Authors: Storm Jameson
Mai qui fut sans nuage et Juin poignardÃ©
Colonel Rienne glanced round his room before leaving it. Unnecessary. It fitted him as closely as his uniform, nothing wasted, nothing to spare. There was not a comfortable chair in the room; when he readâthere were booksâhe sat upright and held the book as though he were going to read aloud. Except for these few books there was nothing but what belonged to the army, and could be handed over to the next occupant without a regret. It is true that Rienne had no private money and he provided out of his pay for an elderly sister, but his room was no more austere than the room next to it, occupied by an officer the only son of a Lyons banker.
He opened the shutters a little on this cell, to let in the slightly cooler air of early evening. There was no breeze.
Leaving the barracks he walked through side streets to the small main square of Seuilly. It was a fortunately-placed square, since it was open to the Loire and the double bridge across the Loire, which has here two arms lying round an island in mid-stream. Apart from this supreme piece of luck, it was a polite shabby square with two handsome buildings. It narrowed into the main street of Seuilly, itself shabby, lively, charming. The two buildings, the theatre and the Hotel Buran, stood at opposite corners; each had a side facing the river and a narrower side on the square. The large dining-room of the Hotel Buran looked on to the Loire; below the level of its windows, on the Quai d'Angers itself, the terrace of the small CafÃ© Buran had only the width of the quay between it and the bright water.
It was the 5th of May 1940. Seuilly was crammed with troops; these included a regiment of Colonials and two armoured regiments: and with munitions, these included the newest tanks. The war in the meantime was only active in Norway: west of the Vosges and in the Saar patrols of both sides played a risky game of Red Indians. Yesterday Johann was killed, tonight it may be Jean. It was not war. Rienne, like many middle-aged soldiers, felt uneasy; his instinct warned him
that these hot cloudless days, perfect for war, were peaceful for some bad reason. Since we don't act, he said, they will, and then . . . He believed that logic, a spirit of mockery, endurance, are the human virtues best suited to making war, and he did not think the Germans would be able to improvise them. But he feared inaction. The men had nothing to do but stretch their muscles, and his muscles are the least useful part of a soldier's equipment. Today, at any rate. The futureâwhen we have destroyed everythingâdid not interest Rienne. One war at a time.
He hesitated. I'm too early, he thought, to see Ãmile. There was an empty table on the terrace of the CafÃ© Buran; he seated himself and ordered, without thinking about it, a glass of the cloudy yellow Anjou wine which costs tuppence a glass. Workmen drink it.
He crossed his legs and rested a long-fingered hand on the table. He was tall and very thin. His face was sunken below prominent cheek-bones, and burned. As he stared at the Loire you noticed in his blue eyes the other-worldly lookâless innocence than too much knowledgeâwhich some soldiers and some priests have. They are men set apart by what they accept. . . . Since there was no one between him and the Loire, he smiled at it, with a natural kindness. It was worth a smile. It stretched itself in the sun, smooth, wide, saturated by an opaque light and challenging the green of the plane trees. The day had been brilliant, the twenty-eighth day without rain, without a cloud; and the evening would be as clear. It was still hot.
Just as he was finishing his drink, a young officer approached him. Lieutenant de Saint-Jouin was not an officer Rienne liked or approved of, and he acknowledged his greeting with a coldness the young man was too interested in himself to notice.
“At last,” he said, smiling, “at lastâI've arranged it.”
Rienne did not ask what.
“We shall have that delicious creature, Madeleine Souzy, and the handsome Jewess; if we can get half a dozen more in the same class, we can put on a show such as no one has ever seen here. What d'you think?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Why, my idea! To bring actresses here from Paris for a
Monday night show, and supper afterwards. You agreed, sir, that we must do more to occupy the troops.” And Jacques de Saint-Jouin put on the youthful stammer he had discovered was attractive to women and older men. Confident in his power to charm his way through any trouble, he kept strictly in reserve the insolence he had been practising since he was a child taller and better-looking than his fellows.
Colonel Rienne was not moved. “I hoped that by this time they would be occupied in fighting,” he said.
“But that will come,” Saint-Jouin said gaily.
