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.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Chapter 7-3


Having come to believe that her son joining the cavalry was her own idea, Lisette immersed herself in every detail. All forms of attention other than money were lavished upon his preparations. With this latter she remained close. Indeed, it was with difficulty that Jozef kept her from rejecting the cavalry pack and bags that he had ordered and substituting some cheaper version.

“But this leather is thinner and more supple, see? And none of that heavy double stitching. Don’t buy that clunky, ugly pack when this one is nicer and half as much besides.”

He took her by the arm and moved her away from the shop counter so that he could speak to her without being heard. “I intend to buy the regulation equipment, Mother, not a cheaper imitation.”

“I am only trying to keep your from being cheated. I’m sure these others are just as good, they just haven’t paid bribes to the officers of the commissariat.”

Jozef went back to the counter and told the shopman, “I’ll be taking the regulation models. Have them packaged up and sent to the flat. You have the address? Good. And the bill can go on our account.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Jozef led the way out of the shop into the street, followed by Lisette who bore an aggrieved expression.

“I’m very proud of you, Jozef. But you mustn’t think that I don’t know anything. When it comes to dealing with shopmen and their schemes, I have far more experience than you.”

After all their worries over how quickly they could join the ranks, Theodor and his other fraternity comrades had passed their medical exam and been given transportation orders for Friday morning. They had all been enrolled in the army books and issued their blue-grey woolen uniforms, which inspired such pride that they would be seen in nothing else.

Although he could not, by rights, wear his new cadet uniforms until he was officially enrolled in the service after reporting to post, Jozef donned his blue jacket and red trousers and joined the other six former students at a photographer’s studio. They were not the only young men thus inspired, and the photographer had availed himself of several rifles and swords with which young men who had been issued uniforms but not weapons could pose. They threw their chests out and struck a martial pose, the infantrymen holding rifles at attention and Jozef casually resting his hand on the pommel of his borrowed sabre. They held still for a moment, and then the photographer’s flash went off with a poof and a little cloud of smoke that smelt like gunpowder. They went off to the beer hall for several hours and then returned to the studio to pick up the result, a small print for each of them.

The post to which Jozef was to present himself on August 1st was less than a hundred and fifty miles away, south and east from Vienna, just across the border into Hungary. An express could get him there in less than five hours, an overnight train would make a leisurely trip of it. However, reports were that train schedules were chaotic, and Jozef welcomed the chance to escape his mother’s presence sooner rather than later, so he resolved to leave early on the morning of the 30th just like his friends.

His departure from home was peaceful enough because it was at eight in the morning. Lisette did not deviate from her routine enough to get up to see him off. The night before she had cried over him and offered words of motherly advice and then gone off to get her rest. She did not see the need for more, and Jozef was grateful for it.

The train station, however, was in a state of mild chaos. Lines of men, in and out of uniform, stretched every which way, stepping as they went over other men who sat on the ground with their packs next to them, waiting for their time to leave. It took over an hour for Jozef to reach a ticket window, and when he did the results were not immediately satisfying.

“Kapuvar?” the ticket agent asked. “The regular train is cancelled. There are only military trains going that direction today.”

“I’m a cavalry cadet,” Jozef explained. “I have to report to Kapuvar for training.” He held out the order for the ticket agent to see. The man glanced at it without much interest.

“Only military trains for uniformed military personnel are headed that direction.”

“I told you: I am reporting for training with the cavalry.”

The ticket agent focused an indignant gaze upon Jozef from underneath his red and black railroad uniform kepi. “Are you currently a member of the military forces, sir? You’re not in uniform.”

“I am reporting for training.” Jozef tried to keep his voice calm. Surely yelling at him would not improve matters and yet the bureaucratic blindness was infuriating. “I will be enrolled upon arrival.”

“Then you are currently a civilian?” the ticket agent asked, as if he were having to draw answers out of a particularly unlikely student.

“Yes, but I’m trying to get--”

“There are no civilians to be allowed on military trains. Sorry, sir. Next!”

Jozef hefted his bags and stepped aside, while a man in artillery blues began to explain his destination to the ticket agent. He considered a moment, watching the uniformed crowds moving around him, then went in search of the men’s room. While it required a military uniform to get on the train, it only required the appearance of wealth and the willingness to tip the attendant to access the men’s restroom in the first class waiting room. Jozef took his bags with him into a stall, and there changed into his new cadet’s uniform, folding his civilian clothes up and shoving them into his bag in their place. With this done, he re-entered the ticket line.

By chance he found himself, after nearly another hour in line, facing the same ticket agent again, but this time when he named his destination he was immediately told when the next military train left and promised a seat in the first class carriage since he was wearing the uniform of an officer cadet.

“It’s all special trains today,” confided the ticket agent, as he wrote out ticket. “I had a civilian gentleman come by wanting to get to Kapuvar and I had to turn him away.”

***

Austria-Hungary was not known for its transportational efficiency at the best of times. Just as the Hapsburg ruler held two different roles, as Austrian Emperor and Hungarian King, each government having a separate capital, parliament and prime minister, so too there were two state railway systems: The Imperial Royal State Railways and the Hungarian Royal State Railways, each operating in a different language and each dealing with its own constellation of private branch-line railway companies.

Using these two railways systems, the Imperial General Staff had to mobilize three separate military structures: the joint Imperial-Royal Army, the Austrian Landwehr, and the Hungarian Honved.

Had this not been complexity enough, the General Staff now found itself in a quandary. War had been declared against Serbia, but although no war was yet declared between Russia and Austria, there were Russian armies mobilizing at the borders of the empire in support of Serbia. The empire’s closest ally, Germany, had promised support against any Russian aggression, but Germany’s war plans called for a holding action against Russia while it first defeated Russia’s ally France, and so on July 30th, as Jozef was boarding the train that would take him to his training post in Kapuvar, Hungary, the head of the German General Staff was urging Austria-Hungary to ignore little Serbia for a time and instead mobilize against Russia.

However, millions of men, once moving, are not redirected quickly. Even harder was to redirect the eagerness to punish Serbia’s provocation into more strategic concerns necessitated by the web of alliances across Europe. The solution was typical of the hyphenated empire. 5th and 6th armies, already being moved into position to attack Serbia, would be left to move as planned. 1st, 3rd and 4th armies would wait at their depots until August 4th, and then begin to move into positions facing the border with Russia. And the 2nd Army, already in motion towards the South but now needed in the East against Russia, would be allowed to continue to its original destination, help in the campaign against Serbia until August 18th, and then would load back on trains to be moved into Austrian-Poland for the expected campaign against Russia.

