The Old Boat House

This was originally published in two parts, in 2018. I have combined both parts into one story of 2,600 words.
The picture was from Sue Judd’s blog, and I used it as a prompt. https://suejudd.com/

That summer of 1914 had started hot, and kept getting hotter. The sleepy town at the edge of the Massif Central felt more like the tropics, and Serge was uncomfortably hot in his Sunday Best suit as he walked along the path leading to the lake. But he wouldn’t slow his pace, as time with Sandrine was all too fleeting, and he wanted to make sure he got there early. They had no option but to meet in the old boat house. It was far enough away from the prying eyes of those who might recognise them, and it had proved to be a good choice, as they were never disturbed. Every Sunday for two months now, the only time she could get away, and his only day off work.

Serge had a good trade. He had been apprenticed to M. Henry, the cabinet maker, and soon earned a reputation for fine carving. Customers frequently requested his adornments, often playing down their enthusiasm so the price would not increase. “Oh, Monsieur Henry, have the young man carve something nice on the doors too”. This was usually said after a price had been agreed, and the old man never liked to ask for more. When he turned eighteen, he had been summoned into the living room behind the workshop, and told to sit. “I am very pleased with your work, Serge. How would you like to take over this business one day? You should save some of your pay every week, and when I am older I will sell you the whole thing, at a special price”. He had felt honoured, and happily shook hands on the deal.

Weeks later, they had finished the special bookcases for a wealthy customer. M. Henry had employed Marcel the carter to make the delivery, and they would accompany him to carry out the installation. The house was well known, but the inside was grander than Serge had ever imagined, with a huge chandelier in the entrance hall, and more rooms than any family could ever need. The owner, M. Aubertin, was a man of some mystery. He was exceedingly rich, but owned no lands outside of his small estate. He had no wife, and his son was hardly ever seen at the house. Some said his money had come from a banking family in Paris, though others insisted that he had investments in the South Seas. The housekeeper had let them in, and they set to work in the library.

As they stopped for lunch, Serge was entranced by some beautiful music he could hear coming from the next room, and opened the door slightly, to sneak a look. A young woman was playing a piano with great skill, her face a vision of beauty in the afternoon light. She stopped to look at the sheet music, and saw him looking in. He moved to close the door, but she called to him. “Come in, you can help me”. He shuffled in awkwardly, embarrassed by his dusty work clothes and shabby boots. “Serge Dujardin, miss. I am with the cabinet maker”. She was a confident young woman, bright and modern. “I know that, silly. You are working for my father. I am Sandrine, and I need you to turn the page for me, when I nod”. As she started to play once again, he stood to the side, waiting expectantly for her to nod. He had never been so close to a lady of such refinement. Her smell was intoxicating, and her piled hair shone like chestnuts. He missed her nod, and she laughed at his distracted face. “Perhaps you had better go back to what you do best, Serge?” He nodded, and as he turned to leave, she spoke again. “What do you do on your day off? Is there anything interesting to see around here?” He thought for a moment. “I usually go down to the lake. There is an old boat house there, and I sit inside it. Old man Duclos once kept his boat there, but he is long gone”. She smiled, and he felt stupid to have related how dull his life was. But he really couldn’t think of anything else. He smiled in return, and left the room.

Her voice made him start with surprise. “So, this is your boat house? May I sit? He jumped up, clutching his hat. “It might be dusty, miss, and make sure your shoes don’t touch the water”. “Call me Sandrine, and I don’t mind a little dust. My legs are short, so I doubt they will reach the water”. She perched rather than sat, so elegant in her movements. Twirling her furled parasol, she chatted with great animation. Talking of her life at a school for young ladies near Montpelier, that her mother had died giving birth to her, and how she didn’t understand her generous but distant father. She had an older brother she rarely saw, as he was an army officer. Since coming back to live in the family home recently, she had felt bored and listless, with little to interest her in the small market town, so no reason to go out. Serge listened, without a word in reply. This girl was nothing like the cackling gossips he knew in the town, and a world away from the lewd country girls who appeared each week on market day.

She stood suddenly, smoothing her dress, and picking up her parasol. “I must go, but I will be here next Sunday, if I know you are coming”. She extended her delicate gloved hand, and Serge touched it gently. He watched her walk away, already knowing he loved her, and aware that nothing could ever come of it. M. Aubertin would never countenance his fine daughter taking up with a tradesman, however honest and respectable he might be. But he resolved to be there next Sunday, nonetheless. And every Sunday after that.

She looked troubled that afternoon. There was talk of imminent war, and her brother had already been mobilised with his artillery regiment. She embraced Serge fondly, allowing a soft kiss on her cheek. They had not spoken of love, but both knew the other’s heart by now. “Will you go, Serge? I don’t want you to.”. He shrugged, staring at the lapping water where the boat had once been moored. “I don’t see how I cannot. All the able men will go, and those who stay will be thought of as cowards”. Reaching into her small bag, she stiffened her tone. “In that case, we must make a pledge. Whenever you can get home, we will meet here as usual, on a Sunday. I brought this for you, as I anticipated your answer”. She handed him a small oval frame. It contained a painted miniature of her face, protected by glass.

Serge gazed at the gift, his eyes moistening.

“I promise, Sandrine. Whenever I am home, every Sunday”.

When they left the boat house, they took the luxury of holding hands for a few steps, before parting with a fond glance, and going their separate ways.

The next day was the 3rd of August. The town seemed hysterical with the news of war against Germany. Many men stayed away from work, as excited crowds lined the streets, and filled the market square. Old men who had fought against Prussia in 1870 shook their heads, looking at each other with grim expressions. They knew what awaited those overjoyed youngsters.

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.

The End.

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