To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Chapter 1-2

Henri watched his father-in-law leave the dining room. He knew it had taken the older man an effort to remove himself rather than continuing the argument. The responsible thing would be to wish Andre a good morning and head back to the little office he had next to the store’s back room.

When Henri had retired from the army and moved the family to his wife’s hometown, it had been clear that Louis’s hope and expectation had been that Henri would join him in running the store. He had made a sort of half-hearted effort, but waiting on customers had been salt in the wounds of his recently ended military career. The only part of the business in which he had excelled was bringing order to Louis Mertens’ somewhat chaotic approach to accounting and purchasing. Henri had been of the new style of officer, trained at the Ecole Polytechnique rather than Saint-Cyr, and turning a practical problem into a mathematical one came naturally to him. And while he had, like most officers, shunned logistics for the combat arms, ten years of signing the supply books had taught him a great deal about the importance of system in maintaining the right inventories of supply.

Louis Mertens liked to say that his business existed because of his relationships with his customers, and this was doubtless true, but although he had little understanding of the systems that Henri put in place, he could not deny that he now kept less money invested in inventory and yet almost never had to tell a customer that he was sold out of some desired item. The impact to his profits was something Louis could readily understand, and Henri now did similar work for his father-in-law and a number of other businessmen and landowners in town for a fee. This was an arrangement far more conducive to family peace than had been the brief experiment of Henri working directly for Louis in the store.

Various projects awaited back in the little office, but the few minutes’ argument about the military situation in the Balkans had been a welcome return to subjects that, ten years later, Henri still thought of as his real vocation.

“What would you think of going over to Carbonnaux’s to read the papers and see what people have to say?” he asked Andre.

The postmaster’s duties sat lightly on his shoulders, and he was usually eager enough for a visit to the cafe. Today was no exception.

“Will you be out long?” asked Philomene.

Henri could hear the disapproval in her voice. She would not ask him to stay or reproach him afterwards, but she always seemed to sense a rivalry between their family life and anything to do with the army.

He went to his, placed his hands on her shoulders, and placed three light kisses on her forehead. He could feel her shoulders soften and see the lines going out of her forehead.

“I hope your call on Madame Perreau goes well. I’ll be back before lunch. Will you tell me about it then?”

She nodded silently. He turned to go. Andre was already standing in the hall by the door, taking his hat from the rack.

“Henri.” Philomene’s voice had just a tinge of urgency. Henri stopped and turned back. She had risen and was hurrying to him. She clasped his arms. “I love you,” she said in a low tone meant for him alone. “I’m sorry about this morning. I’m sorry I--” She faltered, searching for words.

He kissed her. “I love you. You know that.”

She nodded.

“Well then. I will see you at lunch time.”

It was, Henri reflected, one of the hardest things to learn about married life that certain problems could not be solved. The little conflict of that morning would play out again, he knew. Philomene yearned for closeness, and so did he but of a different kind. Her attempt to satisfy her desire would frustrate him, and again he would feel resentful towards her for arousing in him the desire for what she could not give him. Knowing that she did not intend the frustration she caused was no proof against feeling it. He had thought his way through to this conclusion, and yet his native fatalism told him that even with this knowledge he could in no way change his feelings, only exert enough self mastery to avoid doing or saying anything that would cause deeper or longer hurt.

He could tell that Philomene wanted to solve this difficulty between them, believed that there must somehow be a solution. He could think of none, and so he kissed his wife and went off to the cafe, confident that avoiding worse conflict was the best that he could do.

Despite its small size, Chateau Ducloux supported dual institutions of male life -- two coffee houses, two barber shops, two bars -- divided along ideological lines. Leon Carbonnaux’s coffee house was frequented by those loyal to the Republic, from nationalists to socialists, and its customers were more likely to be seen at the Masonic lodge than at the church. Two doors down stood Yves Godart’s rival establishment, monarchists and conservative Republicans sipped coffee together, its clientele united primarily by loyalty to the Church.

When Henri and Andre set foot on the black and white tiled floor of Carbonnaux’s cafe, the small round tables were well populated by a mix of those who had not yet begun their day’s work and those taking a break from the morning’s exertions.

Henri drew several different newspapers to himself and began perusing the different accounts of the previous day’s tragedy. Andre picked up L’Humanite and began to read the party news on the back page. Carbonnaux placed steaming cups of coffee beside each of them. Several tables over, Claude Muller, a carter who was among the more vocal of the town’s socialists, was holding forth.