The plans were made, and telegrams tapped their way across the thousands of miles of wire which criss-crossed the empire, often running parallel to the tracks on which the troops they ordered would move.

Jozef had only the haziest notion of the practical difficulties involved in coordinating the movement of millions of men, and none of how the shortcomings of those facing this challenge would shape his life over the coming weeks and months, as he sat back on the cushioned leather seats of a first class railway carriage and listened with fascination to the small talk of the officers he rode with, trying to absorb and file away every detail which might help him understand and thrive in the new world into which he was entering. The train stopped every few miles, like a local. Often it was only to pick up a few more newly mobilized reservists. Other times, logistics officers with the green collar tabs of the railway service would walk up and down the cars calling out orders: “162nd Reserve Regiment, 2nd Battalion to detrain here and await transfer on the second platform. I repeat, 162nd Reserve Regiment, 2nd Battalion to detrain.”

A summer dusk descended outside the brightly lit train compartments, and then full night. Jozef was slumped back in the seat, dozing fitfully, when the train once again shuddered to a stop and transport officers announced “Kapuvar. All off for Kapuvar.”

Jozef shook himself awake and got up. A porter carried his bags down to the platform for him. A few minutes passed and then the whistle sounded, the steam could be heart to hiss from valves, and the wheels began to turn. The train left the station with gathering speed, its lights seeming to move faster, then to virtually hang in the distance for a time until it became a distant, fading star on the Hungarian plain.

It was after the train had dwindled out of sight that Jozef thought to look up at the station clock and saw that it was half past three -- not an unreasonable time, perhaps, for returning from a drunken carousel with the other fraternity comrades, but a distinctly forbidding time to find oneself alone on a train platform in an unknown small Hungarian town.

He went to the station office and there found a sleepy looking man with a drooping mustache who spoke only Hungarian and did not appear to think much of Jozef’s limited abilities in the language. For some time, Jozef alternated asking “Where is the military barracks?” and “Where is there a hotel?” while the station master alternately shrugged and repeated back words with comprehension.

At last, understanding seemed to dawn, and he asked back, “Oh, the hotel? Where is the hotel?”

The station master’s pronunciation of the word did not sound, to Jozef, any different from his own, but it seemed that some important distinction existed for the other man. He nodded vigorously. “Yes.”

There followed a rapidly spoken set of directions accompanied by hand motions which told Jozef nothing. He indicated his bags and asked, “Show me?” but the station master indicated the empty platforms, his log book, and the signals.

At last Jozef hefted his bags and set off down the road in what seemed the general direction indicated by the directions he’d been given. He found a hotel with fairly little difficulty and a sleepy desk clerk offered him a room. It was small and sparsely furnished, but the linens appeared to be clean and the bed, though of no great softness, was inviting. As soon as he could undress and get between the sheets, he was asleep.

***

When the morning light shone in through his hotel room window, and revealed the comforter for the faded and threadbare item that it was, Jozef’s first thought was that today would begin his real soldiering. He would find the army post, report his arrival, have his name recorded in the regimental books and thus become a real cadet. Perhaps training would even begin that very day.

The reality, once he found the army post building on the outskirts of the town, was less satisfactory. His orders stated that he was to be attached as a cadet to the 12th Regiment of the Imperial-Royal Hussars, however the clerk at the post informed him that the active duty squadrons of the 12th Regiment had received orders for the Serbian front and had entrained two days before.

Should he follow them? In the moment between asking the question and receiving the answer, the future sprung up in his imagination. He would receive a few days training as they rode down to meet the Serbian army, and then he would be flung directly into the cauldron of battle, where he would prove his bravery and willingness.

The clerk shook his head. No, no, the regiment could not begin training of green cadets while going into action. It was the same as the clerk had told the other young gentlemen who had arrived. The clerk shook his head and went back to his ledgers.

Further questioning produced only slightly more information. No, there were no orders for him. Yes, the other young gentlemen to be enrolled as cadets were still in town. No, the clerk could not enroll them with no unit to attach them to. What were they to do? How was he to know? He would wire for orders, but he placed no great store upon it. What could you do? Well, there were the reserve squadrons. They were not in town yet, but they were scheduled to arrive soon. When? Had the young gentleman seen the railway timetables lately? There was no telling, no telling at all. Now couldn’t the young gentleman see he had work to do?

Jozef beat a hasty retreat and went in search of the other cadets. There were four, and he found them in the post cafe. Unfortunately, they knew no more than he. They spent the rest of the day in the post cafe, and although one more would-be cadet arrived, it became no more clear when or if their training would begin.

The next few days passed in much the same way. Two more cadets arrived, bringing their number to eight, but they continued to spend their hours in the post cafe, reading the newspapers and waiting.

Tuesday, August 4th, proved a crisis point. The newspapers bore the news that Belgium had defiantly refused to allow German troops passage across the country, despite confident German assurances that France intended to use Belgian territory to attack Germany. German troops were also reported to have entered Russian Poland and captured several towns. The war was passing them by. Peter Kardos, the son of a Hungarian landholding family, proposed that since they had not been officially enrolled in a unit yet anyway, they find a recruiting office and re-enroll in some other service. If the Imperial-Royal army would not take the, the Honved surely would. Perhaps their small class of cadets had simply fallen through the cracks in the bureaucratic machine and no one even knew they existed anymore.

Jozef felt his dream of being a Hussar officer like Friedrich receding. It seemed strange to think that the dream itself was at most a couple of weeks old. Now that his plans were in danger of coming to nothing, it was like losing the project of many years. Or perhaps, though he had only decided to follow Friedrich’s example in the last few weeks, the plan had been living within him at some unconscious level for much longer.

But then, if his plan to enter the cavalry was new, surely this obstacle of being misplaced for training was of even shorter duration. In truth, they were as yet only three days late in being enrolled and beginning their training. If it weren’t for the urgencies of war, would they be considering abandoning their chance to become cavalry officers because of a delay of less than week? What they needed was a way to pass the time with some sort of purpose rather than simply reading the papers and driving themselves mad with inaction.

