This fifth installment concludes Chapter 11. Chapter 12 will focus on Walter.
Ognes, France. September 9th, 1914. The stone row house in which the officers of 6th Battalion were quartered was narrow, just one room across. The two lieutenants who were the only remaining officers of 23rd company were sleeping in the sitting room, which made up the front half of the ground floor, and so Henri was seated at the table in the back room, which served as kitchen, laundry and dining room all in one. By the gently wavering light of a kerosene lantern he sat staring at the piece of stationery on which he had written the date, the name of the town and then: Monsieur Dupuis,
He wanted nothing more than to follow the example of so many other officers and dull the day’s exhaustion with enough cognac to assure a dreamless transition to deep sleep. Yet it would not become any easier to write to Lieutenant Dupuis’s father as more days passed, and if he himself were wounded or killed, the father might never receive word of his son’s last days. Surely he was owed that much.
And yet the blank paper lay in silent challenge. What could it benefit a father to hear?
I was with your son the moment he stood up in a moment of brave thoughtlessness and a German bullet blew fragments of his skull and brains into the grass.
Rejoice! With such a great hole blown in his head, your son cannot possibly have felt the wound that killed him. He did not even twitch when he hit the ground.
He mouthed the words and his conscience could not tell if it was a prayer or curse. Pere Lebas’s lenten retreat came back to him: sitting next to Philomene in the church back in Chateaux Ducloux each Friday night as the priest delivered his talks on the last words of Christ. But when Christ had called out “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” had He done so in the spirit of transcendent prayer which Pere Lebas seemed to imagine, or had He done so in the full, human horror of suffering and blood, of tormented body and despair?
What would Rejol say about those words after these last few days?
There was a knock at the kitchen door, and Henri escaped the blank sheet of stationery to answer it.
A staff car with dimmed lights was idling in the narrow alley, and on the step stood a Lieutenant Colonel, his uniform clean and crisp, his brass buttons gleaming even in the dim light against the blue-black expanse of his uniform tunic.
“What can I do for you, sir?” Henri asked, conscious of the grubbiness of his own uniform after two days in the field.
“I was told the officers of 6th Battalion were quartered in this house. Is that correct?”
“Good. I am Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine, executive officer of the 104th Regiment. I don’t believe we’ve met, Captain.”
Henri recalled the short officer with his reddish hair and precisely trimmed beard from the regimental maneuvers the last time the reserves had been called up, a year before, but it was no surprise that the active regiment’s second in command did not remember all of the officers in the attached reserve regiment.
“Captain Fournier, sir. 22nd Company, 6th Battalion.”
“Ah.” The Lieutenant Colonel looked Henri up and down. “Well, you’re the man I’m looking for, Captain Fournier."