tagRomanceMadeleine Ch. 05

Madeleine Ch. 05

byjack_straw©

September, 1916

Paris, France


It was a Monday, when my life took a significant turn. I had completed my morning exercise at the embassy and had arrived in my office when I was summoned to Mr. Stark's office for what was described as an urgent meeting.

This in itself was not unusual, as I spent almost half my time in the ambassador's company, discussing events, planning strategies or interpreting for him.

But this time, I found him in the company of a high-ranking British general and the second-in-command at the French Foreign Ministry. Introductions were made and I was offered a seat in the semicircle in front of Mr. Stark's desk.

"Robert, you have been called here for a new assignment," he began. "We have talked much of America's coming role in this war, and I have been ordered to begin preliminary preparations. It is not a matter of whether the United States will enter the war, but when and how. Of course, nothing will happen until after the election, and probably not until after the new year. But you and I both know it is inevitable. The stakes are too damn high for us to not act. If Germany wins, it will be a catastrophe for Western civilization. Democracy will be set back at least a generation. As such, it is crucial that we have some detailed understanding of what our troops are going to confront once they get here."

"And how does my role fit in this?" I said, as a queasy feeling grew in my stomach.

"Mr. Guidry, you have been close to the front, but you have not actually seen what it is like on the front lines," the British officer said. "We are proposing to take you directly to where the fighting is, for you to use your special talents for observation and analysis so that you may assess what you Yanks are going to need when the time comes."

"Has the Secretary of State signed off on this?" I asked, not quite believing that a high-ranking functionary in the Wilson Administration would have proposed such a dangerous breach of American neutrality.

"He has, and so has the President," William Stark said, pointedly. "They specifically proposed that you be the one to undertake this mission. They are assured of your thoroughness and discretion."

"Will I be in danger in this mission?" I said, now beginning to warm to the idea. "And if so, will I be able to defend myself?"

"Monsieur, you will be protected as much as it is possible, but, yes, there could be danger," the French official spoke for the first time. "You will, of course, be allowed to use any means necessary to protect yourself, should it come to that. But I do not believe you will be tested in that manner."

As I looked in the faces of the French official and the British general, I could see just a hint of desperation on their faces. They had tried everything to break the stalemate on the Western Front, and nothing had worked. So now they were just waiting for the Americans to come to the rescue.

The only consolation for them was that the war wasn't going any better for the Germans, either.

In early spring, Germany had launched a ferocious assault on the French fortress at Verdun, knowing that France would throw everything it had into the defense of what was a city of great emotional significance to the French people.

The idea, which could be gleaned from whispered conversations among the neutral diplomats and intercepted wireless messages that found their way into our hands, was that the Germans intended to bleed France dry at Verdun, and if they could actually take the fortresses and the city of Verdun itself, that it might well break the French will.

But by this point, after months of bloody, ineffectual fighting and autumn approaching, I could see that strategy backfiring on Germany, as their casualties were every bit as high as those of the French.

As for the British, they had their own problems. They had spent much of 1915 engaged in an utterly futile mess in the area near Constantinople, where they had made hoped to force the Ottoman Turks to capitulate. Instead, it had been the British who had been embarrassed, with a shocking number of casualties.

The British had also been blind-sided by a sudden uprising in Ireland, which had been put down with considerably more force and loss of life than most impartial observers deemed necessary.

But all of that had paled in comparison to the debacle they had endured in July at the Somme, where 60,000 British soldiers had been killed in the first day of what was supposed to be a decisive offensive. They were at that moment still trying to achieve a breakthrough, but for the most part, it had simply petered out with only a few hundred yards -- maybe -- changing hands.

This war had unfolded much like I had warned Marcel two years earlier, only it had become much more of a bloody nightmare than even I could have envisioned.

And now, I was apparently going to be thrust into the middle of it, whether I was ready or not.

