This installment brings the novel to just over 66,000 words and concludes Chapter 6. I'll be posting the first installment of Chapter 7 on Monday night, if all goes according to plan.
Henri was emptying out the chest in which his military uniforms and equipage were stored, making neat stacks on the bed: One dress coat. Two field coats. One overcoat. One pair of dress pants. Two pairs of field pants. Five shirts.
The stacks covered most of Henri’s side of the bed. On the other side sat Philomene, in her nightgown, feet drawn up under her so that no part of her touched his uniforms.
At the very bottom of the chest were his two bags -- officer’s luggage, not packs meant to be worn on the back like a common soldier. He took them out, opened them, and pushed them out into shape. They exhaled the smell of old leather. It had been careless, a reservist’s blunder, to let them sit untouched the whole last year. He should have taken them out and and oiled and polished them. Now they were stiff. He examined them carefully to see if cracks were forming around the creases, but if there was damage to them it was not evident yet. He set them down and began to sort things into them.
Philomene was watching his every move, and the feeling of that gaze resting on him, holding him, saying all of the things which she would not say out loud, made it impossible to meet her gaze. Instead he worked with complete precision, folding each item with deliberation, squaring each stack before he put it in the bag.
“Couldn’t you finish that in the morning and come to bed?”
Henri shrugged. He carefully folded his two field coats and put them in a bag, hanging his dress coat in the closet to wear to mass the next morning.
“There won’t be time. I have to catch the 10:35 to Paris, and by the time we go to mass at eight-- It’s better to get it done now.”
The look she gave him at this was so aggrieved that he dropped the belt he had been rolling up and went around the bed to stand next to her, putting a hand on each shoulder.
“I love you.” He placed two kisses on her forehead, one over each eyebrow. “I just have to finish this packing. There’s just no other time.”
She reached up to grab his wrists, her grip surprisingly strong. “Come to bed.”
“Ma chere. I’m sorry.” If only she too could submerge the desperation of the moment in routine as well. Packing his bags, doing everything with neatness, brought a calm. It was a thing clearly under control and achievable, which allowed him to forget both that he would have to leave his family in the morning for he knew not how long and his own helplessness and uncertainty. Would they immediately attack, or wait to see what action Germany took? Would his reserve regiment be shipped north again from Paris towards the likely front lines facing Alsace or the Ardennes, or would they be left in the reserve defending the city?
But she was already dressed for bed, her hair brushed out, sitting on the bed with her knees pulled up before her. Perhaps if she would just lie down.
“I won’t be much longer. Do you want to lie down? It’s so late already.” He glanced at the clock to confirm his words. Almost two.
“I don’t want to lie down.” There was a tremor in her voice, but Henri made himself go back to packing. “I don’t want to go to sleep,” she continued, when he did not reply. “I want to be with you.”
To be with you. He remembered the year before, during the nights before he left for maneuvers, when they had made love with a desperation that would have been suitable to a longer and more uncertain separation. At this slightest invitation, scattered images of a night like and unlike this one crowded into his mind. He wanted that again so desperately that he immediately forced away those memories and put in their place those of Philomene not long after his return: the miscarriage and afterwards the nights when she had lain staring at the wall or with her shoulders silently quaking as she sobbed soundlessly into her pillow.
They were not so very old. Women had carried a child safely at thirty-seven before. Until that night her worries had seemed to him to be, however understandable, overblown. He would be gone not quite four weeks, and after that, if she was pregnant, in all likelihood nothing would go wrong, and he would be there. But now there seemed a sudden reasonableness to the fears that had separated her from him the last few weeks. If there was to be a war, if he was to be gone three months, six, perhaps if things went badly even a year, or perhaps not return at all, could he leave her with that fear and that burden?
And yet, if he was to leave her without any fear of pregnancy, it would be so much easier if she would just go quietly to sleep and not cling to him or hold him close.
When Henri seemed reluctant to meet her gaze as he worked, Philomene had at last lain down, her back to his preparations, the sheet pulled up to her chin, and so she felt rather than saw him at last get into bed beside her.
She waited for his arm to reach around her, for him to pull her close. As she had watched Henri packing, had felt the distance between him which was surely the fault of her refusals over the last few weeks, the answer had come to her with sudden clarity. All this struggle between what she feared and what she felt and what Henri wanted, it was the result of not trusting. If she could trust God that she would not get pregnant, or that if she did that she would not lose the baby and that she would be able to manage a fourth child, if she could simply trust that some answer would come to all these things,then she would not be denying Henri what as a husband and a man he wanted, and what she too wanted, indeed wanted desperately at times. Perhaps she was even failing in her duty to him, to her role as wife and mother. And so what she must do is put all this fear and doubt and need to control her future aside, and when Henri reached for her she would respond.
