Battlefront: part two
Half the rumors, that burst audibly amid guffaws, were only the product of the same bantering Honoré had endured on the train. They had orders to return to Paris, they had better start, then…pushing the cars back to Reims. No one had thought perhaps of inspecting the bridges…to see if they were still there. Or, the war chest had run empty…the rail trust would not extend further credit to the government.
“We will come to the aid of Bazaine, but it is a long walk to Metz. We will rescue him in good time.”
Yet Honoré could tell for himself that battle was being waged not far from this place (its name, he had not yet learned; but close by, someone had said, stood the town of Sainte-Menehould). There was a smell in the air, something like a pot of beans that had boiled down and begun to scorch; puffs of black smoke rose, their fresh color fading into a lowering haze of grey. He could not guess how many meters off the guns were; the trees that lined the road blocked the horizon too well…but he could hear the boom of them, and would have been excited to see the fighting. He might even, though lacking any advisor to point the significance of the uniforms, and explain to him what the troops were doing, build a story from his own observations. If the tone were amateur, unschooled in the military science, this would be mitigated by the fact that his eyes had seen these things, and his (putative) critic’s had not.
He took a step…and felt himself pulled back with decision. A hand had slipped into the armhole of his waistcoat.
“Monsieur, we have an affair to discuss.”
The voice was that of the carriage guard. Honoré had thought of him a moment ago, thought of running away, which he might have managed for a short time, going to earth among the trees—if first he had been able to work through the throng of soldiers. Then he’d heard the guns.
He heard a volley of them now, and twisted round to face the guard, who would not allow his fingers to be wrenched free. Honoré hadn’t quite sorted the words he wished to use in making his appeal, but in the pit of his stomach, he felt the rightness of it. This petty concern over rail fares, when standing in the teeth of battle―
The unmoved eye that met his own seemed to quell such sentiments. Rather than appeal at all, either to glory or fair treatment, Honoré lied. He took a sidelong glance towards a carriage that might not have been his.
“Ah, you see. My friend, Monsieur Fulner, has taken tickets for us both; and when he returns, of course…”
The story hadn’t needed finishing; the furrow that deepened between the guard’s eyebrows told Honoré he knew its ending. The name of Fulner had not, for that matter, wrought any magic…but, there’d been the chance it might.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)