Madeleine Ch. 01byjack_straw©
Author's note: It has been nearly a year and a half since my last submission, and over these past few months of idleness, I've been searching for some idea, some story line that would challenge me, and get me excited about writing again. I have about a dozen stories that I've started, but never got fired up over, so they sit in a file somewhere and will likely never see the light of day.
I kept coming back to this scenario, however, and each time I did, the more it intrigued me. With the exception of the El Paso story, I've never really done a period piece, and I liked the idea of writing a romance that arose out of this particular period. The stark contrast of love blossoming on the streets of Paris, amid the absolute horror of the Great War just over the horizon would seem to be a rich field for an interesting story.
I make no claims to know a lot of specifics about the geography of Paris in the early 20th century, so I've deliberately been a little vague about place names as they relate to the story.
One other point to note: Although the dialogue as written appears in English, the reader can assume that in most cases it is being spoken in French.
^ ^ ^ ^
It comes to me now that I should write down the events of that awful, wonderful time in my life, that I should tell you about Madeleine.
I'm an old man now, and have come to understand that my time is nearing an end. But my mind is still alive, and my memories still vivid.
How could I forget? Madeleine was the love of my life, a flower in a field of ash, and the story of how our love came to be is one that you will, I think, appreciate. It is a story of hope in a time of hopelessness, of need and want coming together at just the right time in my life to provide something that can never die.
So, please, while I still can, sit and let me tell you my story and the story of a remarkable woman, my Madeleine.
^ ^ ^ ^
I was oddly unaffected by the clamor that washed over me as I leaned against the bar in Marcel's, a bistro located on a fairly busy side street not far from the row of embassies that represented the interests of the various nations of the world in France.
The men in the pub were boastful, and patriotic songs filled the air. Outside, the streets were filled with cheering demonstrators, all of them chafing to get at the "Boches."
It was late on a hot summer afternoon, and these cheering masses were excited about the prospects of war.
Five weeks had passed since the Austrian archduke and his wife had been shot down in the streets of Sarajevo in Bosnia, a place most people probably had never heard of, and in that time the whole fragile fabric of peace and stability had come completely unraveled.
Austria had demanded justice from Serbia, which everyone assumed was behind the killings, and one-by-one the dominoes had fallen. When Russia began to mobilize its army in support of its Serbian ally, that was the trigger that spurred Germany into action, and that, in turn, had brought France into conflict with Germany. War was now an unstoppable train that had left the station.
And I had a cold ball of ice in my stomach, because I knew what was coming, if the people around me did not.
Suddenly, my attention was diverted by Monsieur Lévesque – Marcel, the pub's owner – who brought his considerable girth over to where I was sitting with a bottle of brandy, from which he refilled my glass.
"Ah, my young American friend, why do you look so down?" Marcel exclaimed. "Drink and be happy. We go to fight the Boches, and we will teach them a lesson."
"I'm sorry, Marcel, but I cannot be happy about what is happening," I said. "War is nothing to be happy about, especially the kind of war you are about to fight."
"Pah!" Marcel spat. "It will all be over by Christmas. We'll smack the Germans around a little, we'l get the provinces back and that will be the end of it."
"Do you really believe that?" I asked.
"Who knows?" Marcel said. "A little fighting to defuse things, let everyone blow off a little steam, and it will all be back to normal before the end of the year. Why do you think it will be different?"
"Because I know things, things my government pays me well to learn," I said. "Let me tell you a little of what I've learned over the past few years, monsieur, about the Germans, about the British and about your army."
Marcel narrowed his eyes and he looked at me strangely, then pulled a glass down, poured himself a brandy and leaned on his elbows.
"I think that I should hear what you have to say," he said, and I noticed the jovial look had left his face.
