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Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. Friday, July 31, 1914.
Philomene’s voice stopped her husband as he was about to leave their room. She was still sitting at her dressing table, her back to him but able to see him in the mirror that stood before her.
“Should I be afraid?” This was the third morning that Henri had dressed quickly, made a quick excuse, and rushed off to read all the Paris morning papers as soon as they arrived at the coffee house. Philomene herself had been so busy with the fete that she had half-welcomed the solitude at breakfast, leaving her own copy of La Croix unread and hurrying off to her errands once she finished her spiritual reading. But this abandonment of routine was unlike her husband. Was this merely his interest in news and politics taken to new lengths, or was some lurking catastrophe waiting to spring out at her while she was focused on worries about her project, as last year she had been so consumed with worries about how she would manage another pregnancy, another baby, until the those worries were swept away by the greater fear inspired by cramps and bleeding?
Henri seemed to be trying to decide how to respond to her question. “Is it as bad as the papers say?” she asked. “Is there going to be a war?”
He stepped back over to stand behind her chair and placed his hands on her shoulders. She could feel the comforting warmth of his touch through the cotton fabric of her summer blouse.
“I don’t know if there will be a war. Austria has mobilized and shelled Belgrade. Russia has mobilized against Austria. Germany has demanded that Russia stand down. Britain has recalled their fleet. It is at least as dangerous as it was five years ago with the Bosnian Crisis. But nothing came of that, so there is hope. There are a great many people working for peace.”
“Are you afraid, Henri?”
He squeezed her shoulders, and, catlike, she rubbed the side of her head against his arm, his coat sleeve slightly rough against her cheek. She could smell the gentle mix of aftershave, pipe tobacco, and coffee that was Henri’s particular smell. She reached up and put her hand over his.
He seemed unwilling to say with words that she should not fear, but his actions at least were comforting. “Well, go. I hope the news is good.” If there was danger, surely it could not come quickly. The newspapers would storm, the politicians argue. Perhaps in a month or six months, or a year something would happen. If only Henri could do his last reserve service and come back to her for good, she would be ready for it.
He gave her shoulders one more squeeze and turned to go.
“You won’t forget to talk to Monsieur Leroy about beer for the fete? And Monsieur Thierry about the wine? Everything needs to be at the Perreau’s garden no later than six o’clock tomorrow.” Whatever distant concerns might arise, the fete was tomorrow night and that at least was well within her control.
Henri smiled. “I won’t forget. I’ll see them directly after I leave Carbonnaux’s.”
Saturday, August 1, 1914. Philomene woke early, as the pale pre-dawn light was beginning to filter through the lace summer curtains. It was an hour before she would normally rise; she could not yet hear the sounds of the children. Madame Ragot was still at home, seeing to her own noisy brood, and would not arrive to start activity in the Fournier kitchen for another twenty minutes. She half rolled over to look at Henri sleeping beside her.
There was something comforting and calming in looking at her husband’s face in repose. During the first weeks they had known each other, there seemed never enough time to simply look at Henri, making each detail of his face familiar. At times he would catch her doing it, and laugh, the tiny wrinkles around his eyes and mouth deepening into creases.
“What, Mademoiselle? That look again?”
Then he would take her hand and kiss it and look back into her eyes. That, in its different way, had been wonderful, but looking at Henri when he was not looking back had retained its charm. Twelve years after marriage it was not something which she often found the time to do, and yet when she did it seemed strange that she did not find the time more often.
There were traces of grey appearing around his temples and in his mustache. The wrinkles around eyes and mouth were deeper. And there was that familiarity which a face, long seen in so many different moods and places, attains.
How long had it been since she had taken even this many quiet minutes to contemplate Henri? After tonight the fete would at last be over, and then a week remained before he left for his reserve duty. Today there would be no time to spend together, but she would make it up during the coming week. He would not leave with her distraction as the memory to carry with him while he was away.
This resolution made, she slipped out of bed and went to the washbasin to begin preparing for the day.