“Look here,” he said, surprising the others by speaking up when he had up until this point been one of the more reticent members of the group. “We shouldn’t give up our chance to train as officers without waiting at least ten days. We need to fill the time usefully. I propose we start some training of our own and carry on until leadership arrives.”

“How can we train ourselves?” Peter objected. “Are you some sort of military expert?”

“No, but there are two things we know we’ll need: We don’t know what nationalities we’ll have in our units, so we should practice languages. Peter, you can lead practice in Hungarian. Mine is bad enough, I know I need the work. And Stepan Benes can lead practice in Czech. Is there someone who can lead Polish or Slovak?”

“There’s no need to practice Slovak,” said Stepan. “You won’t find many Slovaks in the cavalry.” This drew a snigger from the other Czech cadet.

“Well, we can just practice Hungarian, Czech, and German, then.”


“You said two things,” said Peter, sounding none too impressed thus far. “What’s the second.”

“We should be spending time in the saddle every day. We should find a way to borrow horses and go riding every day, at least a few hours.”

This last was met with more enthusiasm than the proposal for language training, and after a little more discussion they agreed to begin their own training routine and continue it for two weeks, at which point if there were still no unit to claim them they would go their ways and find some other way to get into the army.

With generous tips to one of the grooms at the post stables they arranged to take out horses every day and took it in turns to lead their little troop, giving orders in the language they were to be practicing that day. This routine, once begun, lasted four days, and on the fifth the 12th Hussars Reserve Regiment arrived to take control of their training.

The delay which had seemed such a yawning gap before, now seemed a brief interruption before the busy times which came after, and the desperation of the week in which there had been no place for the cadets became hard to recall. They were at last officially enrolled in the Imperial Royal Hussars as reserve officer cadets and issued field uniforms of pale blue-grey wool which, though more dashingly cut, were indistinguishable in color from those of the infantry.

“Fold up those dress uniforms and put them away in your chest, you won’t be wearing them here,” ordered Sergeant Szabo, who along with the aging Rittmeister Tschida was responsible for drilling and training the cadets. “This isn’t a parade, and you’ll be riding long enough to wear the bottoms off those fancy pants of yours.”

Ride they did. Jozef had often seen cavalry units on parade through the streets of Vienna with their polished equipment and their colorful dress uniforms. He had seen paintings of the wild onrush of a cavalry charge. But he had never imagined a life so continuously in the saddle. They rode through map and compass exercises. They rode through scouting and reconnaissance practice. They took long practice rides whose sole purpose, in making huge loops around the town, seemed to be to test their ability to remain in the saddle from before sunrise to after sunset. The riding, and Sergeant Szabo’s orders, “Elbows in! Back straight! Are you a Hussar or a sack of flour?” were so constant that it was a relief when they were sent on skirmish exercises and ordered to get off their mounts and take cover behind trees and road embankments to prepare for an imaginary assault. Stepan complained that Sergeant Szabo must have been conceived on a horse, if not by one.

With the relentless pace of training they soon began to think themselves true Hussars, and swaggered around the town like old campaigners. There was barely time to follow the newspapers now, but there were rumors that the fighting in Serbia and Russian Poland was not going as easily as had been expected. However, this served mainly to increase hopes that they would be given orders for the front, and those hopes seemed fulfilled when news arrived that that reserve regiment was to ship out to the Serbian front in three more days, on August 27th.

The town was immediately plunged into a flutter of activity. Merchants sought to have accounts settled. Women sought to have promises kept. Each man had things to resolve before leaving Kapuvar, and there were fifteen hundred officers and men who would soon be on the move, along with their horses and equipment.

The cadets shared in the general excitement of getting ready to move, and in their own case the more urgent feeling that they were about to be tested for the first time. Then these expectations were dashed, as it was announced that the cadets in training would not be accompanying the regiment to Serbia. They, along with their two instructors and a few men deemed medically unfit for active duty were to be reassigned to another reserve regiment stationed deeper into Hungary.

The disappointment was intense, but orders were orders. Two days after the rest of the regiment left the thirty remaining men entrained and set off for their new post near Lake Balaton. This post was home both to several units of the Imperial Royal common army and also of the Hungarian Royal Honved. The main post buildings were well-appointed, permanent structures, among them a restaurant and bar open only to officers. It was as Jozef and the other cadets were first introduced there that his name attracted attention.

“Why, there’s Baron Revay here who commands the territorial cavalry here. Are you a relative of his?”

A middle aged man, whose high cheekbones, light brown hair, and pale blue eyes were not unlike his own, turned on hearing this.

“What’s that? Jozef Revay? You’re not Lisette’s boy? Why, look at you. You must be my nephew!”


Read the next installment.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Chapter 7-2




During the next few days Jozef busied himself with preparations. His fraternity comrades were openly jealous that he had a set of orders and was having uniforms fitted and buying equipment while they still waited for their medical exams. Konstantin had discussed the possibility of deserting from his infantry enlistment and signing up as a cavalry cadet under a false name, but of course there was no staff officer to assist in executing such a desperate plan.

Money problems loomed. Jozef’s usual allowance was enough for the pastimes of a university student, so long as he did not indulge in gambling or the more expensive sort of women, but it was very short indeed when it came to buying the full uniforms and equipment of a cavalry cadet. A reserve officer’s pay was enough to cover such things, but he would not be a reserve officer for at least several months. A cadet’s pay was nominal and even that would not begin until after he reported for duty and was officially enrolled.

He had expected that Mother would be reconciled to his decision once the first shock was past, but she consistently refused to acknowledge any discussion of his impending departure or his need to pay for his kit, either maintaining a blank stare while he spoke to her or replying with questions as to how university lectures were going.

In the end he dodged the problem by purchasing all his supplies on account and giving his mother’s name and address for the bill.

Given the discomforts of home, it was all the more attractive to spend any time not engaged in errands at either the coffee house or the beer hall. With the rest of Vienna, he consumed the newspapers, the rumors, and the discussion of both.

The government had declared Serbia’s partial acceptance of the ultimatum’s terms to be unacceptable, and the army had been mobilized, but no declaration of war or other concrete action had followed. Was the rogue state to the south to be punished for its part in the assassination of the Archduke, for its constant attempts to undermine the dual monarchy, or was this to become yet another in the long string of embarrassments which were summed up in that one shameful phrase: decline?