^ ^ ^ ^
My name is Robert Guidry, and I was born in the summer of 1879 in the swamps of Louisiana, in St. Charles Parish, upriver a little ways from New Orleans. My parents had 12 children in all, but I am one of just three who survived past their second birthday. I have a sister who is several years older and a younger sister – Amelie – who is two years younger, and with whom I have been close all of my life.
My father was a trapper, who made a living selling alligator hides. In his prime, he was reputed to be the best gator hunter in the parish. He could catch them, skin them, tan the hides, butcher the meat and make a month's worth of meals out of them.
When I was young, I would split my time between helping Papa and going to school. Mama had insisted that I go to school, and I actually liked it. Books – history books, especially – were my passion, and I began to read and write at an early age.
Of course, the first thing I had to do when I got to school was learn how to speak proper English. In my family, French was the first language we spoke. My mother spoke enough English to get by, but my father never did.
But I picked up English quickly, and that was something that I learned about myself at an early age. I always had an ear for different languages and could pick up enough of many tongues that I could communicate nearly anywhere I went.
My first real encounter with this ability was when I was first starting in school. The area where I was born and raised was the home of a large settlement of Germans. In fact, the little town where I went to school was called Des Allemands, literally, "The Germans," and one of my first best friends was German-American.
It didn't take me long being around him and his family for me to start picking up some basic German, and by the time I was 10, I could carry on a conversation with his parents in their native language. Later over the course of my life, I became quite fluent in Spanish, and was passable in Italian, Russian and a few other languages.
Papa tolerated my schooling as long as Mama was alive, but after she died when I was 12, Papa never missed a chance to belittle me and my love of books.
I put up with it until I grew to surpass him in size and knocked him on his ass one night when he was drunk.
But I stayed, largely to protect Amelie, until one night when I was almost 17 and he didn't come back from a trapping expedition. We eventually found his pirogue – and the nearly empty jug of whiskey that sat in the well – but we never found my father.
We surmised that he'd gotten drunk while hunting gators and fell in the swamp. More than likely he drowned and his body was eaten by the gators. I always imagined that to be poetic justice.
Not long after that, Amelie married a nice young man whose family owned and operated a general store in Thibodaux, and that freed me to make my getaway from Louisiana and see the world, which I'd wanted to do for a long time. My choice of escape sounds odd, but I joined the Army.
You must understand, the Army then was nothing like the vast, well-organized apparatus that it is in the modern age. It was small, a little haphazard and not terribly well-thought of. But they offered me a signing bonus, which I used to help Amelie and her new husband, and a chance to see other parts of the country, which I had previously only read about in books.
After completing my training in Georgia, I was first assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, but not long after that war broke out between the United States and Spain, and I soon found myself fighting in Cuba. Later, after the Spanish war, I was sent to the Philippines to fight the Moros, and a dirty business that was.
It was there that I lost my idealism, lost any notion that we Americans were somehow more noble than any other nation. In fact, I felt we were worse than the British or the Germans or the French, because they made no pretense of their imperial designs, of the greedy acquisitiveness of their policies. But we were supposed to be better than that, yet there we were fighting a native independence movement and committing some truly awful atrocities in the process.
After we subdued the Philippines, I decided to do something else with my life, and returned to Louisiana and went to college at LSU, where I studied history.
There was no GI Bill back then, but my veteran status was rewarded nonetheless with a job as an officer in the school's militia unit, a precursor to the modern ROTC program. When I graduated in 1908, my Army experience, coupled with my degree and my fluency in French and German got me a job with the State Department, and I went into the foreign service.
Actually, my first job with the State Department was as a clerk in Washington, I guess, while they tried to figure out a job that suited my abilities. After a year and a half of office drudgery, I finally got the break I'd been looking for. I was assigned as an attaché with the American Embassy in Berlin, and in the spring of 1910, I sailed for Europe.
When I got to Berlin, my assignment was fairly nebulous, and a trifle dangerous. My boss, the Undersecretary to the Ambassador, was a fairly visionary gentleman – or perhaps he was just paranoid – but he felt it was in our country's best interests to learn as much as we possibly could about the German Army.