Henri awoke as she was getting dressed.
“You’re up early, my dear.”
Philomene was behind the dressing screen, fastening her blouse. “I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep, but it’s just as well. There’s a lot to do today.”
A moment passed, and she could hear Henri get up and start moving about the room. She finished her own dressing and stepped out from behind the screen.
He was at his shaving table, his straight razor in his hand and shaving soap all over his face. “Mmm?”
“I know how much the news means to you, but would you mind not going to the coffee house today? There’s so much to do for the fete, and we could spend a little time together having breakfast first.”
It was a moment before Henri replied. Wielding the straight razor required twisting his jaw over to one side and then the other, in order to make the skin on the side he was shaving taught, and thus a smooth surface for cutting.
Even knowing this, Philomene could not help feeling the tension inevitable in an unmade reply. She stood, waiting, before going about the rest of her morning routine, aware that a pause before replying was a practical necessity yet irrationally fearing that she had asked something that he would not do.
Henri finished the right side of his face with three, slow, smooth passes of the long blade and then rinsed it off in his shaving water. “Of course. I’m at your disposal today.”
Feeling more relief than she ought, Philomene sat down at her dressing table and began to brush out her hair before putting it up. “The posters have been up for two weeks. I sent invitations to all the families who are regular churchgoers, and Pere Lebas mentioned it in his sermon last week. I hope that enough people will come. We agreed to have food for a hundred and fifty people, but with all this worry about the news, do you think people will still come?”
“I’m sure they will.”
Henri’s own commitment to eschewing news in favor of the fete was tested immediately after breakfast, when he set out with a list of tasks in his pocket and immediately ran into Andre outside the post office.
“Henri! I missed you at Carbonnaux’s. Did you see the news this morning?”
“No, I haven’t read anything.”
“Some lunatic has killed Jaures.”
Henri had been prepared to hurry past with no more than a brief greeting but this brought him to a full stop. “When? What happened?”
“Some idiot rightist shot him in the back while he was having dinner in a cafe. They caught the murderer right away. He’ll go to the guillotine for it and no mistake, if he’s not actually insane. But the great man is dead.”
“My God…” For the last few days, Henri had been consuming every available piece of news, neglecting any work that was not due immediately. Half the time it seemed that the afternoon edition simply retold that same story as the morning edition in different words. Other times stories contradicted each other and he considered it likely that neither one was right. And yet, it seemed impossible, in the face of a looming cataclysm, to do nothing. Following the news and trying to apply to it his military judgement could do nothing to change whatever might happen, but it at least provided the feeling that however little events might care about him and his family, he was at least staring back at them. The possibility of war was not something whose attack he could repulse through preparation and vigilance, but he could at least make sure that its assault did not catch him unawares.
And yet, here on a day when there was clearly real news, he had committed that he would stay away from Carbonnaux’s and the lure of the newspapers.
“Who will hold back the tide now?” Andre asked. “There aren’t many of the stature of Jaures.”
“If it truly is a tide, no one can hold it back. Look, I promised Philomene that I would help with the fete today and not go off to Carbonnaux’s. When you read the papers, did it say anything about mobilization? Have the Russians backed down? Have the Germans mobilized?”
“No changes today. I almost wonder if the best hope is for Germany to mobilize, then Russia would have to back down like they did in ‘09 over Bosnia.”
Henri shook his head. “Russia only backed down then because they’d just lost their war against the Japanese. I worked on the studies of that war for the General Staff back when I was an active duty officer. The Russian army was in no shape to fight in ‘09, and they knew it. Since then they’ve poured money into railroads and arms so that they’ll never have to be humiliated by backing down again. Besides, German mobilization doesn’t just mean they call up their reserves and sit in the garrisons as a threat, waiting for orders. They know that they have enemies on both sides. If they mobilize, the soldiers will head to their depots, get on trains, and roll straight to the borders. Mobilization means war.”