The decision brought an unsatisfying sort of peace. No longer was there the struggle between her desire for him and her fears, and yet with the decision that she must put all fears aside, somehow her own desires had drained away as well, leaving only a tense feeling of expectation. If she no longer felt the desire for release -- indeed, with the anxiety of the coming separation having taken residence in her belly like an unwanted and vengeful child, she doubted that she could achieve it -- she did feel, even more than before, the desperate need to close the gap that seemed to have yawned open between them. They would soon be separated by who knew how many miles, and perhaps by danger, or even death itself. During these last few hours together there must be no space between them, she must feel him close to her without any holding back or reservation.
And yet he did not reach for her.
She could feel him shift position on the mattress several times and at last lie still. She could hear his breathing slow. He was not going to reach for her. He thought that she would refuse him, or he did not want her. No, that last was unthinkable. He must be convinced that she would deny him yet again. It was up to her to make the first move. She moved close to him, fitting her body against his, and wrapped her arms around him.
“I love you.”
For a moment he lay still. Then he took her hand in his, raised it to his lips, and kissed it, his mustache brushing against her skin. “I love you too.”
He continued to hold her hand, but made no further move.
“Henri. I’m sorry if I’ve seemed cold to you. You know I love you. I’m going to miss you.”
“I know.” He kissed her hand again. “I will miss you too.” He wanted to say, It won’t be long. Soon we’ll be together again. But some superstitious part of his mind recoiled at the idea of saying anything about how long he would be gone, as if that itself might cause war to break out, to lengthen, or leave him one of the noble fallen on the field of glory. Instead he held her hand more tightly against his chest.
“I think I’ve been wrong, Henri. I was wrong to be so afraid, to think that I could control the future. I didn’t trust. In God. In you. But now I will.”
Henri turned to face her and kissed her. “You haven’t been wrong. I understand.” It was one of the several ways in which his wife’s stronger religious feelings expressed themselves that she was prone, at times, to these fits of self-examination, but on this night of all times reassurance seemed the best approach.
They lay for several minutes, now facing each other. Henri’s arms were comforting around her, but unlike on other nights he did not begin to push against her. She waited. She had decided that now she would not refuse. But he was quiet against her.
“Henri, don’t you…” She paused. Invitation was not normally a thing of words between them. She was not a mistress that she should have to offer herself. “Don’t you want me?”
He kissed her forehead again, but for once this gesture, usually so relaxing to her, did not have its effect. “Of course I want you, ma chere. But I know what you’ve been afraid of, and not knowing how long--” He hesitated to solidify those words with ‘I will be gone’ and instead omitted them. “I don’t want to leave you in a bad position while I am gone.”
“But--” God had asked her to trust, had he not? She had told God she would trust. Was it for this? To put herself forward only to be rejected? “I decided to trust. Whatever happens. I’m trusting that it will be all right.”
His arms tightened around her for a moment, and then he kissed her on the forehead again. She knew it was a refusal before he even spoke, and far from calming her the gentle touch of lips to forehead made her want to turn away.
“Ma chere, if you are going to trust me, you will have to do just that: trust me. I love you, and I don’t want to leave you to face a pregnancy alone.”
Now she did throw off his arm and turn her back to him, though he immediately put his arm back around her and held her close. At last it was too much. The knowledge that Henri was leaving in the morning, the difficulty first of putting aside all her fears to offer herself, and then of having her offer rejected, however gently. The tears came, and Henri held her close as she cried long and hard, until at last they both fell asleep.
They left early for mass the next morning. Lucie-Marie skipped ahead of the family in her green summer dress, carrying her little pamphlet of illustrated prayers in one hand and singing a skipping song in her small, half-tuneless voice. Pascal walked gravely next to the adults, conscious of the reflected glory of his father’s dress uniform. He hoped that the other boys from school would see them walking together and be reminded that his father was the only commissioned officer in the town.