For a brief time -- in an empire of two kingdoms, twelve nationalities and fifty-two million souls -- it had seemed that there was an essential unity of anger and of willingness to fight the threat, a unity of sympathy and purpose so unusual in this none-too-hopeful empire that many found themselves ready to give it another chance, to discover a forgotten patriotism. Even those opposed to war found themselves intoxicated with the sense that all were to be forged into one glowing whole, their divisions and selfishness refined away by the fires of war. Strangers spoke to each other in the streets, and neighbors who had never more than shrugged at each other when passing in the lift now shook hands and spoke with excited looks. Have you heard anything? Will it be today? What will you do?

And yet before that purpose and unity could be turned into action, it seemed liable to be stillborn through the inaction so familiar and frustrating to all. All waited and read and debated, hoping for and fearing the news that war had at last made real the feelings of the last weeks.

On the evening of Tuesday, July 28th, the answer at last came. War had been declared. War with Serbia. Next day, the first shots of the war were fired. Austrian river monitors, squat ironclads, low in the water, with guns sticking out of round turrets, steamed down the Danube and the Saba, which separated Serbia and its capital from Austria-Hungary, and shelled Belgrade.

It was as the shells were falling in Belgrade, the war still too young to have made it into the morning papers, that Lisette came into the dining room well before her usual late hour, catching Jozef before he could make his silent escape to the coffee house for a morning of reading the news and discussing it with his friends.

“Jozef, good morning! I’m so glad to see you before you leave for the day.”

“Good morning, Mother,” Jozef replied, waiting to see what form his mother’s attack would take. Had she received the bill for his uniform tailoring or his equipage already? Would she refuse to pay? He had hoped that none of the bills would arrive until after he was safely away in training. Let her settle out whether to acknowledge his enlistment or endanger her credit.

“Where are you off to today? Uniforms and equipment, or just hearing the latest news?”

This represented a new tactic. “I was going to go hear the news. My friends are having their enlistment medical exams this morning, and I’m eager to hear what news they come back with.”

“It’s so patriotic of them to enlist, though of course I’m glad that you have followed the family tradition in joining the cavalry.”

He studied his mother, almost expecting her to look different, this approach to the matter was so different from before.

She did not seem to require a reply but continued on, coming close to him and leaning in confidentially. “I wonder, Jozef dear, if you can spare a bit of time for me this evening. Yes, yes, I know. So much to do, and you and your friends who are also going off to war have your interests and your last evenings to spend together before you are parted. Who knows?” She placed a hand lightly over her bosom. “Perhaps forever. But if you could spare just a few hours of your time, Baroness von Miko is having one of her intimate little receptions tonight, and of course you know all my friends would so like a chance to see you before you leave for training.”

Under normal circumstances, such an invitation would have no appeal at all, but with this sudden shift Jozef found himself curious to see what would happen, however much he might regret the foray later.

“All right, Mother. What time?”

“Nine o’clock. Just a little early evening reception. You can be away before eleven.”

“Very well. I’ll be ready to leave on time with you.”

“Thank you!” Lisette turned to go, then paused and turned back. “Oh, and Jozef, do you think… I know that it’s a little vanity on my part, but do you think you could wear your new cavalry uniform?”

“No, Mother. The uniforms aren’t even back from the tailor yet. And even if they were I could not wear the uniform until after I am enrolled and sworn in.”

She sighed. “Oh. I had just thought that people would like it. It would make me so proud. But if you feel that way…”

She left, and as he walked to the coffee house Jozef tried to puzzle out what this sudden transformation might portend.

***

Jozef presented himself in the living room that evening, dressed for the reception, knowing full well that his mother would not be ready to leave until at least nine. His expectations were not refuted, and the delay was further compounded by Lisette’s absolute refusal to either walk so much as a block or take any form of public transportation. They did not have their own car, so be it. They would take a taxi. And since their neighborhood was not of sufficient fashion to have taxis passing by the minute, they would wait while the porter called and had one dispatched. It was nine-thirty by the time they arrived at the Baroness von Miko’s building, just off the Ringstrasse, and when they entered her rooms most of the usual set was already assembled.

The Baroness was not, that day, professing ill health, and was moving about her sitting room at a stately pace with the help of an amber-headed cane. Her dress of grey silk and black lace, set off only by a double rope of pearls which hung nearly to her waist, made her a sober figure against the red and gold diamonds of the rug.

Lisette went directly to her, paying no heed to the other two women who were speaking to her. “Baroness!” She took both of the older woman’s hands and exchanged a pair of brief kisses, which hoved in the air not quite touching each cheek. “I was so glad to receive your invitation, as it gives me a distraction from the feelings which otherwise threaten to overwhelm me.”

The other two women were drifting off, leaving Lisette in possession of the hostess and thus of a degree of the room’s attention.

“Have you taken the war very much to heart?” asked Baroness von Miko. “Of course, we must grieve that any blood is shed, but surely the defense of our country is something to take pride in.”

“Indeed. And as a mother in particular, I am torn between pride and fear. Jozef, you know, is leaving me in just a few days to join his cavalry regiment. We have been all preparations since mobilization was declared.”

“Ah, well. Then I understand how you must feel. But I did not know that Jozef was in the army.”

“Well, he had been hesitant, you know,” confided Lisette. “For so long he had thought of a career in the civil service. A good enough career in its way, I suppose. But, of course, I always hoped. There is such a tradition of service in our family. His grandfather served in the cavalry, and so did his younger uncles. And with war coming, well, the family blood stirred and he told me that he wanted to follow in the family tradition. ‘My son,’ I said. ‘You will break your mother’s heart, but you must follow a higher duty!’”

Jozef stood mutely by. He had seen his mother’s ability to turn a social situation to her advantage, but never had her powers been turned so directly against him. Within the first moments of their arrival his enlistment had somehow become her idea, the civil service had become his. The relatives who she had for years described as good officers in their way, if you could forgive the fact that they were really far more comfortable in the barracks or the country hunting lodge than in the civilized society of Vienna, had now become the models to which she had hoped he would find the courage to aspire.

As she made her way around the room, talking to various acquaintances, the story grew and developed. As cancer grows faster than the healthy cells around it, Jozef found his real life and intentions to be outpaced and choked off by these inventions. He slipped away while his mother was talking to an old Countess and went in search of refreshment. There was champagne and sherry and various other wines, but he found an aging Generalmajor in full dress uniform pouring himself a large glass of clear liquid from a decanter.

