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.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Chapter 1-4

The day’s first rush of customers had come and gone. Louis stood behind the shop counter, discussing the news of the day with Felix Jobart as they played a game of draughts. Jobart owned the pork butcher shop down the street, but his busiest time of day was already past. By six in the morning every day he was in the kitchen: grinding sausage, cutting meat, cooking black pudding. By mid-morning the day’s meat cuts were laid out, newly made sausages lay glistening in their skins in the window, and Madame Jobart was reigning serenely from behind the counter in her immaculate white apron. Then Felix began a series of visits up and down the street which occupied him until lunch time.

“It will be a good thing for Austria-Hungary,” said Felix. “These Slavic nationalists and bomb throwers do nothing but cause violence. Now the empire can teach them a good lesson and earn some peace.”

Louis placed a hand thoughtfully on a piece and weighed his options. “My son-in-law says they will have to be careful what they are about.” He jumped two pieces, eliciting a grunt in response from Felix. “Henri knows about military matters, and he says that the Serbs have fought and won two wars in three years. When is the last time Austria-Hungary fought a war? Not since I was a boy. They fought the Prussians and lost before we did.” He sighed. “That was a bitter time.”

Felix shook his head. “Prussia is different. I can’t believe an uncivilized pack of Slavs would give Austria-Hungary much of a fight.”

“Look at Japan. They defeated Russia. Who would have thought a yellow power could have defeated the Tsar’s armies and sunk his ships?”

The door opened, then banged shut, and both old men looked up. It was Pascal entering with a letter in hand. “I got the envelope from Monsieur Thierry. It’s from Bulgaria.” He climbed onto a stool behind the counter and laid out his prize for all to see. “See the sender’s address here? ‘Sofia’ That’s the capital of Bulgaria,” he said, feeling mature to be able to display such knowledge of foreign countries. “Bulgaria is next to Serbia. Will they help the Austrians punish them?”

Grandpere considered for a moment. “Bulgaria has a king too. See, he’s there on the stamp. And if he’s a good king, he would never support a regicide.”

Pascal leaned close to look at the tiny, black ink engraving of the king on the stamp. He was a stern looking man, older than father but younger than Grandpere, with a beard and curling mustache. His uniform and cap looked like a picture of a ship captain, but his portrait was surrounded by an ornate border in red ink culminated in a crown above his head.

“What’s his name, Grandpere?”

“I don’t know,” Louis admitted. “But if you bring me my almanac, we can look it up in the countries of the world section.”

Pascal hurried back to the sitting room, taking the envelope he had acquired from the wine merchant with him, while the two old men returned to their interrupted game of draughts.

The sitting room faced south, looking out onto the the street. The windows had not yet been opened, and the room was warm and slightly musty smelling. Dust motes floated lazily in the shafts of sunlight which shone in through the lace of the summer curtains.

One corner of the room was devoted to Grandpere. There stood his old arm chair, covered in an increasingly threadbare orange velvet that did not match the room’s other, more recent, furnishings. Next to this stood a small marble-topped smoking table, in the drawer of which resided tobacco and pipes, which on occasion, if he was certain that no one would enter and discover him, Pascal would take out and handle reverently, wondering when he would own such fragrant artifacts of manhood. Behind these stood Grandpere’s little bookshelf. From the large bottom shelf Pascal pulled out the stamp album, into which he tucked the envelope for safe keeping. Then, from the shelf above, he took down the almanac.

Opening the book on the floor, he lay down on his stomach and flipped rapidly past the dull pages filled with tables of figures. In the back were the sections which brimmed with knowledge about far away places. Nations of the World. Argentina. Belgium. Brazil. China. Too far. He flipped back a few pages and found what he sought. The sea captain-like king was here too, though in this picture he wore a more fantastic uniform bedecked with medals. Tsar Ferdinand, said the caption. So he was called a Tsar, like the Russian king? Pascal looked at the map, which revealed that Bulgaria was wedged in south of Romania, north of Greece, and between Serbia and the Ottoman Empire. This suggested an image of vampires wandering among dark castles to the north and armored hoplites and robed philosophers to the south. The paragraph on the nation’s history told of the Bulgarians fighting for their freedom against the Turks. Pascal turned pages to find Turkey, hoping to find a picture of the sultan with turban and simitar. But although there was a picture, this sultan proved to be another aging man with beard and mustache -- not unlike the sea captain-king except that he wore a fez instead of a military cap. The only satisfyingly exotic detail was a note informing him that the sultan currently had four wives.

Taking the almanac with him, Pascal returned to the shop. Grandpere and Monsieur Jobart were again immersed in their game of draughts. Pascal climbed onto the stool, opened the almanac to the article on Bulgaria, and waited for Grandpere to notice him.

Felix had three pieces to Louis’s two and was progressively boxing his opponent in to one corner of the board. At last, with a decisive click, click, he made a double jump, ending the game. Louis laughed and shook his head.

“All right, all right. Well played.” Louis extended a hand and the two men shook. “Here’s your franc,” he said, clicking the silver coin down on the counter. “I’ll take it back from you tonight over Bezique if you’re at Leroy’s.”

“If you can. If you can,” Felix replied. He pocketed the coin, took his hat from the peg, and went out into the street.

Grandpere sat for a moment, looking at the board and rubbing the back of his neck thoughtfully. Then he began putting the wooden pieces back into their box.

“You’ve been very patient, my boy,” he said, putting the lid on the box and turning to Pascal. “So you’ve got the almanac. Let’s see what it can tell us about these mad Slavs. We’ll begin with Serbia.” He opened the book flat on the counter and began flipping pages. Then with the relish we often feel in relating misfortunes too distant to seem as if they are happening to real people at all, he began to explain how these strange and far away people seethed with national rivalries and were prepared, at the slightest provocation, to throw themselves into the furnace of war.

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