Madeleine was still not fully recovered from childbirth when I told her the news of my new assignment. I impressed upon her that she must tell absolutely no one of what I was going to be engaged in, not even her father -- especially not her father.

As much as I loved Marcel, I knew his nature was to share news with everyone, and I had reason to believe that his bistro harbored a few men from the diplomatic corps who were working as agents for the Germans.

Indeed, a young Brazilian functionary who often drank at Marcel's bar had been expelled from the country a few months earlier, allegedly for espionage. In my opinion, he'd been lucky the French hadn't stood him up in front of a firing squad, and the only reason he wasn't was that he was a diplomat from a neutral nation.

I knew how tricky my position was to those in my own embassy, and by extension in America itself. Americans were deeply divided over the war, but at that moment the majority still favored staying out of it.

In fact, Mr. Wilson was in a hotly-contested re-election campaign against the Republican, Charles Evans Hughes, and both men were running on neutrality platforms.

Moreover, there were plenty of neutralists in the American embassy in Paris, who would highly disapprove of an American attaché becoming involved in a mission that was clearly, overwhelmingly partisan to the Allies.

And I knew, too, that if I were captured or killed that my government would make every effort to distance itself from my activities. Therefore, I had to be careful, knowing I was on my own.

Needless to say, Madeleine was very upset over the thought of my going anywhere near the front, but she also understood that I had a duty to serve my country in any way necessary. This was my job, and I couldn't say no.

The worst part was that Madeleine was still restricted from sexual relations after childbirth, so the extent of our last night together before I left was some cuddling and kissing. Not bad in itself, but not what I would have wanted before heading off to experience the war.

On October 1, I met my contact with the British Army, who was assigned to escort me to the front. By mid-afternoon, I was in the rear reaches of the trench system, and it was then I began the process that cost me a part of my soul.

The trenches were an elaborate system of defenses in depth, an incredible feat of engineering, really. But the whole process, the whole lifestyle built around the trenches was completely dehumanizing.

If you put men in situations where they are forced to live like animals, one shouldn't be surprised when they act like animals. And that was very close to how men lived in the trenches during that dreadful time, like animals.

By this time, efforts were made to rotate units from the front to the rear for rest, recuperation and refitting. But when a soldier was on the front line, there was little opportunity to bathe or practice anything like proper hygiene.

Worse then anything, however, were the smells of the trenches, almost all of them foul. There was the acrid stench of explosives, the rich odor from the latrines, the putrid smell of rotting flesh and, of course, the earthy smell of mud, which seemed to absorb all of these smells into one pungent stew.

Mud, in fact, was the one constant in the trenches. It was everywhere, and when you were on the front lines, you could forget about dry feet, especially when it rained. There was always a detail repairing and refurbishing the trenches in one spot or another, and it was because of the mud.

I took with me stacks of notebooks and recorded everything I saw and did. I did everything with the units I was with except go over the top, which happened once or twice while I was there, to little effect.

The reaction of the French and British troops could be boiled down to two basic types. There was resentment at this Yank in their midst, "playing at war," as one Limey soldier put it. Or there was a sort of mad joy as they assumed that my presence meant that America was entering the war on the side of the Allies.

I always hated to disappoint them by telling them that, no, we weren't yet in the war. As for the others, they soon came around when I proved willing to pitch in and help out whenever needed.

However, America's entry into the war became a stronger possibility when we got the news that President Wilson had been re-elected, though not by much.

I knew from the brief conversation we had had on the one occasion when I had met the president back in 1914, that he believed strongly in Western-style democracy, which was best represented by the Allies.

Whatever other shortcomings the man possessed, he was sincere about that and never wavered in his belief that America would and should be the defender of democracy, should it come to that.

At any rate, I spent two months in the theater, and it was a life-changing time. If I had been a skeptic about life and politics before, my time at the front made my a full-blown cynic.

