In which there is a letter, a dinner... and news.
I'm going to be traveling on business during the first part of this coming week, and that doesn't always work well for writing, so I'll say Wednesday is when you can expect the next installment to be up.
Paris. August 27th, 1914. Paris was proud of its army, could wish it only the very best, and so it was unthinkable than an infantry captain should be forced to live within the canvas walls of a tent. And yet, this abundance of good will did not make rooms any more available in the already crowded city. On first arriving for mobilization Henri had been forced to check into a hotel, which despite the modesty of its rooms and laxness of its service did not stint when it came to rates, at least according to the standard to which he had become used since settling into village life. After several days of calling on friends and buying cigars for the sort of old supply sergeants who had a near miraculous ability to procure any accommodation or supply for those they deigned to exert their knowledge for, he had been assigned a room in a hotel on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais which had been taken over for army use.
Guards now stood at attention in the lobby where before bellhops had stood with brass-railed carts. A non-commissioned officer with logistics service badges on his collar sat behind the hotel desk, managing the comings and goings in place of the desk clerk. The rug which covered the lobby floor, which over many years had settled into a shabby reddish brown like dried wine stains was, under the sudden crush of heavily booted traffic, becoming a churned-up ruin like the turf of some blood soaked battlefield.
Some long accustomed patterns persisted amidst the change. As Henri entered the lobby, his boots dusty and his shirt and tunic grimed with sweat after an afternoon of drilling the company in the fields beyond the city, the noise of the street was replaced with the murmur of conversation and the clink of glasses. The knots of people talking and sipping coffee or liquors were all in uniform, their topics the deployment of divisions and the counting of casualties, but the quiet sounds of a hotel lobby were not greatly different than they would have been at any other time.
“Captain Fournier,” said the corporal behind the desk as Henri passed. “There is a letter for you.”
The man searched for a moment among the pigeon holes and then produced a thick, letter-sized envelope with Henri’s name and unit written on it in what he recognized even while still a few paces away as Philomene’s hand.
“Thank you, Corporal.” It was one of the many unwritten laws of the structure of command: The NCOs manning the desk were to know the names of all the officers billeted in the hotel, but the officers were not expected to know the names of the NCOs.
He took the letter carefully, not wanting to smear it with the grime of the afternoon’s exercises, and continued on to the elevator at the back of the lobby. The elevator’s appearance was like a birdcage, and it likewise resembled a birdcage in its size, sturdiness and stability. Henri ducked his head slightly to get in, shut the door of slim brass bars with a clang, and pushed the button for the fifth floor. There was a slight lurch, and then the elevator rose, with gradual sways and lurches, until with a groan it deposited him on the fifth floor landing.
The statelier rooms on the first five floors with their polished wood floors and iron-railed balconies had been given over to staff officers and meeting rooms. Henri ascended the narrow stair which led up to the sixth and seventh floors, to which the elevator did not extend, and thence to his own small room. The ceiling slanted downwards from the door to the window, following the roofline, and there was a single garret window looking out across the boulevard below. There was a table and shaving stand and not much else.
The only washroom and toilet on the seventh floor was down the corridor, and it was there that he wanted to go as quickly as possible. He set the letter carefully on his pillow and shed his dusty boots and field uniform, changing into his dressing gown. It was tempting to simply sit down and let the tiredness seep out of his body, imagining it pooling on the floor in like manner to his dusty field uniform. A glance at his pocket watch, however, told him that he had only forty-five minutes if he was to avoid being late for his dinner appointment. Down the hall to the washroom he went, climbed into the round steel tub of the showerbath, braced himself for the shock of the water too cold to be welcome even after a day of drilling in the sun, and pulled the chain which released the frigid rain from the shower head above.
It was not until he was back in his room, his dress uniform and boots on, with the watch assuring him that he still had ten minutes before it was necessary to leave, that he allowed himself to open and enjoy the letter. He read the sheet covered in Philomene’s elegant handwriting first.
“My Dearest Henri, I love you, and yet I don’t know what to say. Today we watched the army march through town….”
It was clear that she did not know what to say, that she was writing because she could not bear to give up this tenuous connection between them, writing for the comfort of knowing that something she had recently touched would soon be in his hands away south in Paris. He felt the same conflict. It was so wonderful to have this letter, to read the words she had written to him, to see the several times repeated phrase “I love you.” And yet, it was at the same time desperately frustrating that the letter said so little. Not that his letters were long or of dazzling literary effect either. But having received this one piece of home and of his wife’s voice, he wanted the letter to carry the impossible weight of serving as a substitute for all the conversations, touches, and glances they would have had during a normal day. And when the letter, as it must, failed to provide all that he wished of it, the joy of receiving it was mixed with disappointment and nagging emptiness.
It was time to go. He glanced quickly over the children’s pages. Pictures and scribbles respectively from the two girls, and a page in Pascal’s sprawling had, the words all running together with barely a space between them, describing in breathless detail the army marching through town.
When would that have been? He glanced at the date on Philomene’s letter. August 19th. Eight days ago. A great deal could have happened in that time, and yet the newspapers and army bulletins remained maddeningly vague.