“If I may, what is that, sir?” Jozef asked.

“Slivovitz. Plum brandy. The Baroness always keeps a bit around for me. You’ll have to get used to this fire water if you’re heading down to Serbia. They don’t have civilized drinks down there.”

“Generalmajor!” Lisette appeared next to them. “I’m so glad to see you. Have you been sharing a bit of wisdom with my dear Jozef? Did I tell you already tonight that Jozef is joining the cavalry?”

“The Hussars, I believe, Madam.”

“Oh, you know all the right terms, of course! I’m so proud. Afraid, of course, as any mother must be. But so proud. I hope, Generalmajor, that you will watch out for my boy, make sure that he doesn’t find himself too much in danger. You know, of course, while this is all very good as a first step, I do hope that Jozef will not find himself trapped in barracks life for long. What I’ve always dreamed of for him is a position on the general staff. He has worked so hard, you know, on his mathematics at the university, and his languages. Perhaps some day, when you see the right opportunity, you can let me know?”

The old officer poured a tall glass of the slivovitz and handed it to Jozef.


Read the next installment

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Chapter 7-1

Vienna. July 25th, 1914. “Is Mother up yet?”

Elsa -- who occupied an amorphous role in the household which included lady’s maid, general light work, and his mother’s companion -- shook her head as she set the coffee pot down next to Jozef. “She did not sleep well last night. I don’t think she will be up before eleven.”

Jozef nodded and unfolded the paper: GOVERNMENT AWAITS SERBIAN RESPONSE TO ULTIMATUM.

“What did Mother have you bring in for breakfast?” he asked.

“Fruit. I think she was already feeling poorly last night, and she said she wanted nothing but fruit. Would you like some?”

Jozef shook his head and settled down to read the paper instead. If mother was likely to get up around eleven he had an hour to spend, and once he had talked to her he could get a pastry when he met the other fraternity men at the coffee house.

It had been an absolute rule of the household for as long as Jozef could remember that Mother’s half of the flat was never to be entered until she rang for Elsa and asked for her breakfast and mail to be brought in. The layout of the flat lent itself to such privacy. The main door led, through a small passage with a coat closet and hatrack, into the drawing room. From there a hall led back to the dining room, and behind a door the hall continued in more utilitarian style to the kitchen, Elsa’s bedroom, and other rooms into which Jozef and Lisette seldom ventured. To the right and left off the hall between drawing room and dining room opened two doors, one leading into Lisette’s sitting room and bedroom, the other leading into Jozef’s. Even as a little child, the arrangement had been thus, with Nurse having her room set up in the sitting room outside his bedroom. As a child this distance had at times brought heartbreak. Memories of such things had faded into the obscurity of childhood, but there had been times when the three or four-year-old Jozef had cried himself to sleep, wailing that he didn’t want Nurse, he wanted Mother. Lisette, however, had always been firm. From the time she went to bed until the time she rang her morning bell, she was not to be disturbed under any circumstances.

Now, as an adult, he much enjoyed the privacy of the arrangement. Each little suite even had its own back staircase, should one wish to go in and out without going through the main rooms, a feature which he had found useful on occasion when returning home the worse for drink.

Today, however, he had something that he particularly wanted to discuss with Mother, and so their mutual pact of privacy necessitated that he wait until the bell rang. In the meantime, he read the conditions to which the perfidious Serbs would have to agree if they were to avoid punishment for their obvious complicity in the assassination. They would not, of course. If the Serbs were capable of anything other than self destructive defiance they would not have reached this point. But it would be better if it was a sure thing. How many times had some half compromise been accepted to paper the attacks against the empire, and now they were practically the joke of Europe. If only they had simply declared war and not left a loophole of this ultimatum which might allow the bureaucrats and the diplomatists to wriggle their way out of taking any real action yet again.

At last, Elsa passed through the dining room carrying Lisette’s breakfast tray. Jozef waited a few minutes, finishing his cup of coffee and the article he had been reading and then went to see his mother.

Lisette was sitting in her bed, propped and surrounded by pillows, in a kimono-style dressing gown with a black background decorated by a print of huge white and red flowers. Her breakfast tray was set over her lap, and she was carefully cutting a plum with a fruit knife.

Jozef waited for his mother to provide some acknowledgement of his presence, but she gave none. Having removed the pit of the plum and cut the flesh into wedges, she took a sip of tea and began to eat the wedges one at a time with a little fork.

“Mother.”

As if sensing that she would not like what he had to say, Lisette remained focused on her breakfast tray, alternating between slices of plum and sips of tea. Jozef resolved to plunge on regardless of her response.

“Yesterday I met several of my fraternity comrades at the beer hall. You remember Theodor Meyr and Konstantin von Heideck. And there were a few others.”

Lisette suddenly looked up. “Of course, young von Heideck. We had him and his mother over for the tea on your name day two years ago. Such a kind woman, Baroness von Heideck.”

She seemed quite ready to go on indefinitely in this vein but Jozef took advantage of the pause when she took a sip of tea to regain control of the conversation.

“They were telling me about their decision. They have all joined the army. They went down to a recruiting office yesterday and signed up. All of them urged me to do the same, to serve the empire. Surely that’s what all of us young men are called to do at this time, isn’t it?”

She did not reply or meet his eye, but took up another plum and began to section it.

“All of them encouraged me to do the same, Mother. And I want to join them. For comradeship. And because--” He had thought about how to explain this so many times during the night, and yet actually making the case out loud was curiously difficult. The society talk, the light conversation which was the world that his mother thrived in, which she had brought him up to inhabit, was invariably distant, ironic, mocking, just a little bit tired of it all. Those habits were so long formed, that standing here in front of his mother it seemed almost impossible to say, ‘We young men are called to struggle and suffer for the empire, and I want to do something real, something authentic with my life at last.’ He could too easily picture his mother’s eyebrow arching as she said, ‘Authentic? Dear boy, if it’s authentic you want--’

“But of course,” Lisette said, interrupting the imaginary dialogue which had taken over his thoughts. “You are already serving the empire. You have not embarked upon one of the coarse professions: trade, money lending. You are studying in order to devote your whole life to the empire’s civil service. You can hardly compare a bit of playing about in uniform to that.”

