tagRomanceMadeleine Ch. 08

Madeleine Ch. 08

byjack_straw©

CHAPTER 8

Paris, France
March, 1918


I had been on furlough from my duties as an attache from the U.S. Embassy to Gen. Pershing's headquarters, and Madeleine and I had finally reconnected after months of forced celibacy after her miscarriage and subsequent emergency hysterectomy.

I had finally come to realize how close she had come to dying that day. Only a quick transfusion of blood helped her survive the surgery that saved her life, but deprived her of the ability to have any more children.

It was early spring, and we had enjoyed a terrific night of lust as we reawakened our passion for each other.

We had made love again the next night, but without nearly the intensity of the night before, and we were sleeping soundly when the telephone woke us up in the predawn hours.

I was told that I had an hour to gather my things and that a driver would be by to pick me up. The Germans had launched their anticipated spring offensive much earlier than expected, and had caught the Allies by surprise.

One reason they were able to surprise us was that they chose not to precede the attack with a large-scale bombardment, as had become the custom in this war.

As we rode to the front, I tried to go over my notes, which I had compiled through the winter to analyze what the Germans might do.

It was no secret that they were running out of time. If they were going to win the war, it would have to be now, before the stream of American soldiers coming across the Atlantic became a flood that would overwhelm them.

Moreover, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia had led to a cease-fire on the Eastern Front and negotiations were underway that would take Russia out of the war.

Already we had seen clear evidence of increased troop strengths among the German units in France that resulted from divisions that had been freed up from the East.

We also knew from intelligence reports coming from inside Germany that unrest over the war was growing as casualties mounted and food shortages became more acute.

All of the data I had been able to accumulate clearly indicated that Germany could not sustain its war effort at the current level for much longer.

It was my view, therefore, that if we could withstand the big blow, and stop whatever offensive the Germans mounted in 1918, we would win the war before the end of the year.

If Germany could not achieve its goals this time, its war effort would collapse and they would be forced to sue for peace.

And that's exactly what happened, although it was a close thing for awhile.

My first job when I got back to Pershing's headquarters was to try and make sense of the confusing reports as to where the offensive was coming, then to assess their troop strengths, and how best to meet the challenge from our end.

It wasn't easy at first. The suddenness of the German assault had caused severe havoc with our communication systems. Many of the field telephone lines had either been destroyed or captured, so we really didn't have a clear picture for several days.

I was actually the one who figured out that the best way to accurately gauge where the Germans were thrusting was to call up and down the front and see which of our sectors responded.

By process of elimination, we figured that wherever we didn't get a response meant that was where the Germans were. And that proved to be the case.

It was a long, difficult job that entailed some long hours and days of work on end. Gen. Pershing and I were able to put aside our differences and work together to bring the war to a speedy conclusion.

Regardless of my personal feelings, I had to admit that Pershing was the perfect choice to be the supreme commander of the American forces in France.

He was tough, sober-minded and smart, and he wasn't willing to simply throw away the lives of his soldiers in the way that the French and British had earlier in the war. Moreover, when he committed our troops, he did so only after thorough preparation and planning.

This attitude sorely vexed the patience of the British and the French, who were anxious for the American troops to take on their share of the combat.

But Pershing's patient approach paid off that summer, as American troops took more of a decisive role in blunting the waves of the German onslaught, and it was Pershing -- based on my analysis -- who pinpointed the places where the Germans were vulnerable to counterattack.

And in late July, we took the offensive, and as expected, the Germans began to crumble.

A little over four months later, the German Kaiser had been forced from his throne and the war was over.

I finally returned to Paris for good in early September, and I was actually somewhat at loose ends. Ambassador Sharp hadn't found a new assignment for me yet, so I was given a lot of time to spend with my family.