Because I'd been a soldier and spoke fluent German, I was assigned to that task. Whenever foreign dignitaries were invited to watch military reviews – and the Germans had plenty of them – I was there, to size up their numbers, take note of any new weaponry that might be on display and just learn whatever I could.
That was the easy part. The hard part was traveling throughout the country and learning what I could about what the Germans didn't want the general public to know. I quickly found the best way to do that was to prowl the beer halls and attach myself to groups of soldiers, especially reservists who were there for routine training.
German soldiers were notorious braggarts, more so than those of other countries, and I quickly figured out that if I plied these citizen-soldiers with enough beer, they'd tell me anything I wanted to know – in a roundabout way, of course.
I spent three years in Germany, and when I returned to the United States, I wrote a position paper outlining what I believed the Germans would do if they went to war with France.
I argued that based on what I'd learned from careful observation, especially in the northwest part of the country, that they would most likely attack France through Belgium, that they would seek to overwhelm the French Army by marching through the plains of northern France and set their sights directly on Paris.
Part of my analysis included an assessment of the troop strengths available to the Germans both in the northwest and along the frontier with France itself, in the area of Alsace-Lorraine, the "lost" provinces that France had ceded to Germany in the peace settlement that ended the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and which the French burned to regain.
The Secretary of State himself supposedly looked at my work, shrugged his shoulders and went about his business.
However, my immediate superiors apparently thought enough of my work that they assigned me to the embassy in Paris, to do a similar analysis of the French Army, and in the summer of 1913 I arrived in Paris, rented myself a flat in a newly-built building not far from the embassy and set to work.
Marcel's was just down the street from my apartment building, and I had become a fixture there in the year that I'd been in Paris. He served excellent food, his brandy was outstanding and then there was his daughter, Madeleine, who helped her father both in the kitchen and as a serving girl.
Madeleine Lévesque was 16 when I first met her in 1913, and I was enchanted from the first. She was the stereotypical French girl – dark hair, dark eyes, mischievous smile, slender figure – and she flirted with all the men who came into the pub, and I was no exception.
But there was always something different between us. She didn't just flirt with me, she would sit when she had some free time and we would talk, about all sorts of things, all manner of subjects. For a shopkeeper's daughter, she was remarkably well-read and quite intelligent. She had a natural curiosity about everything and a thirst for knowledge.
In another life, she might have gone onto the university and studied philosophy, or some other subject. However, college in France back then was expensive and usually reserved for the scions of the upper classes, the men mostly, and while M. Lévesque wasn't poor, he wasn't wealthy either. Besides, Madeleine felt she needed to stay and help her father, who had been widowed for several years.
Besides all the other amenities, Marcel's was a stopping-off place for workers from a variety of the embassies, and an astute listener who could understand different languages, like me, could always pick up little tidbits of useful information.
That was how I found myself having a heart-to-heart chat with Marcel on the eve of war.
^ ^ ^ ^
"First, monsieur, you must understand that I have been to war," I began. "I have seen what modern machine guns can do, what the new cannons are capable of. I have traveled in Germany and in France, and I have a pretty good idea of what each army has at their disposal. Please don't be offended, but your leaders have no idea what they are up against. They are sending your soldiers into a trap."
I explained to Marcel that the French had a preponderance of their forces in the east, ready to attack the Germans through Alsace and Lorraine, with only a relative covering force in the north. They were clearly hoping the British would come into the war on their side – that hadn't happened yet, but it was expected any day now – but the Brits only had six divisions that they could send at the outset.
That wasn't going to be nearly enough to slow down the German assault, which was going to come racing over the flat countryside in the north in huge numbers. The French had this illusion that if the Germans were stronger on their right that it would mean they would be weaker in the south, where the French attack was expected.