“Mother…” He drew himself up, as if he were already wearing the Imperial-Royal uniform and coming to attention. “I want to join them. I think it’s something important and noble that they are doing. The only thing that held me back is that I knew I must discuss it with you before signing up.”

There was no light reply this time. Lisette was focusing all her attention on pouring just the right amount of tea into the delicate china cup on her tray. Then she stirred in a spoon of sugar and raised the cup to her lips. She did not meet her son’s eyes.

“I believe that I need to do this, Mother,” Jozef said. She must provide some response other than this determined silence, even a refusal. “I need to serve the empire. It’s my duty as a young man.”

She sipped her tea thoughtfully and then set the cup down.

“Well,” he asked. “Would I have your permission to join the army?”

She turned her eyes on him. “Jozef. My son. I would never begrudge the empire anything, even your very life, though it would cut me to the heart.” She placed her hand against the point where her dressing gown divided, and he could not decide if she was shaming him or mocking him with the emotion of the gesture. “As a mother, I ask nothing. I offer all I have. And yet… What do I ask you to remember? Not your mother’s heart. That is grist for the empire’s mill. I offer it happily. But think of your father, of his name, of his title. Of course, it is nothing if you sacrifice yourself on the field of glory, if I was left a poor widow with no son to inherit, but all I ask is that you think of your father, and of your cousins who had no respect for him, who will inherit if you are gone. And thinking of all these things, consider: Is it possible that you are actually sacrificing more, and benefitting the empire more, if you serve worthily your whole life in the civil service than if you throw away your position to serve in the ranks in order to satisfy some need for adventure or authenticity?”

The flood of objections was too various to be answered individually. “Are you forbidding me to join up, Mother?”

“Of course not. You’re too old for me to tell you what to do, Josef. You should know what’s right.”

“I believe that the right thing is for me to serve. This may be the defining event of my generation, the way that we bring new energy to the country. I don’t want to be left out.”

Lisette did not at first reply, and for a moment Jozef thought the conversation was over. Then he saw that large tears were beginning to trace their way down his mother’s cheeks. Was she so deeply moved, or more likely, did she have the ability to summon tears upon demand if argument was not getting her what she desired?

She dabbed the tears away with her handkerchief and shook her head. “I understand. You don’t want to be left out. Of course, I shall be left out. Left alone. To fear for the only family I have left to love in all the world. But that is of no consequence. Yes, go. You must if it is your duty.” The tears were coming faster now, and her voice trembled as she spoke.

He hesitated. The boundary between ploy and real emotion, with his mother, was not always easy to determine, if indeed she knew it herself. Was he indeed being selfish? Was this too much to put his mother through?

“If you tell me to stay, Mother, if you truly need me I won’t go.”

“No, Jozef. I would never tell you what to do in such a matter. Go if you believe you must.”

“I want to go, but I won’t if you tell me not to.”

The conversation went round after round, until Jozef felt ready to break down crying himself, or perhaps more likely, to smash something against the wall. Every offer to not go was refused, and yet just as it seemed she had agreed to his enlisting she would again lay out how utterly devastated and alone she would be.

“Mother,” he said at last, the exasperation clearly evident at last in his voice. “If you tell me, as your son, not to join the army I will respect your wishes and stay. But you must tell me. You cannot make me change my own mind and want to stay. And if you won’t clearly tell me not to go, I will go.”

For a moment, Lisette focused a malevolent eye on him. This clear formulation was not appreciated. Then she picked up another plum and her fruit knife and began to section the fruit. No further words from her son could get the slightest response from her. Once she had consumed all the slices and meticulously wiped her fingers with her napkin, she pulled the bell rope and told Elsa, as if there were no one else present, “I’m ready to dress now. I think the light green silk, today.”

Jozef left the room and the flat.

The streets outside were cheerfully bustling with the activity of late morning on a Saturday. After the long verbal struggle in his mother’s bedroom, where the still-drawn curtains had given the impression of early morning, the bright sunlight and hurrying passers-by who neither knew nor cared about his own errand or his own choices were refreshing, and he resolved to walk the half mile to his preferred coffee house, near the university. A streetcar rumbled to a stop nearby, paused while two charwomen got off, and then set off again clanging its bell as it moved through the intersection. Jozef let it pass and continued on his way on foot.

The Cafe Prieler was not among Vienna’s most notable cafes. Freud had never held forth there. Trotsky had never composed polemics on its round, marble-topped tables. However, it was located on the Felderstrasse, near the University, and it had a tolerance for students and their habits.

On entering, Jozef spotted Theodor Meyr along at a table with a selection of newspapers spread out before him. He flagged a waiter, ordered coffee and cheese pastries, and then went to join his friend.

“Any news in the foreign papers?” Jozef asked, recognizing French and English as he looked over Theodor’s shoulder.

He shook his head. “Even less than ours.”

Jozef laboriously read his way through the two paragraphs about the ultimatum on the front page of Le Figaro, but his French was even more cursory than the interest of the Paris papers in the crisis. Then his coffee and pastry arrived, along with a tall glass of water, and he pushed the paper away from him in order to focus on these.

“I talked to my mother about the army this morning,” he said after several more moments.

“Yes?” Theodor was immediately focused on his friend rather than the paper. “Will you be joining us? What did she say?”

“She hates the idea. She argued, she cried, she told me I’d be abandoning my father’s legacy if I went and got killed, but she wouldn’t actually tell me not to go, she just made it very clear that she would be unhappy if I did.”

“Well, of course, that’s natural. What woman wouldn’t be unhappy at her son being exposed to danger, no matter how noble the cause? But she must recognize too the necessity; that’s why she didn’t actually forbid you to go.”

This seemed, if anything, an overly reasonable description of his mother’s feelings and response. However, it would be more comfortable to move on to other topics than his difficulties with his mother. “How are your own preparations?”

Theodor shrugged. “Well, as you can see, I’m a man of action today.” He waved the newspaper. “Everything is so slow. I’m to report for a medical examination on Wednesday. After that I will be told where and when to report. God, we need a good war to shake us out of our complacency. I’ll be lucky to even be issued a uniform before we’ve finished Serbia.”

So much thought had been focused during the last few weeks on whether there would be a war with Serbia and whether they could get into it in time that the question of what would happen afterwards had not previously occurred to Jozef, until the phrasing of Theodor’s complaint suggested it.

