This is the second and final part of a short story, prompted by a photo of a painting, seen on Sue Judd’s blog.
Verdun was a vision of Hell on Earth. The relentless combat, enduring the shelling, and life among the dead and wounded in cramped bunkers, or the shattered forts. He could hardly breathe most of the time, for the combination of dust, earth, and acrid smoke that filled the air. The screams of the wounded denied him sleep, and the water was so foul, he could barely quench his thirst. At times, he thought he would go insane, and at others, he wished he could.
This was very different to the earlier fighting. Men on horses, infantry moving fast through woodland, and across open ground. Then had come the trenches, and after that the regiment had been sent to Verdun. And there they stayed, rotated in and out of the reserve lines with little or no leave, save for some recreation in the nearest town. Too far to travel all the way home and back in forty-eight hours anyway, and few places on the trains, for soldiers going away from the front. He thought back to the last time he had been home, struggling to remember how long ago it had been. Mother and Father had both cried to see him so thin, and looking so much older. Even M. Henry had shed a tear when he had seen his young employee. Serge had been distracted, waiting for Sunday, when he could hurry to the old boat house.
She was already there, that chilly afternoon. The fur collar on her coat was raised against the wind, and her gloves were now thick and woolen, instead of delicate lace. That time there was no hesitation, no pause for any awkward moments. They had embraced, kissing with passion, pressing tightly against each other. She hadn’t mentioned how thin he had become, or remarked on his gaunt features, and nervous eyes. They didn’t mention the war at first, talking only of their love for each other. She asked if he still had the miniature, and he removed it from his uniform pocket to show her. Despite wrapping it in half of an old muffler for protection, a long crack ran from edge to edge on the glass. He told her how he looked at it countless times every day, and always before trying to sleep.
Sandrine had little else to tell. Her brother had been wounded in ’15, but was now back with his men. As for her father, he spent all day in his study, even eating there. He was rarely seen by anyone except Mireille, the housekeeper. But Serge needed no more talking. They were happy enough in each other’s arms, for the all-too short time they could be together. Before it started to get dark, he told her to go. He would wait in the doorway, and watch her walk away.
The blast from the shell had lifted him in the air, and dumped him in a pile of earth. Digging frantically, Serge spat mud from his mouth, and was soon in daylight again. He checked himself all over, making sure every limb was intact, looking for blood on the dirty palms of his hands. To his right, he could see the sergeant was shouting something at at him, but he couldn’t hear anything. Then he passed out.
They had said it was the big push, the last offensive. It would be over soon. Half the men in his company were already dead, or maimed. He saw the new faces of replacements come and go, reluctant to get to know them. Still just in his twenties, he felt as old as his father. They had made him a corporal, and told him to lead the attack. Show the new boys how it was done.
The doctor was smiling, and outside the tent, men were cheering. “You missed it, Corporal Dujardin. You have been unconscious for three days, and now it’s all over. Germany has surrendered! You are going home young man”.
The head wound and concussion got him a place on the hospital train south. From the end of the line, he could get a local train closer to home. He sat with other wounded men in a crowded carriage, most worse off than him. Serge had been told he had a two week leave, then must report to the nearest barracks to be released from service on medical grounds. But his mood was not good. When he had been in hospital, the framed miniature had gone missing, and he was no longer able to gaze at the face of his beloved Sandrine. A frantic search had failed to find it. Orderlies and nurses denied ever seeing it, and suggested it had fallen out during the fighting. But Serge knew better. His top pocket had been securely buttoned, and still was, when the jacket was returned to him. They had brought him a clean uniform to wear home, and before parting with the tattered old one, he had looked at every inch, in the vain hope of discovering the frame in the lining. It was gone. There was no denying that.
The journey was long, tiring, and very cold. He was glad of the new greatcoat as he sat shivering during the inevitable train delays. And he had to walk the last seven miles, feet aching in the new boots. The only consolation was that it was late on Friday by the time he got back, so only one day to wait, before he met his love in the old boat house. His father had news. M. Henry had died, his heart they had said. He had left a will, asking Serge to pay his sister for the business, and hoping he would take it over. If not, it would be sold by an agent. Mother stopped crying long enough to feed him her special soup, and when dinner was over, he was given a glass of Cognac, the first time ever, at home.
On Sunday, Serge was at the lake more than one hour early. He didn’t mind the cold wind blowing through the gaps in the timbers. The old boat house hadn’t fared well during the war years. One of the timbers had slid off, and was propped close to the entrance. The roof panels seemed to be collapsing inward, and the whole building looked on the verge of falling down. He resolved to repair it, as best he could. He would use some of the pay he had saved to buy timber, and spend a few days working there.
Sandrine didn’t come. The hours passed, and the sky darkened with signs of evening. Serge was so cold, he had to stamp around the deck inside, to keep his circulation going. He reluctantly started to head home, then changed his mind, and turned in the direction of the Aubertin mansion. He had to see her.
Mirelle came to the door holding a lamp. Opening it just a little, she called out. “Who’s there? Who comes at this hour?” Serge walked up to the crack in the door. “It is Serge Dujardin, Madame, the carpenter. You know me, I worked here with M. Henry”. The door opened wider, and the thin-faced woman came outside, scowling. “What do you want? We have no need of carpentry. M. Aubertin will see no visitors. He is mourning his son, killed in the war at Arras”. Serge kept his tone polite. “I was hoping to see Mademoiselle Sandrine, his daughter. She knows me, and I am sure she will see me if you tell her I am here”.
She took two steps back, looking around. “What is this wickedness? M. Aubertin’s daughter was stillborn, twenty three years since, in Montpelier. I was at Madame’s bedside, and she died that night too. Be off with you now, before I fetch someone to throw you out”.
She hurried back inside, slamming the huge door.