“You’re a cheerful one today,” Andre observed. “Well, no fear yet. None of the papers said anything about Germany mobilizing. Nor us. The Kaiser is still demanding that the Russians cancel their mobilization.”
“Well then. Each man to his place, and my place at the moment is to see when the tables will be delivered to the Perreau’s garden for the fete. Will you be there tonight?”
Andre shrugged. “You know I don’t give a shit about a religious school. Teach them lies and they know less than when you started.”
“Ah, but there’s perfectly good food and wine to be had, and that’s something you can believe in.”
“We shall see,” replied Andre, and went back into the post office.
Henri cast a wistful glance down the street towards Carbonnaux’s and then continued about his errands.
As five o’clock neared, Philomene could begin to feel a certain satisfaction. The carpenters had, at last, to her satisfaction set up the white tents and the tables inside them. Linen table clothes were spread, and the dishes and glassware were set out. Vases of flowers decorated each table. And when all was done, she had made sure that the tent flaps were neatly tied closed so that no wind-blown leaves or wandering members of the children’s choir would would get in to soil the preparations. The drinks, pastries, and cheeses had been been delivered and were safely stored in the Perreau kitchen, where the cook was busy juicing a crate of lemons in order to produce the necessary pitchers of lemonade. Sister Camilla had rehearsed the children in singing Adoro te Devote, and if they did not all hit exactly the same notes, the effect was certain to warm the heart of any donor.
With these accomplishments behind her, Philomene had procured a cup of tea and was sitting on a bench under one of the spreading trees in the Perreau gardens. She took off her hat and let the gentle summer breeze sooth her. It was so peaceful; could she perhaps take a brief nap? Before it got much later she needed to go home and change into a dress suitable for the evening, but right now everything was so very close to ready.
As she was pondering this possibility between sips of tea, her eyes half closed, the church bell began tolling. Goodness, who could have died? No, she realized after a moment, this was not the usual tolling for the death of someone in the town. It was faster. And it was going on too long. Rather than the slow, measured number of rings which would have told the age and sex of the person who had died, this was a constant, urgent tolling, the bell ringer pulling on his rope as rapidly as he could.
The afternoon lassitude fell from her. When had the bells last tolled madly, as if signalling one death after another without break or pause? When the river flooded when she was a child?
She set her cup of tea down on the bench and left the garden. From the big house up above, she could see the servants coming out and hurrying down the garden path, followed by Justin and Melanie Perreau. Only Madame Perreau remained within, calmly waiting for others to return and tell her what news was being rung out by the bells.
A crowd was gathering in the square which stood between the church and the civic buildings. The church bells continued to ring madly, but it was in front of the city hall that Gilbert Binet, the mayor, was standing on the back seat of his open-topped car as a sort of makeshift speaker’s platform.
The clamor of the bells continued for another ten minutes, and the crowd in front of the city hall grew, until at last the mayor raised his arms. After a moment the tolling began to decrease in noise and frequency.
“I have just received an official telegram,” announced Monsieur Binet, in a voice that successfully projected across the square. “The President of the Republic has announced a general mobilization of the army. The official date of mobilization is tomorrow, August second. Every man liable to service is to consult the mobilization guide in his army booklet to determine the day on which he is to report to depot, according to his year. Failure to report for duty will be met with the strongest possible penalties. Official posters are being sent on the Paris evening train, and as soon as they arrive they will be posted on all public buildings.”
He paused, and the silence in the square was complete. It was impossible to say what mix of dismay, expectation, and shock caused such a large number of people to stand in such quiet, but the mayor felt at an instinctual level that his task would not be complete until he had broken the silence which his news had created. Raising a fist he shouted, “Vive la France!”
This, at last, was something to which the crowd knew how to respond, and the cry of “Vive la France!” was taken up and repeated.
Philomene did not join in the shouts. She stood, unmoving and silent, as others moved around her. It was too much all at once. Twenty minutes ago her worries had been focused on the fete. Would Madame Perreau’s cook have the ices made on time? Would the pastries be enough? Would enough people come? Now these concerns seemed of another time, like remembering the deadly seriousness with which she had at times taken her childhood games. Mobilization. Did this mean, then, that there would be war? That it would be now? When would Henri have to leave?
