in the garden: eleven-year-old Pascal, and the girls, seven-year-old Charlotte and four-year-old Lucie-Marie. There were inevitable little frictions when two generations of adults shared a household, but for Louis the daily presence of his three grandchildren more than made up for these. He listened to the shouts of their game as he added sugar to his coffee. For a few moments all was peace, then Madame Ragot bustled in with the pastries that had come from the bakery that morning and Henri and Philomene came downstairs to join him for breakfast.
Henri seated himself at the far end of the table, spread out the local paper, and fetched himself a cup of coffee. Philomene mixed a cup of white coffee, equal portions of coffee and cream with a generous spoonful of sugar, and opened up her book of “Daily Meditations for Christian Women”, from which she read a page every morning before opening her copy of the illustrated paper La Croix.
“The streetcar workers in Sedan are threatening to strike again,” Henri observed, reading down the headlines.
All three were thus peacefully engaged when there was an urgent knocking at the door. Louis could hear Emilie answer it and a moment later Andre Guyot, the postmaster and Henri’s closest friend in Chateau Ducloux, entered. He was a slight, balding man who always walked with his head slightly forward -- an effect resulting both from his extreme nearsightedness (for which he wore round, steel-rimmed spectacles) and from the slight debility, the result of a childhood illness, which caused him to walk with a cane.
“Good morning, good morning.” He wrung Henri’s hand. “You’ll excuse my coming so early, but I knew you would be down at breakfast. Have you read the news yet?”
“I’d just started the local paper.”
“It’s La Temps you want. The Lantern runs another day behind because Thorel likes to do his typesetting early and have his evenings free. But the Paris papers all have it.”
Walking rapidly across the room, his steps and cane beating out a scuff-tap-scuff-tap on the floor, Andre flipped open the paper and tapped the headline of the center columns. Henri glanced over his friend’s shoulder to read it. His attention was clearly caught. He leaned on the table with both hands and settled down to read.
Louis waited a moment, but when both men remained silent he pushed back his chair, slightly annoyed, and went over to see what the news was.
Under a “last minute” header a news story had been substituted in after the rest of the page had been set:
Archduke Heir of Austria-Hungary Assassinated
(A dispatch from our special correspondent)
The heir to the Austrian throne and his wife have been assassinated in Sarajevo under circumstances which suggest a conspiracy….
The long, narrow column of print provided plenty of detail: A bomb thrown at the Archduke’s motorcade, but only minor injuries. His indignation at such a welcome to Sarajevo. The wrong turn while driving back across the city. The gunman’s revolver shots and quick arrest. The archduke’s last words, “Sophie! Don't die! Live for our children!"
All three men were silent and absorbed, reading. Philomene sat watching them, awaiting an explanation, her white knuckled hands gripping the book which she no longer read.
“It will be a third Balkan War,” said Henri, the first to finish the article.
“What’s happened?” asked Philomene.
Henri relayed the news.
“Oh how terrible!” Philomene reached for her copy of La Croix and spread it out. Just under the masthead was an engraving of the slain couple, sitting with the calm of the photographers studio, their children around them. She drew back with a slight gasp. “What a beautiful family. Those poor children.”
Louis also looked at the picture, thinking of his own dead wife, of these children now not only motherless but fatherless as well. But this was worse even than that. This was like in ‘71 when the Communards had attacked everything that stood for order and right, when they’d put the archbishop of Paris in front of a firing squad in a Paris basement. This was an attack on order and right, though so far away that it served rather as a reminder of the similarly wicked forces more near by than as any kind of threat in itself.
“These nationalists are all regicides,” he growled, stalking back to his coffee and pastry. “Revolutionaries, anarchists, masons and atheists. No different from the Communards and the Jacobins.”
“Why should the Slavic nations be ruled by an Austrian emperor?” Andre asked. “Whatever you say about their methods--”
“The Serbs aren’t a nation. They’re a criminal gang,” Louis replied. “Haven’t you read what they did to their own king and queen?”
Andre did not immediately respond.
“Assassinated them in their bedroom, mutilated their bodies and threw them out a second storey window! That’s what they did. That’s not a civilized people. It’s a barbarian tribe.” Louis was proud of this formulation. He took a sip of coffee with relish and looked around at Henri and Andre, challenging them to disagree.