Truthfully, I needed the rest. I had received one four-day furlough to return to Paris in mid-June, but otherwise I had spent the previous six months working as many as 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

During the early autumn, the four of us -- me, Madeleine, Greta and Marie -- took a train trip to the Riviera, and spent a week by the sea. It was a blissful time that allowed us to reconnect in a big way. That renewed bond would be extremely fortuitous in the coming months.

On Armistice Day, we finally joined the crowds of celebrants in the streets, probably drank more champagne than we should have and returned to the apartment where we made hot, steamy love.

It was a couple of days later when Madeleine began to complain of not feeling well. She said she felt run down, and when she began to run a fever that night, a cold chill ran down my spine.

I hurriedly bundled Marie up in the middle of the night and delivered her to Greta at her apartment and told her to keep the child there indefinitely until she heard from me.

I knew what it was, but I still called the doctor in to confirm it, especially when Madeleine's fever worsened and she was unable to get out of bed the next morning.

For several months we had been getting reports of a virulent strain of influenza that was showing up everywhere. It was almost like the Black Death of the 14th century. It swept the globe in capricious fashion, killing many and sparing others.

And now the love of my life had it.

The doctor told me there was nothing he could do. He quarantined our apartment, leaving the two of us together to face this new crisis. He did say that I should try to cool Madeleine's body as much as possible, and I did that by wrapping her in towels soaked in cold water.

It helped some, but after three days, she began to cough up bloody phlegm, and I was convinced it was the end.

Madeleine begged me to help her, but there was nothing I could do other than try to keep her body cooled and keep giving her fluids. I made her drink water and warm broth to try to keep her from becoming dehydrated.

But she kept getting worse, and on the fifth night I finally called in the priest and asked him to give Madeleine last rites.

Father Gerard, our parish priest, came in with a surgical mask on, but otherwise he was compassionate and understanding of our situation.

I was nearly inert with grief at what I knew was coming, a life without Madeleine. He managed to keep me from cursing God for this cruel twist of fate that I believed was going to take my love from me just when we had finally gotten past the war.

And that was no small feat, for this was something that would have the power to make of me a true atheist, and it took much counseling on his part to keep my already-tenuous connection with the faith.

The priest finally got me to my knees in prayer for Madeleine's healing, if that was the will of God, and I did.

It wasn't easy, because I was a hard-headed skeptic, with a cynicism born of two long years in close proximity to the trenches on the Western Front, and in the company of the men who commanded those trenches.

He then spent nearly an hour with Madeleine, heard her confession, such as it was, and absolved her of her sins, whatever they might have been.

When he came out of the bedroom where she lay he looked at me with soulful eyes.

"I've done all I can do," he said. "Whatever happens; she is in God's hands now."

Madeleine's breathing was ragged, but she was sleeping when I came in and sat next to the bed. Seeing her like that finally collapsed my manly defenses and I wept like I hadn't wept since the day my mother died.

After I composed myself somewhat, I leaned over and whispered in her ear.

"I love you, Madeleine, please don't leave me," I begged.

She awoke briefly and looked at me with watery eyes.

"Robert," she whispered in a raspy voice. "If this is the end for me, please, don't live the rest of your life in mourning. You've made me a very happy woman, and if I am to die, then I die content in my love. Take care of Marie and be a friend to Greta. She is very fond of you. I love you, Robert, no matter what."

Then her body relaxed, as if she was satisfied that she had told me what she needed to say, and she drifted back to sleep, her breathing shallow and irregular.

An hour or so later, there came a knock at the door, and when I answered it, there stood Marcel, tears streaming down his face. He looked like he had aged 10 years in just a few days.

"Is she...?" he began.

"No, she still lives," I said as I ushered him into the apartment. Legally, under quarantine, he wasn't supposed to be there, but I was not going to deny this father, this man who meant so much to me, the chance to see his daughter, perhaps for the last time in the living world.

But he couldn't stay in the bedroom long, as the sight of his precious Madeleine lying in such misery was too much for him. I held him then as he bawled like a baby, and I wondered what we would do without her.