Rienne beckoned the waiter over, paid, and went away without looking again at the young officer. He dismissed him from his mind. In the last war he had seen just such young men become, if not good, at least tolerable officers; when they were dying the arrogance faded a moment before their other qualities and there was nothing to set them, apart from the sons of chemists and postmen.
He was on his way to see the Prefect. Ãmile Bergeot was his closest friend: Rienne had others, but to none of these was he bound by a link which went back forty-eight years to the day when the midwife looking after their mothers tied both infants' wrists together to the arm of a chair to keep them from rolling off it while she fought to save the life of Rienne's mother. She failed, and Mme Bergeot brought the two boys up as brothers. Rienne was the bigger and stronger; at school he protected Ãmile and showed him off; when later a relative left him a little money, it came naturally to him to hand Ãmile three-quarters of it to help him at the School of Political Scienceâso naturally that no one asked him why he had so much less need of money than the brilliant young law student.
To reach the Prefecture, Rienne crossed the square and walked through narrow streets. Pressed together by the houses, the warmth could not escape upwards, it was like poking your head into an oven. The houses were old and a little severe; now and then open shutters let you look through a low room into a courtyard with a well. The town looked as it had always looked; there were not more soldiersâriding-masters, dragoons, spahis, mechanics from the airfieldâin the streets, and the citizens of Seuilly were not less ironically reserved. The war had not made them graver or more joyous.
The Prefecture was a fifteenth-century chÃ¢teau, built by the second Duc de Seuilly on the cliff looking down on the Loire. The steep road climbing to it from the town had still an odd dozen houses built in the same century, under the surrounding wall. Their heavy doors and the worn ends of beams supported too much: it was easy to imagine people dying in these rooms, as low and dark as vaults, and hard to believe that anyone could be born there and receive a first glimpse of light from these crushing and dilapidated walls. Half-way up this dark lane the carriage road to the Prefecture turned off, and climbed further to a wide courtyard with superb chestnuts. Up here all was sun and clear air, an immense arc of sky drawn above one of the most charming houses in France; it was a very large house rather than a castle; it was not majestic, it was perfect. Rienne walked round to the north front; here a narrow terrace looked over the valley of the Loire, across a countryside smooth enough to reflect the sky. The trees on the island between the two arms of the river were a brilliant green; the town itself, except for the spire of the minster, was beginning to harbour shadows. As Rienne watched, a flight of pigeons launched themselves from this spire; it seemed to quiver. The Loire, from this height, was as clear as it was lazy.
He walked back to the courtyard, to the door at the top of a semicircular flight of steps. The doorkeeper smiled at him and said,
“Go along upstairs, sir. He always wants to see you.”
He was walking along the corridor towards Emile's own rooms: a door opened on a narrow staircase, and a woman coming out said gaily,
“Ah, Bonamy. I was thinking of you. Please talk to me for a minute. Ãmile is writing a letter for me.”
Reluctantly, he followed her into the room. She had been writing at a desk; she now threw the letter into a drawer full of other papers that must be hers. The Comtesse de Freppel had been Bergeot's mistress for nearly four years; she was not discreet, but she had not outraged opinion more than a little: sober and stiff-minded persons, with a touch of the hypocrisy inherited from Protestant ancestors turned Catholic in 1685 to avoid being expelled, could pretend to know nothing about it, while making good and sly use of her influence. Even the
general secretary of the Prefecture, an urbane elderly man, with an ingrown vanity which gave him more trouble than his weak liver, had admired her since the day she discovered that he was the author of an anonymous book of poems and took the trouble to get them by heart and quote them to him in her seductive voice.
Mme de Freppel was forty: she was small, dark, with dark eyes, which were short-sighted, so that she looked at you closely: you saw that they were made of a substance which absorbed light without giving any of it back; it was like staring at pitch. She was delicately made, not a line wasted, with beautiful hands and feet. Her voice was charming.
“How are you, Marguerite? And how is Ãmile?” Rienne asked. He spoke stiffly, because of his dislike of using her Christian nameâshe insisted on it. “He looked tired when I saw him yesterday.”
“He is tired. He's worn out. But you know what Ãmile is, he works with his nerves as well as with mind and body.”
“He always did,” Rienne said, with the pride of a father. “After examinations I had almost to carry him home. But he was always successful.”