I just could not fathom the mindset of the leaders who had gotten the world to the point where millions of men were living and acting like mindless animals. And, of course, I learned in the trenches that life was awfully cheap.

The one thing that came through loud and clear, and which was reflected in the report I subsequently delivered, was that if America came into the war, it must play by its own rules, and try not to get sucked into the trenches.

The British and French had this notion that America would merely provide fresh fodder for the war machine in the West. I stressed over and over in my report that we must not allow this to happen.

My moment of truth, the day I lost my soul, so to speak, came on a dreary day in mid-November. I was with a British unit in a forward position when out of nowhere our little sector came under attack.

It started with a brief mortar barrage, which was largely for the purpose of destroying the barbed wire in No Man's Land, the area of tortured earth that separated the front lines of each side.

After about a half-hour, we heard the voices coming from the German side, of commanders ordering an assault group to press forward.

The Brits seemed to know what was coming, for the machine gunners quickly manned their position, and the riflemen stood at the ready.

"I want you back and out of the way," the British captain said to me quickly, between barking out orders to his men. "If the worst happens, and we get overrun, don't try to be a hero. There are worse things than surrendering, especially since you are technically a neutral."

"Some neutral," I said. "I don't think those Jerrys coming over here will appreciate the niceties of international diplomacy."

"Just stay out of the way," the captain said. "We can handle this. It's probably just an exercise, just to let us know they're still out there."

It was a little more than that, as we could hear some skirmishing on either side of our position. But the captain and his men were cool under fire, and they quickly began to take their toll on the gray-clad Germans who were coming through the mist.

How can I describe the chaos of that moment? There was the constant clatter of the machine guns, the popping of the automatic rifles, the strident voices of the officers and the desperate cries of the men who were hit by the return fire of the Germans.

As for me, I was glad I had just the day before cleaned and oiled the automatic pistol I carried with me. I had it out of my holster, just in case.

At the height of the fighting, a half-dozen German soldiers made it into our trench, and the fighting was hand-to-hand in many areas throughout the trench.

Looking around the corner from where I was standing, I saw a large German and a British sergeant wrestling in the mud on the floor of the trench. The German had a large knife in his hand and he had the smaller British officer on his back, with only the Brit's desperate maneuvering keeping the German at bay.

I didn't hesitate. I reached out and fired twice at the German's neck. He slumped heavily onto the sergeant, who quickly rolled the dead man over and crawled shakily off the floor. Another German soldier turned his rifle in our direction, and I shot him three times.

At that point, an artillery barrage commenced from behind us, and the German attack quickly ground to a halt.

The sergeant and the captain both couldn't thank me enough, but the incident left me shaken. I was amazed at how easily killing men in combat came back to me. Moreover, any lingering thoughts of neutrality were left shattered by my actions.

Needless to say, no mention of my role in the day's activities was mentioned in any official reports. It was just one of those little things that happen in the fog of war.

It was getting on toward the end of the year, just before Christmas, when I was abruptly pulled from the French unit where I was staying and ordered back to Paris. I had begun to wonder if the U.S. Embassy had forgotten about me, even though I sent periodic dispatches back to the ambassador.

It was just gone dark when I trudged up the stairs to our apartment, having come straight from the front. Mr. Stark himself had met me at the staging point at the rear, and had told me to go home, take the holiday time to get my bearings and come see him after Christmas.

I was tired and dirty, and I wondered if Madeleine would even recognize me. I hadn't had a haircut, and I hadn't shaved for several weeks, which made me appear as a street bum.

I stopped just outside our door, as I heard from inside the sound of Madeleine's voice singing a lullaby to our child. Then, as I put the key in the door, she stopped with a sharp gasp.

"Robert?" she asked hesitantly, when she got her first look at my appearance. Then, as recognition dawned, she squealed happily and rushed to my arms.

She still had Marie on her shoulder, but that didn't matter, as the three of us shared a welcome-home embrace that almost made the previous two months bearable. Almost.

