Excerpt: A Figure from the Common Lot (Battlefront)
Three men, uniformed, sat watching the byplay between Gouin and Tweedloe; and Gouin, seeing them lift their heads, lifted his chin. With a quelling air of duty, he jerked his shoulder from the finger Tweedloe rested there. Disregarding protocol both social and military, he approached the youngest man, fixed him with a narrow eye, and said, “You, monsieur”, clinking a glass onto the tabletop. Twice, Gouin repeated the process; twice he offered his accusatory courtesy. He placed the bottle in the center of the table, and inquired unpleasantly of his customers if he might serve them in any other way.
“Gouin, you must never mind about us, but settle first with the English gentleman.”
He might have been past sixty, this officer, called from retirement so early in the war; and had charge, to judge by his collar, over his two companions. The trio seemed in unoffended good spirits.
Gouin vanished behind the wall partitioning the passage from the dining room, to emerge with the stick…and whatever his hopes, or whether Tweedloe accused him falsely, restored it with a shrug. The object was no disappointment to its audience—crafted of ebony, gilt handle molded in a serpentine design, the yellow of this, and of the ferrule, unadulterated by the green undertone of brass.
Tweedloe flourished a one hundred franc note. “I am paying for the house, Monsieur Gouin.”
He chuckled at Gouin’s panicked face; then, played offstage by cheers, and a rhythmic slapping of hands on tabletops, Tweedloe moved, at a snail’s pace, through the door. At something less than a snail’s pace, he descended the single step, again with a hand weighing on Honoré’s shoulder.
If Tweedloe had a destination in mind, he did not disclose it.
“Gremot…” He pitched the butt of his cigar onto the street, rooted in a pocket, and extracted a case, gold and monogrammed. “You will write your name on the back of this card. I distrust these French names ending with ‘oh’. They might be spelt anyhow.”
For Tweedloe’s edification, Honoré included the name of his newspaper. He glanced up, and as Tweedloe’s face remained postprandial, contentment showing no sign of giving way to costiveness, he added the number of his lodging house in Bruxelles (this also his office of business), where with his partner he shared an attic room. In early winter, when the air had not grown too frigid, and their numb fingers could still be thawed at the lamp, or on spring days when the faint cooling breeze through the crack of the window could still make headway against the heat (at other times, on railway station benches and café tables), he and Gilbert composed. Not only articles, but letters.
These were closed with suggestive pseudonyms and admirable addresses, and disputed the Progressiste’s editorial contentions, for the sake of stirring partisanship. And as her chief correspondent hoped, interest in the Progressiste. Having four pages to fill while able to employ only themselves, Honoré and Gilbert accepted any report or rumor as worthy of publication, and published as often as they had scraped together the cost of printing.
Tweedloe, with a grunt, approved this initiative. He gestured for Honoré’s pencil.
He tilted, advanced his stick, allowing his weight, like ballast, to carry him forward, a total of six labored steps, by which he reached the wall of a bakery. Against which he propped the card, wrote, and handed it back to Honoré.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)