“It’s militarism behind all this. Why was that Archduke in Bosnia anyway? To supervise military maneuvers in a country that’s no more Austrian than we are. Provocation, that’s what it is. Industrialists rake in their profits building guns and munitions; royals strut around in their gold-braided uniforms, and when it’s too much for some poor bastard and he shoots a crowned head, all the powerful will declare they need more guns, more munitions, more working men called up to wear the uniform. It’s the same here with this new conscription law. Now instead of having two years stolen from him, every working man is enslaved for three!”

“That’s going too far,” another from the next table objected. “I don’t love the army any more than the next man. Half the officers are in the pockets of the priests anyway. But if Germany comes marching in again there’ll be no more Republic and where’s the working man when it’s all ‘Hail Kaiser’?”

Henri bit his tongue. In most ways Carbonnaux’s was a more congenial atmosphere for him than the reactionary cafe, but the deeply held belief that the army was a clericalist institution grated on him. When he had been a cadet at the Ecole Polytechnique, twenty years ago, the surest route to preferment had still been a Jesuit education followed by Saint-Cyr. He knew from personal experience that since the exoneration of Captain Dreyfus, and the disgrace of the conservative officers who had sought to trump up evidence of his guilt long after the Jewish officer’s innocence had become clear, there was no greater brake upon an officer’s career than the rumor that he attended mass regularly. By ill luck or a perverse act of providence, it was almost precisely at the time that he had married Philomene, and under her influence become a Catholic himself, that this change had taken place, and membership in the Church had gone from being a benefit to an officer’s career to an obstacle to promotion far greater than mere incompetence.

Yet experience also told him that the facts of the matter remained irrelevant at Carbonnaux’s. However much the opposite might be true now, it remained gospel truth here that officers were reactionaries managed from the confessional.

“Germany won’t attack us if the militarists will leave them alone,” Claude declared. “They’ve got the largest socialist party in the world, and that Kaiser of theirs won’t be strutting around much longer if the workers have anything to say about it.”

“I’ll believe in the German working man when they don’t have a king anymore.”

“And how are they to get rid of their king when he can point to our army next door, getting larger every year? This new conscription law is nothing but a threat. Keep treating them like enemies and next thing you know they’ll be enemies.”

“The three-year law is simply a matter of good sense,” Henri said. Here, at least, he believed that his expertise could gain purchase. “The German army is larger than ours. They’re a larger nation and growing faster. If we’re to face them we need men who have spent long enough in uniform to become real soldiers. Caillaux’s opposition to it is of a piece with his rolling over to Germany during the Moroccan Crisis.”

“You and your toy soldiers,” growled Muller. “Caillaux was right about Morocco. There was no point in spilling blood over a colonial adventure. What do we want to own a bunch of blacks and desert for anyway? And he’s right that expanding conscription is a waste of money which will only benefit the militarists. If reactionaries like that editor of Le Figaro think differently, I say he got what he had coming to him.”

“If Caillaux had been as fierce in defending France as his wife was in defending her husband’s honor,” a wag noted, “no one would criticize him. And she wouldn’t be facing the guillotine.”

The conversation oscillated back and forth all morning: The assassination. The military. The sensational impending trial of former Prime Minister Caillaux’s wife for shooting the editor of Le Figaro. Henri held forth on the conscription law, the state of the German military, and the probable fate of the Serbs -- finding it all far more satisfying than the account books which awaited in his office.

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  1. The coffee shop debate is a great device for getting through an awful lot of exposition about politics and the military and everything. Well done. Also am still liking the marital conflict about abstinence. "confident that avoiding worse conflict was the best that he could do." Well put. This is like the anti Madame Bovary.

  2. Thank you.

    Exposition is a challenge that I've been trying to work through. This is a historical novel, and a lot of what was going on in continental Europe in 1914 is not super well known, so I want to make sure that I get across enough for the world to make sense without it ever becoming tiresome.

    With Henri and Philomene: I'd decided early on that I really wanted to write about a basically happy married couple. It's always been a beef of mine that there aren't many such characters in novels. As I got into it, I realized why this is: It's hard. But I'm hoping that the conflicts that I've come up with are realistic but still fit in the context of a basically happy and well matched relationship.