Then she wept in earnest as she looked deeply into my eyes and saw the pain of what I had seen while I was away.

"Oh, Robert, you have seen the war, and it is worse than we imagined, isn't it," she said tearfully.

"Yes, yes it is, much worse," I said. "But I am glad to be home."

"Come, you must eat, then we will clean you up, so I can have my Robert back," she said. "I am just about to put Marie down for the night. She is such a good baby."

Before she did that, though, I took my daughter in my arms and fell in love with her all over again. She cooed and pulled at my beard with the happy innocence of the very young.

I wondered in that moment what kind of world we would bequeath to her generation, and that brought a cloud to my face that Madeleine instantly recognized.

At length, the child fell asleep on my shoulder, while Madeleine worked in the kitchen getting me something to eat. She hadn't had anything prepared, because she hadn't expected me home that night, but she was able to rustle up some stew.

After getting the baby to bed, Madeleine set about putting water on to boil for my bath while I ate the meal she had hastily prepared.

A word here about our apartment. It was in a fairly new building and had been wired for electricity and gas, both of which were fairly new developments in building construction at the time. We had a modern gas oven and a new electric icebox that helped keep food fresh, and the building also had running water and indoor plumbing, luxuries I hadn't had growing up in Louisiana.

But we were still a few years away from the time when homes commonly had water heating units, so in order to have a hot bath, one put several pots of water on the stove to boil, and would do that until the water was the proper temperature.

Through it all, Madeleine kept looking over at me with a beguiling, somewhat nervous smile, like she couldn't quite believe I was home.

Once she had everything set on the stove, she came over to the chair where I was sitting and sat right down in my lap and just held me.

"I have missed you so, my husband," she said softly. "I don't want to lose you."

"You'll never lose me, my dear," I said. "Even when we're apart, you'll never be far from my heart."

"Will you have to go back?" she asked, after a minute or so as she sat together and held each other, becoming familiar again with the feel of the other's body.

"For the moment, no," I said. "But who knows what the new year will bring. We believe the Germans are going to resort to unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic soon, and if they do, it may well drive us into the war before very long. If that happens, then I will more than likely be returning to the front in some capacity. I don't think I'll be fighting, however. I'm much too valuable to the embassy for that."

"You know, I am proud of you, Robert," Madeleine said. "I have the best husband a woman could have. You are smart, brave, honest and loving, plus you have an important job serving your country. Who could ask for more?"

Just then the water began to boil, and we carried the pots of water to the bathroom to fill in the tub. Madeleine shooed me out as she worked to get things just right. After a few minutes, she called me in.

I gave a soft gasp when I saw what she had done. She had turned the gas lamp down and had several candles at various points in the room, giving it a soft, sensual feel.

She herself was still dressed in the black skirt and white blouse she preferred, but she had removed her stockings, and had rolled up the sleeves and unbuttoned the top two buttons of her blouse. And, finally, she had let her hair down. I don't know that she had ever looked better.

"Take off your clothes and relax in the bath, my love," she said softly. "It is my job as wife to take all of your cares away, to treat you as a man deserves to be treated."

I wasn't about to argue. It had been weeks since I'd had a hot bath, and I was relishing the chance to enjoy one in the company of my beautiful young wife.

Once I was naked and in the bath, I relaxed, really, for the first time in many weeks. I was home -- for now -- and that was all that mattered.

Madeleine had some scented soap that she had bought at some boutique and she applied a liberal amount onto a wash cloth and began to bathe me. Simply the touch of her hands on my skin was enough to bring me immediately to a full arousal. My penis jutted out of the water like the periscope of a German submarine, ready for action, and that evoked a giggle from my wife.

She washed me all over, occasionally running her hands over my cock, but generally paying it little attention. When she had my arms, legs and torso cleaned, and had shampooed my hair, Madeleine finally caressed my scrotum, washing it thoroughly, then she had me turn over and washed my backside.

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