Others too had thought of coming early. When they arrived at the Church of Saint Thibault -- whose thick, nearly windowless, Romanesque walls had been erected by the Baron de Ducloux in 1143, before the now gone Chateau Ducloux had even been built -- it was already more full than on a normal Sunday. In times of trouble, a people remember their God, and already the lines for the two wooden, neo-Gothic confessionals at the back of the church, which normally stretched to only a dozen regular communicants such as Philomene and Louis, snaked around the church. Henri joined his wife and father-in-law in the line. Going to confession and receiving communion seemed appropriately final actions before leaving for mobilization. Others who, like Henri, normally came to mass but did not receive were in the line, and more besides who were not usually seen in the church except at Christmas and Easter.
Eight o’clock came, and mass began. Pere Lebas celebrated the high mass at the main altar, with a squad of altar boys assisting him and the organ rumbling out from the the choir loft. Pere Benoit, the young priest, left the confessional on the left and went up to begin saying his own mass, with the help of a single altar boy, at the side altar, while old Pere Durot continued to hear confessions until all the penitents had been absolved. When Pere Lebas approached the communion rail, far more than the usual number of people put aside their rosaries and came up to receive communion.
When mass was over seven-year-old Charlotte insisted on lighting a candle before the Virgin and Child before leaving.
“Maybe I have a one Franc note so I can can get a big candle?” she demanded, and Henri, looking down into her earnest young face with her chin and cheekbones just starting to hint at the prominence of her mother’s face, and wondering whether it would be a month or a year before he saw her again, gave her the money.
She took the note and dropped it into the slot of the little locked iron box next to the stand of candles, then took a taper and lighted one of the large candles. She knelt for a while before the soot-stained statue, which had received the prayers of worried families before the Franco-Prussian War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Seven Years War, and many others before. Then she came away, whispering to her older brother, “I told Our Lady that if Father is home in time for my birthday, I will be extra helpful to Mother and not hit Lucie-Marie even when she imitates my voice.”
As they were crossing the square outside the church, young Pere Benoit came out of the rectory, wearing not his cassock but normal clothes, and carrying a pack over his shoulder. Grandpere bristled at the sight of a priest not wearing proper clothes.
“He must be under thirty,” Henri said. “He’s called up just like all the other young men.”
“It’s a disgrace,” replied Grandpere. “If this was a Christian country we wouldn’t call up men of God into uniform.”
Henri shrugged. “I don’t say it’s right, but it’s a secular republic. Priest, husband or single man, it’s all the same on mobilization.”
During their brief stop at home, Henri buckled on his sabre and holstered pistol. Pascal was ecstatic.
“Can I hold your sabre, Father?”
Henri was about to refuse automatically, but stopped himself. Who knew when next the boy would next have this chance. And what was the harm. Particularly if this proved to be a last memory.
“All right. Be careful.”
He drew the sword and handed it to his son, who took several careful, slow motion slashes against unseen enemies with it.
“Will you kill Germans with this sword, Father?”
“I don’t know. I’m far more likely to use the pistol, if I see action.”
“Can I hold that?” Pascal reached for the buttoned-down flap of the black, leather holster.
“No, you may not.” The boy withdrew his hand and Henri reached down to ruffle his hair. “Good boy. Now hand me back the sabre.”
Pascal surrendered it as regretfully as any defeated general.
At last they were at the train station. Chateau Ducloux was not a great hub of transport, and so the station was just a small building, which housed the ticket office and waiting room, and a small, covered platform past which ran two tracks. On the far track there was tremendous activity. A north-bound special train had pulled in: passenger cars and freight cars, the former already packed and the latter half full, with men from other villages down the line headed to the troop depot in Sedan. There was a wide range of moods, some men cheered and sang, joining in the holiday mood of the others already on the train, while others tried to comfort wives or mothers as they said their goodbyes.
The Fourniers stood nearly alone on the near platform. Pascal had insisted on carrying his father’s packs. Lucie-Marie and Charlotte skipped excited up and down the platform. Philomene leaned quietly against her husband, secure in the feeling of his arm around her shoulders but saying nothing.
Right on time the 10:35 to Paris pulled into the station. Unlike the special train it was nearly empty. There were few, this far north, who were attached to Paris regiments, and being both a Sunday and the first day of mobilization, there was little other travel.
Henri climbed aboard an empty car and lowered the window so that he could lean out. The whistle blew as he gave Philomene a last, long kiss. Then there was the chuff of the engine and the squeal of the wheels and the train began to move out of the station, southwest towards Paris and his regiment.
He looked backed towards his family standing on the platform. Philomene, still in her pale lavender Sunday dress and shading her eyes with her hat. Grandpere with his hand on her shoulder. Pascal waving and the two little girls jumping up and down. He leaned out the window watching them until the track curved and the buildings of the town obscured them from view.
Read the next installment.