“What will happen with your enlistment if the war is over before you’re trained and ready?”

“I don’t know exactly. The enlistment form said ‘a term of two years unless extended for war or national emergency’ but if Serbia’s taught its lesson in a few weeks I suppose they won’t have much use for all of us who just signed up.”

“But you’re enlisted in the infantry. Won’t they just send you off somewhere for two years?” What was it that nationalist officer had said at Baroness Miko’s, something about being stationed off in Ruthenia? “Do you know what regiment you’ll be in, or where it’s stationed?”

“I told them I didn’t care where I was put so long as I could get in quickly. Jozef, you’re letting your mother’s talk get into your head. You mustn’t think of this as a career decision, it’s a national emergency. Patriotic duty isn’t something to be measured and rationed anymore than love, it’s to be given freely and gladly.”

Perhaps it was selfish, but it seemed impossible not to consider the contrast between the infantry regiments he’d seen march through the city streets -- in their dull blue-grey uniforms and slouch hats, their huge greatcoats making them look like boys trying on their father’s clothes, and their chests criss-crossed with the leather straps for their enormous backpacks and assorted other pouches and bags -- with the dash and splendor of Friedrich’s Hussar uniform. It was not a strictly aesthetic difference, though if he interrogated himself he was forced to admit that he would prefer to be seen in the latter to the former. No, the exterior reflected an interior difference. Friedrich was an officer. He was trained to lead men, to make decisions, to win battles. And beyond rank, the showiness of the cavalry uniforms reflected the more essential function of that arm on the battlefield. The infantry soldiers, slogging along with their steps looking too small for the oversized bodies of their great coats, held ground; but it was the cavalry, their horses stepping quickly, their swords hanging at their sides and their carbines slung over their shoulders, who would swoop down and take ground. If only he had followed Friedrich into the cavalry years ago rather than letting his mother guide him into the university, destined for the civil service.

“Well,” Theodor asked. “Are you going to join us? You know this hesitance of your mother’s is just…” He paused to find the right words with which, from his extensive knowledge of the human condition, to explain a woman’s reluctance to see her son go to war. “It’s just the natural maternal inability, conditioned by her years spent suckling and caring for an infant, to recognize that her son has grown into a man. No matter what her feelings of the moment, she’ll be proud of you if you take the uniform. And when the misgivings of the moment are passed, she’ll think less of the son who doesn’t fight for the glory of the empire.”

“I’ll serve,” Jozef said. “I just need to decide how to do it. If I’m going to join up, I want to make sure that I’m able to see action.”

Theodor clapped him on the back. “You’re in the same boat with all of us then, brother. Sign and pray.”

“I think-- The recruiting office is closed until Monday anyway, isn’t it?” A plan began to form, and it was one that could perhaps be acted on immediately.

“Yes. I don’t know why it isn’t open day and night at a time like this.”

“I have an idea. I need to go see a friend.”

***

Jozef’s knock was answered not by Friedrich or his soldier servant, but by Minna, Friedrich’s opera singer mistress.

“Oh, have you come too?” she asked, leaving the door open wide and turning back into the flat. “Come in. Join the madness. We’re all mad here today.”

Having left the door open for him, she walked away with no apparent interest in his presence. Jozef found his eyes fixed on her narrow waist, set off by her high-waisted skirt, and saw her hips moved as she walked, which seemed somehow more knowing and confident than the unmarried women her age he normally met. Self consciously, he made himself look away. This was Friedrich’s woman and the unconscious violation of their friendship. He shut the door behind him and went looking for Friedrich.

He found him in his bedroom, where he and his soldier servant were in the midst of packing a vast array of uniforms and supplies.

“Jozef! I’m so glad you came. Otherwise I might not have seen you before leaving.” He turned to the soldier servant, who was carrying a stack of white, high collared shirts. “Put those in the chest over there, please.” He took a stack of cigar boxes off a chair and set them on top of a pair of wine crates that were stacked at the foot of the bed. “Here, have a seat. I’m sorry for the chaos. As you can see, I’m packing.”

Jozef sat down as ordered, looking around and wondering what volume of baggage Friedrich expected to take with him. “Have you been given orders? Is there news about the ultimatum? A declaration of war?”

“No news yet, but my regiment has been put on orders to be prepared to move on twenty-four hours notice. I’m having all my campaign equipage packed and loaded with the other regimental freight, and then I’ll stay in barracks until we depart.”

Looking around again at the stacks of material being organized, Jozef hazarded to say, “It’s rather a lot of stuff, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes, it is, isn’t it.” Friedrich shrugged. “But we’re allocated plenty of freight space, and those of us who can ought to do it in style, I think, so that we can treat all the others. You know, it’s not all rich younger sons like me. Anyone who serves twenty years in the army can get his son into cadet training to become an officer. And even some of the nobility who join out of family tradition don’t really have any money to do things properly. Believe me, those boxes of cigars and cases of champagne will go quickly if I have all the other officers in the squadron over. Max!”

The soldier servant entered from the drawing room carrying several books.

“Put these in the chest with the campaign uniforms.” He took the boxes of cigars from the wine crates and handed them to Max. “I don’t want them getting crushed, and if the smell hangs on those I don’t mind.”

Having thus cleared the crates, he sat down on them. “So tell me, what did you come about? Not to see my packing, that’s for certain.”

Jozef took a moment to gather his courage. Asking for help had seemed the obvious approach, far superior to enlisting at a recruiting office and hoping for the best, and Friedrich was a friend, but actually asking for a favor so bluntly was not as easy, when the time came, as he had expected.

“My friends from the university have all enlisted. They believe there will be war--”

“Oh, there will. Depend upon it. We won’t let this pass.”

“Well, we all believe that we should serve the empire. They went down yesterday and enlisted in the infantry. Everything is so busy right now, they won’t even be getting a medical exam until Wednesday, and they don’t know where or when they’ll be serving.”

“In the mud, like as not. Jozef, don’t just throw yourself into the infantry. You’re not some Romanian peasant or Czech worker. You’ve spent two years in university, if you’re going to join up you should become a cadet.”

“Yes, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. Is there some way I can join the cavalry, perhaps even become an officer, rather than just enlisting in the ranks?”