The fete, of course, would have to be cancelled. Who did she need to tell? So many people had been told, or had seen the posters, but surely no one would come now. Who would come and take it all away? Or did anyone even care about such things anymore? The cup of tea which she had left, still hot, on the bench under the tree suddenly came into her mind. It must still be there, cooling. Would it sit there, undisturbed, until all the tea dried up, until the wind knocked the empty cup over onto the ground?
She looked desperately around her. Where was Henri? That seemed the only thing that mattered now. Looking left and right, but not seeing others except as obstacles around her cutting off her sight of the one person she wanted to see, she began to move through the crowd. Others too were beginning to move with urgency, looking for others or setting about whatever personal business the news inspired. The mayor was returning to the city hall, followed by two young couples intent on being married before mobilization separated them.
Looking one way and moving another, Philomene walked full force into another woman, losing her balance for a moment and grabbing hold of the other to keep from falling. Regaining her balance she found herself in the arms of Madame Serre.
“Madame Fournier, I’m so sorry! Are you all right?” the older woman asked, feeling up and down Philomene’s arms like an adult inspecting a small child who has just had a fall. “I was looking around for my Laurent, and I did not see where I was going.”
“I wasn’t looking where I was going either. Have you seen Henri?”
Madame Serre shook her head. “He won’t have to go, will he? He’s well over thirty. Oh, but he’s an officer.”
Philomene nodded. “It’s his last year in the active reserves. If only this could have happened one year later.”
“My dear, I’m so sorry. I was thinking of nothing but my son, but he’s a young man and at least I’ll have my husband. I’m glad your fete is tonight. Otherwise there’d be no chance to see all the men before they leave.”
Madame Jobart, still wearing her huge white apron from the pork butcher shop, covering the broad front of her dress, stopped next to them. “Yes, what a blessing that you had scheduled the fete for tonight. I hadn’t been sure if I would go, but what one wants more than anything at a time like this is to be with others. Now I will be able to see all my friends’ sons before they leave. Thank you for doing this for all of us, and when your own husband is about to leave too.” She reached out and clasped Philomene’s hands for a moment, then moved on.
Philomene herself turned away to look for Henri. That people would want to attend the fete precisely because of the mobilization order had not occurred to her. No other plan had replaced the fete in her mind; its cancellation had seemed a necessary consequence of the mobilization upending all other plans. Shouldn’t she go home and spend every moment possible with Henri until he left? And yet, if others now counted on her to provide the venue for the to see their friends before the mobilization took their sons and husband from them, how could she refuse?
At last, she found Henri, standing quietly near the edge of the crowd. She threw her arms around him and held him close, despite the many eyes around them. How much longer would she have him close like this?
There was a strange privacy to the still half-crowded square. Each person, each couple, each family was wrapped in the drama of its own moment. There were no spectators, because all were participants in the drama of the day.
Henri stroked her head and spoke softly to her. “It’s all right, ma chere. It’s all right. I love you.”
She looked up into his eyes. “How soon?”
His grip on her shoulders tightened, and she knew the answer before he said, “Tomorrow.”
For a moment she allowed the force of the impending separation, the sudden changes in the plans, the fears of war and loss and all the possibilities which she dared not even name, to take over and she sobbed silently against Henri’s chest, her shoulders shaking under his grasp.
Then, as a summer thunderstorm washes all the heat and humidity from the air and leaves the air cooled and the dust settled, the tight vicious grip of emotion in her chest released and wiping the tears from her eyes she looked up at Henri with a new calmness.
“I just spoke to Madame Serre and Madame Jobart. They’re both counting on the fete tonight, now, in order to see people before the men are called up. I can’t cancel. We will have to go on.”
Henri nodded. “Perhaps it’s as well. It will keep us busy.”