Folding the sheets of paper carefully, Henri returned them to their envelope and placed it with the small stack of envelopes he had received from home since arriving in Paris. It was time to go and meet his father. Taking up the clothing brush he whisked a few final pieces of dust off his uniform tunic. Any laxity would be caught by his father’s eyes, even if it was not commented on.
He arrived several minutes early at the cafe they had agreed upon, but Etienne Fournier was already there, seated at one of the little marble topped sidewalk tables, leaning back in his chair with one thumb hooked under the buttons of his brown waistcoat.
“Ah, so. The captain.” His father did not rise but waved him towards the other seat instead. “You’re looking well. And how is the war?”
Henri obediently sat down. He did not answer immediately, looking his father up and down instead. Perhaps he had gained a little weight in the five years since he had seen him last, his head was now a shiny dome with just a close cropped fringe around the sides, and his thick mustache was no longer gray put pure white. The bags under his eyes suggested he had been working at least as long and hard as his son of late, but there was still that cold, ironical twist to his mouth which Henri remembered so well: You’re not good enough, son.
“My little corner of the war? Well enough. I had my company out in the fields west of the city all day, teaching them to use covering fire and advance by rushes. Still, I should be asking you, shouldn’t I? The war moves on train wheels.”
Etienne sighed and looked away, fumbling in his coat pocket. After a moment he drew out a bundle of wadded up handkerchief, which once he unrolled it proved to enclose a half-smoked cigar. He shoved the handkerchief into another pocket, retrieved a box of matches, and spent a long minute lighting the stubby half-cigar. At last it took and he let the smoke trickle from his lips and form a small cloud around their table.
“Everything at the Transportation Ministry is madness right now. And have you heard? We have our third Minister of Transportation in as many months.” He drew deeply on the cigar and looked away, as if hesitant to meet Henri’s gaze. “I shouldn’t have brought up the war. How are you? Have you had any letters from home lately?”
“I had one this evening. Everyone sounds to be doing well enough. The army passed through on the nineteenth.” He paused, watching his father’s reaction. Etienne was silently puffing at his cigar, his brow tense. “The letter took a week to reach me. That seems a great deal of disorder even for the military post, don’t you think?” More silent puffing in reply. “Are things going badly at the front, I wonder? We hear nothing at my level.”
“Write back to her and make sure she’s not using the war as an excuse to make that boy of yours spend all his time in church. You watch out, she’ll try to turn him into a priest. They always do.”
“Father.” The older man met his eyes and he could see the tiredness and fear in them. “If you have bad news, tell me. You’re hiding nothing and comforting no one.”
Etienne shrugged and ineffectually waved the haze of cigar smoke away from his face using the hand in which he held the cigar.
“We’ve lost the rail hub at Mezieres. I don’t know how much further down the line the Germans have got. Trains are still getting in and out of Rethel, but I don’t know for how much longer they will.”
Chateaux Ducloux was off the main rail line, half way between Mezieres and Rethel. It was a week since the army had gone through heading north, but a great deal could have happened in that time. Had there been a battle? Was the army retreating? Had it been captured?
“The army won’t admit anything, of course,” his father continued. “But judging by how far the trains are running…”
He let the sentence hang, unfinished, and Henri knew what he was reluctant to say.
The cafe was crowded. The sounds of many overlapping conversations, the clatter of plates and glasses, it all poured forth into the street. At the next table a woman in a green dress, her hat trimmed with a green-dyed ostrich plume, was talking animatedly, setting the plume bobbing wildly this way and that like a palm frond whipped here and there by a tropical storm. Whirling, glittering Paris did not change, but back home, what had happened? Had the town been fought over? Had it been shelled? At the very least enemy soldiers must now patrol the streets on which he and Philomene had taken their evening walks.
His father reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’ll never give in. Just like in ‘70.”
Henri shrugged and smiled. “Ah, but then we lost.”
The waiter arrived, set a carafe of wine before them, and asked if they were ready to order dinner. This broke the gravity of the moment. Their food ordered, Henri filled both their glasses.
“Well, now you have given me your bad news, I shall take a turn making you uncomfortable. How is Mother?”
His father gave a short, flat laugh. “Well enough, I suppose, down in Bordeaux. But you should be asking Edouard. I only know what he tells me.”
“You know my older brother and I do not get along well.”
“Nor do I and your mother!”
The next morning the papers all carried the news bulletin with which the General Staff had broken its silence: Our gallant troops now engage the enemy along a line stretching from the Somme River to the Vosges Mountains.
However expected, Henri felt the news like a hand around his throat. That must mean the Germans were near Reims. If they had not left home, Philomene and the children would be twenty-five miles behind the German lines.
Henri took out the letter he had received yesterday and read it again. The intervening events -- what Philomene had not known when she wrote the letter and he did not know now because of the army that stood in between them -- had given this one letter a significance it was not prepared to bear. Just one brief letter, written not because Philomene could think of anything to say but because she did not want to leave him without word from her, now held the weight of being the last letter before the war came between them.
He read it again. A few pieces of news. A hope that he was doing well. And three times, “I love you.”
Folding it carefully he put it into the inside pocket of his uniform tunic.
Read the next installment.