But what they didn't know – and which I did – was that the Germans had far more troops at the ready than the French expected, by close to a 2-to-1 margin. Moreover, the terrain through which the French were to attack was mountainous and difficult for an attacking army – but ideal for a defending force. It was a recipe for disaster.
"France will be lucky if German troops aren't marching down the Champs Elysees by September," I said softly. "Or not. Let's suppose that your troops do somehow stop the Germans short of Paris. What then? I can tell you what will happen. Stalemate. The Germans won't be easily dislodged from their holdings, and, of course, France and Britain will fight desperately for their survival. My friend, this war that you think will be over by Christmas will drag on, with thousands – no, millions – of men killed on both sides. The winner will be whichever side bleeds out less than the other."
"So, what will your country do, then?" Marcel asked, and he now had a worried look on his face. We had talked enough over the previous year that he knew I had some pretty keen insights.
"Who knows?" I said. "Our president, Mr. Wilson, does not want to get America involved in a European war. Nor do my people. We will do all we can to stay out of it. But, in the end, I can't see us staying out of it forever. Sooner or later, one side or the other will provoke us into coming into this war – and if I know the Germans, they'll be the ones who will do it. They're just arrogant enough to do something stupid without regard for American sensibilities. The point is, Monsieur Lévesque, you should go to your church tomorrow and pray a rosary that you're right about this being a short war, because if you're wrong – and I think you are – there are miserable times coming for the nations of Europe, and for France, most particularly."
I drained my glass, and I was about to leave, when I heard a cheery voice from the kitchen, and Madeleine came bustling out tying her apron around her shapely waist and preparing for her evening shift. She usually worked the midday shift, then returned to their apartment nearby to do household chores before returning to the pub to help with the evening crowd.
She had completed secondary school a year or so earlier, not long before I arrived in Paris, so her entire focus was on the pub and helping her father, whom she appeared devoted to.
"Ah, Monsieur Robert," she exclaimed with a big warm smile. "Such a day! The crowds outside were so heavy. I had trouble getting here from our home."
"Ah, Madeleine, you are always a sight for sore eyes," I said as we exchanged a brief perfunctory hug, in the best French manner. "How have you been, my dear, it has been a few days since I've seen you."
"Bien," she said. "I don't like all of this talk of war, however. I fear for some of my friends from school. They are so eager to fight, and it worries me. Hopefully, it won't be a long war."
"I hope not, too," I said, while her father and I exchanged a knowing look. "Come, sit with me when you can. I have things I wish to share with you."
"Oooh, sounds exciting," she exclaimed. "You know so much about the world. I will."
With that, she bustled off to serve her customers. I watched as she flirted with some of the other young men in the bar, and I was surprised to feel a little ping of jealousy. I knew I had no claim on Madeleine's affections, and I knew, too, that what she was doing was strictly a business thing, designed to keep the men interested in staying and buying more drinks.
Still, it was there, and as I nursed my drink and felt a slight bit of inebriation coming on, I felt a sense of melancholy at my lonely existence.
At that time, I was 35 years-old and had never come close to marrying. Indeed, the only women I'd ever had any serious affection for had been my late mother and my sister, Amelie. As for my other sister, Jeanette, she was much older than I, and we'd never been particularly close.
Oh, I had had plenty of women, especially when I was a soldier. I had bedded many a hot-blooded Cuban girl, plenty of willing Filipino women, a number of comely New Orleans whores, not to mention a few German frauleins and Parisian dancing girls since coming to Europe.
And at that point in my life, I would trade all of that experience if I could have the love of Madeleine Lévesque.
Later that evening, as the Frenchmen in the bar got more frenzied, I gave up on trying to have that conversation with Madeleine, and slipped away, having drunk much more than normal. Only Marcel noted my departure, and he gave me a sad smile as I briefly tipped my hat in his direction.
Outside the door, I could see Madeleine in the midst of a group of soon-to-be soldiers, singing "La Marseillaise."