This has been a long time in coming, not for any lack of effort. The installment nearly five times as long as the average installment, but there are big events to cover as Henri goes into the Battle of the Marne.
Near Nanteuil le Hardouin, France. September 8th, 1914. It was dark in the room. Then a dancing light began to play upon the walls, and he caught the slight smell of sulfur in the air. It must have been the pop of a match being struck that had awakened him. Henri sat up in the bed and saw Lieutenant Rejol lighting a pair of stubby candles on the dressing table.
Fishing his watch out of his pocket, Henri looked at the time. 5:40 AM.
“What are you doing, Lieutenant?” he asked, keeping his voice to a whisper.
From the dressing table Rejol picked up a strip of cloth on which gold embroidery glinted in the candle light. He draped the stole over his shoulders, a jarring contrast with his uniform tunic, and lifted each end in turn to kiss the crosses embroidered on it. “You’re religious, aren’t you, Captain? Can you serve mass for me?”
“The bugles aren’t going to blow until six.”
Rejol nodded. “There’s only just time.”
“Why on a Tuesday? Can’t you wait for Sunday?”
The lieutenant shrugged. “Who knows which of us will be alive on Sunday.”
Who indeed. The last twenty-four hours had been devoted so fully to getting them to this place that he had been allowed little time to think of the purpose for which they were here.
“I didn’t grow up religious. I was never an altar boy. I don’t know how.” But Henri was getting out of bed, being careful not to jostle Morel, who was clearly a sound sleeper.
“It’s not difficult.” Rejol opened his missal and laid it flat on the dressing table. “All you have to do is say the responses. When we reach one, I’ll point to it and you just pronounce it as best you can.”
Henri shook his head in disbelief, but knelt down next to his lieutenant, remembering how the altar boys knelt next to the priest at the beginning of mass.
Father Rejol murmured Latin phrases in a voice too low for Henri to hear, even as he knelt right next to him. Several times the priest crossed himself. Then he said in a soft but audible voice, “Kyrie Eleison.”
He pointed to the missal, and Henri repeated the response, “Kyrie Eleison.”
The mass was brief. No organ, no murmured rosary by the congregation, no sermon. When the time came Rejol poured a sip’s worth of wine from a flask into the little gold chalice and put a single, small host onto the patten. He leant over them, as if whispering to the bread and wine the part that they would be asked to play. His hands made the sign of the cross over them three times and then spoke softly to them again.
There some something curiously involving about this short, quiet sacrifice said on a dressing table. Henri had never been so close, seen the details of the priest’s actions and heard his low voice during the many quiet parts of the service. The darkness around the candles’ little pool of light isolated them from the surrounding world, taking them out of time. How many other times and places had these words been said? Perhaps five hundred years ago, knights following Joan of Arc had knelt thus next to a priest to hear mass before putting on their armor and taking up their weapons to drive English invaders off of French soil.
They were done before six o’clock, and Lieutenant Rejol packed away the mass kit in a black leather-bound box which he returned to his pack.
“Thank you, Captain.”
Henri shrugged. The experience was one which seemed violated by discussion or by any outside observer. He was glad that Morel had not awakened. Even Rejol, at this moment disconcertingly filling the roles of both lieutenant and priest simultaneously, seemed an invasion of privacy. A few minutes before he had been playing a part in something that was not his own, something far older than either of them. Now he was a more junior officer who had seen Henri in a moment of prayer.
“I’m going to go down and see if the orderlies have made coffee,” said Henri. “Make sure that Morel is awake before you come down.” He escaped downstairs. When Rejol appeared after having obeyed his instructions, they would simply be fellow officers, the awkwardness of this other connection gone.
In the kitchen, a coffee pot was bubbling on the black enameled stove whose bulk crouched against the wall opposite the back staircase. A kerosene lantern burned on the table, making the room cheery, although the bluish pre-dawn light straggling in through the windows was still weak. The door banged and an orderly came in, carrying a coal scuttle. He wrapped the coffee pot in a towel and carried it over to the kitchen table, then used a lid lifter to pick up the iron burner plate so he could shake a few pieces of coal into the fire below.
“I’m afraid it’s a little primitive here, sir,” he said. “But I found lots of jam in the pantry and there’s fresh bread on the table from the mobile bakery.”
Henri poured himself a cup of coffee and spread jam on a slice of the heavy, brown army bread. Outside the bugles sounded. Six o’clock.
Lieutenants Rejol and Morel came down the stairs with a clatter of steel shod boots on wood, and a moment later they were followed by Lieutenant Dupuis and Sergeant Carpentier, who had spent the night in the attic bedroom.
It was as Henri was pouring a second cup of coffee that the first German shell struck out in the farm yard. The sound was sharper than a thunderclap.The glass in the window panes rattled and cups and silverware on the table vibrated. Henri poured hot coffee over his hand and swore, dropping the cup which chattered on the the floor.
He ran for the kitchen door, the other officers following him, urgent to see what was happening outside. As he was about to reach it another shell landed, closer to the house, and the kitchen window exploded inwards, spraying glass shards into the room along with acrid smoke which burned in his nostrils.
The Last First Communion
59 minutes ago