I finally told him to go home, that there was too much of a risk of him catching the flu, that I would contact him if something happened.

After he left, I lay back on the sofa, with the bedroom door open, and tried to rest. Amazingly, I actually dozed off, so I almost missed it when I heard a voice from the bedroom. But I didn't miss it a second time.

"Robert?" I heard the weak voice croaking from the bedroom.

I bolted up from the sofa, noticing that the first rays of dawn were slicing through the window that looked out to the street.

Madeleine was awake and clear-eyed for the first time in six days. She asked for water and devoured a full glass in nearly one gulp. I felt her forehead and it was apparent that her fever had broken.

Somehow, in some way that I've never understood, Madeleine had survived. She would live, but she faced a long recovery.

When the doctor declared her over the contagious stage, he sent her to convalescent hospital outside of Paris for an extended stay, and she was there for the better part of the next six months before she was finally fully recovered.

He was candid that he considered her survival a medical miracle, but it had left her lungs in bad shape. The hospital worked with her on breathing treatments and on regaining her strength.

The doctor also credited me for my quick thinking in getting our child out of harm's way before she could be infected, although for some reason it appeared that young adults were far more susceptible to the disease than children.

And he had no answers for why I didn't get it, despite the time I spent with Madeleine at the height of her infection. However, I wasn't surprised. I'd never been sick a day in my life, nor would I until very late in my life, when I began to have heart problems.

Although she was a patient, Madeleine soon spent much of her time in the hospital helping the nurses in any way she could, to the limit of her ability. She told me she believed she had found her calling, and that when she was fully well she planned on doing whatever it took to become a full-time nurse.

Once she returned home for good, our lives returned to some semblance of normality. But the experiences of the previous three years or so had left their marks on us.

I had just turned 40, but my face had become lined with age, and my hair had turned nearly all silver. And Madeleine, too, was finding some gray hairs, even though she was just 22.

Moreover, she had lost all of the girlish innocence that she'd had when I first met her. She was an adult now, a woman through and through, and that was reflected in her eyes, which didn't quite dazzle in the same mischievous way they had earlier.

I missed that part of her, but I understood that time marches on, and given what we'd been through, I should not have been surprised that she had become a sober, serious-minded woman.

Although my workload wasn't what it had been while the war was still raging, I was still extremely busy during the time that Madeleine was convalescing, for I was part of the American contingent that met nearly every day at Versailles for the peace conference.

President Wilson had come to France not long after the end of the war with great fanfare, hoping to see his ideals of a new democratic world realized through the peace that would be hammered out.

I came to admire the man for his idealism and his attempts at making a better world, but I also could see that he was terribly naïve in thinking that our Allies would set aside their need for revenge, their need to make Germany pay for starting the war.

As part of my job, I was sent on a three-week fact-finding tour through Germany, and what I learned was unsettling in the extreme.

For one thing, Germany itself had suffered little physically from the war. Unlike France and Belgium, with their shattered towns and tortured countryside, German cities and towns were intact and appeared normal, its fields and farms unscarred and prospering.

As a result, many in Germany wondered aloud how they could have lost the war, and I heard many people in the beer halls and in the streets talking about how Germany must have been stabbed in the back.

Who had stabbed Germany in the back? Jews and Communists were the most prominent groups mentioned, and knowing the history of Jews in Europe, I felt a little shudder go through me at the thought of what might happen if this notion took hold.

More to the point, the cities in Germany were a seething cauldron of discontent and political unrest, and I knew when I returned to France that the peace treaty which was coming would do nothing to keep that cauldron from boiling over.

In fact, it was harsher than I expected. Blame for the war was laid solely on Germany, never mind that the system of entangling alliances had made the war all but inevitable, and which the Allies were as complicit in creating as were Germany and her allies.

As a result of this blame, Germany had been hit with crushing reparations to the Allied nations, its military emasculated and its diplomats humiliated.