Friedrich looked down at his boots and ruffled the hair at the back of his head with one hand for a moment. “Not an easy thing at this notice, though you’re right to think of becoming a cadet. Still, everyone in the empire has got army fever right now. Don’t think you’d be the only one asking for a favor. And becoming an officer isn’t just a matter of issuing you a sword and uniform. By the time you’re half trained the war could be over.”

“But surely, if I joined the infantry like the rest, I could still miss the war while still in training.” He’d half feared that Friedrich would tell him that he didn’t have what it took to become a cavalryman. That, at least, he seemed to be spared, but it had not occurred to him that his friend would suggest it was too late to join the war at all. “And in that case I’d still be an enlisted man in the infantry for another two years. If I’m to serve, I want to serve where I can make the most difference.”

“No, no. You’re right of course.” Friedrich got up from his stack of wine crates and paced the room several times. “Well, I’ll tell you what I know for sure, and that’s that there’s no chance of getting you attached to any of the squadrons in my regiment. We’ve already got a full compliment of cadets, and as the Emperor’s Hussars, our regiment is always in the most demand. Besides, our Oberst isn’t especially inclined to grant me favors at the moment; that last duel made a bit of trouble for him, killing a dragoon officer just as we’re all likely to be deployed soon. Who do I know elsewhere… Better yet, who does Father know elsewhere?”

He paced for a moment longer in silence, then stopped. “Ah! I have it. Come on! We’re going to pay a call on Oberst Jelen.”

Friedrich snatched up a uniform coat that was hanging over the bedpost and pulled it on, then hurried towards the door, fastening buttons as he went. Jozef followed in his wake.


“Who is Oberst Jelen?”

“An officer on the general staff who is also a friend of my father’s. If anyone can help you with this, he can.”

Oberst Jelen’s flat was not far away, a slightly less ostentatious, but no less well located, block of flats within the Ringstrasse, complete with balding concierge behind the desk and an unsteady little lift whose construction of slim metal bars made it resemble a bird cage. The door was opened by a soldier servant, wearing the pale blue of the regular Imperial-Royal army rather than the red and blue of the Hussars. The Oberst was sitting at his desk, a small cup of coffee at his side and papers spread out before him in an array of neatly squared stacks.

He greeted Friedrich warmly and enquired as to his father, before asking them what their business was. Friedrich laid out the problem, and Oberst Jelen sat back in his chair, his finger steepled before him, and regarded Jozef.

“So, you are a university student.”

“Yes, sir. I’m in my second year.”

“And your age?”

“Nineteen.”

“Well… You understand, of course, that if the war proves a matter of a few weeks, there’s nothing anyone can do for you. This will be a war, not a school outing, and while the feelings of all the men signing up are sincere and right, it is trained and equipped men that we must send against Serbia. However, it may take up to a year to fully pacify the country. This won’t be some little punitive expedition. We must eliminate Serbia as a danger on our border and a source of instability in the region. That means occupation, and that takes time and men. So here is what I can do for you. I can enlist you as a reserve officer cadet. You’ll be sent immediately to train. That will take some months, but if the war is stretching on I’m sure things will be made to move quickly. And the war is over quickly, well, you’d be out of luck anyway. And as a reserve officer you serve one year and then can decide whether to apply to become an active duty officer or go into reserve status and return to your studies with your compulsory service taken care of. How does that sound to you?”

Jozef thanked him profusely.

Oberst Jelen smiled. “Yes, yes. Don’t thank me, young man. It’s not a favor, because of course I never do those. And give my regards to Baron von Goldfaden. Now…” He took a pair of gold-rimmed pince nez on a slim chain from the breast pocket of his uniform coat and perched them on his nose. “Now let me see. There’s a set of cadets being dispatched for training on August 1st. I think that we can add one more. Can you be ready by then? Good. You’re responsible for buying all your kit. Go to one of the reputable military supply houses and show them your orders, they’ll let you know what you need. Find a good tailor to make your dress uniforms, that’s always important. We can’t let standards slip or what will they think of us. Now, I’ll just write the orders out now, and we can all be on our ways.”

He took a piece of official stationery and wrote several lines on it in a flowing hand, then signed it with a flourish and added an official stamp in blue ink. After waving the sheet in the air for a moment to dry it he handed the orders to Jozef and stood up to clasp hands with him and then with Friedrich. Then with a bow he turned back to his paperwork, leaving the soldier servant to escort them out.

“I that all there is to it?” Jozef asked, when they were once more in the street.

“All? My dear Jozef, you don’t think that such wheels turn for just anyone, do you? Don’t let his appearance throw you off. You may not have heard of him, but after Generalfeldmarschall von Hotzendorf there aren’t many other men with more power over where our soldiers move than Jelen. And unlike von Hotzendorf, Jelen actually knows where all the units are, how many men are in them, and what supplies they have on hand.”

“I didn’t mean-- I’m sorry. Friedrich, don’t think I’m not grateful. I just meant it seems strange that all I need is this piece of paper and now I’m ready to become a cadet.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m glad to give the favor. Now you’d better go break the news to your mother and get some money out of her. You’ll find that equipping yourself as a cadet doesn’t come free.”

They parted and Jozef returned home, catching a streetcar this time in order to get there quicker. Every time it crackled in his pocket he was aware of the piece of paper in his breast pocket which turned him from a university student into a cavalry cadet.

Lisette was sitting at her writing desk, answering her morning’s correspondence, when he entered.

“Why, Jozef! How has your morning been?”

He explained his enrollment as a cavalry cadet, and that he would be departing in a week. At first he had feared that she would burst into tears, or argue, or demand that he stay. Instead she listened with complete calm, then turned back to her letters.

“Countess Hadik is giving a reception on Thursday,” she said.

“Mother, I’ll be leaving in a week. I’ll need some money to buy uniforms and equipment.”

“I’m sure that Baroness Miko is going. Perhaps I can ride with her in her car.”

It was impossible to get any response to his news out of her. At last, Jozef gave up trying and went out. It was that night, while he and his other fraternity comrades were celebrating their enlistment at a beerhall, that the news arrived and rushed through the crowd like a wave: The government had declared Serbia’s response unacceptable. The emperor had signed the order to mobilize the army. Cheers broke out and more drinks were ordered. They were going to war.



Read the next installment.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Chapter 6-3

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.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Chapter 6-2


Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. Friday, July 31, 1914.

“Henri.”

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.

“Yes?”

“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?”

“A bit.”

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.

“Henri?”

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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