She managed a smile, and he planted a row of light kisses across her forehead in the way that always made her eyes close for a moment. Yes as soon as her eyes opened her mind was moving again.
“I need to get changed. Did you finish your errands?”
“I did. Though perhaps now I should make one more. I’ll get your father’s little pot of paint for making advertisements and go add a note to your posters: Will still take place as scheduled.”
“Yes,that’s a very good idea. Red paint. ‘Event will take place as planned.’ I’ll stop and talk to the cook. We must be at the garden by seven.”
Henri watched her as she walked back towards the Perreau house. The plans had now completely driven away her desperation and panic. If that could get them through the evening, that alone would justify the fete. There were, perhaps, eighteen more hours before he must get on a train and leave for… how long? Yet if he could see a happy, busy Philomene during that time and only have to imagine, later, from barracks, the silent Philomene, lying on their bed, her face among the pillows, too filled with sadness and desperation to look up, which he knew must follow, it would make the parting some small bit easier.
By the time that the posters, topped with the tri-color and the bold headline, “ORDRE DE MOBILISATION GENERALE” had been hung next to the posters for the fete, an additional inscription had been added to those latter, the precisely drawn capitals of Henri’s writing traced in red paint spelling out, “Event will take place as planned. Vive la France!”
In normal times, the fete would have drawn the same seventy people who could be relied upon to attend any church function, whether through devotion, loneliness or the desire to be seen to contribute. Sufficient fortune might have added to this total the parents of some of the children whom the school would serve, people whose careful habits would have, had their children not been involved, prevented their spending ten Francs on a couple of hours’ socializing and light food and drink. Perhaps, with the Perreau garden as a draw, a few more from among the town’s elite could have been relied upon.
All such calculations changed, however, with the mobilization order. Those who always intended to go to such events but almost never actually did so broke with their inertia and came, in order to see their friends whom they might not see again before the call up. From there it continued to spread out, like a wave that, due to the shape of the sea bed, grows larger and larger, drawing all water to itself.
At last, even the anti-clericalists came, for the simple reason that everyone else was, and they too had the need to be with others on this night of all nights. Food ran out, and wine, and even beer. Whatever hatreds might be directed towards the beer drinkers and sausage eaters, Chateau Ducloux was too close to Belgium for beer to be neglected. Philomene took her problem first to Madame Perreau’s cook, who threw up her hands as if to say, “What is it to me, woman?” So she dug into the donation basket and sent Henri to find Monsieur Leroy and Monsieur Thierry with the purpose of turning Francs into wine. Henri found Monsieur Leroy talking with Grandpere and Monsieur Thierry with Andre, and so brought those two gentlemen along as well, on his errand, to help carry the bottles.
The children’s choir sang Adoro te Devote, and their voices, like those of young and slightly off-key angels, drew smiles from those among the assembly who frequented the church. Then Sister Camilla decided to lead them in la Marseillaise as well, and it was at that that no eye among the crowd was dry. Even those among the Catholics who claimed never to have let that impious song defile their lips proved to know the words. By the time they reached, “To arms, citizens! Form your battalions and march on. March on!” every voice was joined, and those who had visited the drinks table more than others were holding each other by the waste and swaying as they sang.
Madame Perreau, who nearly alone in all the town had not seen fit to join the gathering which was taking place in her own garden, heard the roar outside those staid, grey stone walls as if the very revolution was about to break loose.
The gathering had been scheduled to end at ten, but it was nearly midnight by the time the last guests were cleared out of the garden, the last glasses returned to the tents, the tent flaps tied closed again, and all left in readiness for the workmen to clear away the next day. Philomene carried the donation basket, stacked high with ten Franc notes, as she and Henri walked home.
“So,” said Henri. “We’ve survived thus far, ma chere. And you, have triumphed.”
Philomene looked down at the basket of donations, far more than she had ever expected. The school would be in good hands. And yet, in the shadow of war, to what did that amount?
“I’m just glad it’s over.”
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