Henri was gazing at the paper with an abstracted look. “The Austrians won’t let this go unpunished,” he said after a moment. “If there’s any evidence these assassins were supported by Serbia -- or perhaps even if there isn’t -- they’ll declare war. But the Serbs have fought and won two wars in the last three years. And the Austrians… They lost to us and the Italians in ‘59 and to the Prussians in ‘66. Since then, they haven’t fought a war at all.”
This seemed a cold and amoral way of discussing the situation. Austria-Hungary, whatever their faults, was a great power, ruled over by a Catholic emperor, and surely Serbia deserved punishment. “You don’t think that Serbia could defeat the Austro-Hungarian Empire?” Louis asked. “They’re not a great power.”
Henri shrugged and returned to his seat, retrieving his coffee. “Serbia is much smaller of course. I’m sure that Vienna will take them for an easy mark. But when it comes to experience of modern war, the Serbs would have the advantage. Before 1904, who would have thought the Japanese could defeat Russia?”
Louis conceded this with a grunt. Who indeed would have thought that an Asian country could defeat the massive Russian empire, both at sea and on land?
“And then, there is the question of whether Russia would support Serbia,” Henri went on.
Louis shook his head. “The Tsar would never defend a regicide. He has morals.”
“Ha!” scoffed Andre. “The morals of a slave driver.”
Louis was about to retort when he door banged and eleven-year-old Pascal ran in from the garden, eager to discover what adult drama he was missing. “What’s going on? Why is Monsieur Guyot here?”
Andre leaned down over his cane to look Pascal in the eye. “I came to discuss the news with your father. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire has been killed. And it was done by some students from the lycee, not much older than you.” He made a gesture with his left hand like a gun recoiling. “First they threw a bomb in his car, and then they shot him. What do you think of that?”
Pascal looked around, trying to assess from the expressions of the adults how he should respond to this sally. “I think they will be punished severely,” he said at last.
“Well, I’ll tell you something else from that part of the world,” Andre said. He was not married and had no children himself, but he enjoyed addressing himself to children with that mix of friendliness and superiority which is so appealing to adults who want to be liked by youngsters. “I saw that Monsieur Thierry got a letter in today’s mail from Bulgaria. Do you know where Bulgaria is?”
Pascal half closed his eyes, picturing the map in his school classroom and trying to recall his geography drill. “West of the Ottoman Empire and north of Greece.”
“That’s right. And this letter has a very nice stamp. I think that if you run over to his wine shop and ask Monsieur Thierry he will give it to you for your collection, eh?”
Pascal began to dash for the door, then paused. “Mama, may I go to Monsieur Thierry’s to look for the stamp?”
“Yes, you may. But be polite and don’t interrupt if he is speaking to customers.”
“Yes, Mama!” Pascal ran from the room.
Louis eyed Andre, trying to decide whether to resume the argument with the postmaster which Pascal’s entrance had interrupted. He looked from Henri, energized by this piece of news and the sort of discussion he enjoyed, to Philomene, who looked distressed, doubtless both by the world event and by the men taking the opportunity to dispute about it in her dining room. Then he looked at the clock: almost nine. He pushed his cup and plate towards the center of the table. “Well, enough of this. I must open the shop.” He pushed back his chair and got up.
It was but a few steps down the hall to the store. Louis went through the back room, with its stacked crates of merchandise, and into the storefront itself, where the morning sun filtered through the still-lowered blinds. It was quiet, and the very smell of the store was distinct from the house. Packing shavings, pipe tobacco, leather, shaving soaps, all blended together into a scent that marked the part of the establishment which was Louis’s absolutely, even though the house was now at least as much the province of his daughter and her family as himself.
He took a broom from the corner behind the counter and began to sweep the already glistening wood floors. By the time he went to open the blinds, so that people who stopped in the street under the large sign that said “MERTENS” could see the goods displayed in the window, his sense of order and routine, which had been interrupted by Andre’s visit and the news of the assassination so far away, had returned. Whatever violence was being committed against just order in far away places, here there was peace.
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