The German delegation initially balked at the treaty that was presented to them in May, 1919, but they really had no choice, and when they signed, I knew it was only a matter of time before Europe exploded in war again.

Germany was disarmed, and the hope was that it would never again be in a position to make war. But knowing the Germans like I did, knowing both their pride, their vanity and their history, I knew that was folly.

For his part, Mr. Wilson got little of what he'd originally wanted, but he did get the treaty to create a new League of Nations, which had been his most cherished goal.

Sadly, when the president returned to America, he was forced to campaign hard for a reluctant Congress to ratify the treaty and agree to join the League of Nations, and the effort broke him.

During a whistle-stop tour of the West to urge public support for ratification of the treaty, Wilson suffered a stroke and spent the rest of his presidency as a bed-ridden invalid.

It was a sad end to one of the most complex men ever to sit in the White House. Woodrow Wilson was a brilliant man, but he was flawed in ways that proved destructive to his dreams of a better America and a better world.

In the end, Congress rejected the treaty and the United States turned its back on an active role in world affairs, with devastating consequences.

By then, however, Madeleine and I had another crisis to deal with, and while it wasn't something that would divide us, it was probably the saddest moment of them all.

It was in early September, and I was at loose ends at the embassy. Mr. Sharp was on his way out, his health beginning to fail, and he had announced his retirement from public service a few weeks earlier. He was preparing to return to Ohio, but was awaiting the arrival of his successor, Hugh Wallace.

I would miss William Sharp. We had become close friends over the years we'd worked together, and I admired the way he balanced the needs of his office with the needs of the people who worked under him.

As a result, I was waiting for a new assignment, and I had been told I would probably be recalled to the States. At the time, this was a bittersweet pill I wasn't sure I was ready for. Paris had become my home in the past six years and I had plenty of reasons to stay.

So, I was at my office one morning, putting some of my memories on paper for a possible memoir at some future date when I got a call from Madeleine.

I could barely make out what she was saying, she was so hysterical, but when I finally understood what she was saying, my blood ran cold.

Marcel Levesque was dead.

Madeleine's friend Therese had arrived for work as she always did, with her daughter in tow, and had found the bistro still closed. This was most unusual, because Marcel always had a lively lunch crowd, especially now that the war was over.

Therese had called Madeleine and together they had gone to Marcel's apartment, where they found him in bed, already cold to the touch. He'd apparently had a fatal heart attack while he slept.

Madeleine had called me as soon as she found him, and I rushed to the apartment to handle things.

Truthfully, I had been concerned about his health, for he hadn't looked good in the previous weeks and months. He'd gained weight, almost to the point where he was obese, and his color wasn't good.

He had dismissed my concerns in his usual jovial, self-deprecating manner, but my worries remained. So while I was shocked at his death, I wasn't surprised.

Madeleine, of course, was useless, her grief all-encompassing, so it fell to me to deal with the authorities and make all of the arrangements.

The church -- the same one where Madeleine and I had been married four years earlier -- was packed to overflowing with friends and well-wishers for Marcel's funeral, and the procession to the cemetery that followed the carriage containing his casket lined the streets for blocks on end.

The night before, Madeleine and I each wept in our own fashion for this jolly man who had made the lives of everyone he encountered better. I was able to finally get her calmed down, and she comported herself with dignity the next day

Of course, I knew that his smiling, jovial exterior masked a deep sadness in his life, but I also knew that he lived life to the fullest each and every day, and I was glad that I had called him friend first and father second. Indeed, I felt like he was more my father than my own father, who had been a cold and angry man

As a result, I worked sparingly at the embassy the rest of the year, and devoted most of my time to handling Marcel's estate. He had left the bistro to me, along with a tidy inheritance, and I had reluctantly put the pub on the market.

It sold quickly, and part of the sales contract was that Therese would remain as manager. She had become quite adept at accounting, and had developed a sharp eye for the business.

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