MEMOIRS OF ARMAND LACROIX
PRIVATE OF THE 92ND INFANTRY REGIMENT
DEAD FOR FRANCE 14/1/15
1 August 1914
I find that mist has a fantastic capability; those low-hanging clouds that both encompass and protect. They hug the mountains, blanketing the fertile terrain of my little agricultural town with their nourishing moisture. This mist, or fog, as it may otherwise be known, can also create my most favourite thing – silence. With the properties that I do not know what these clouds contain, it muffles the sounds of all it encounters; people milling about on the street below outside my window, the baying of cattle, and the monotonous, familiar din of the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. I thought about the horses for a moment, those poor beasts, destined to live under the sharp whip of their master, which carried people and goods alike to and from the town of Clermont-Ferrand. As I lay in my bed on that morning, I could hear these familiar noises come and go. I tried to imagine what it looked like outside, when my eyes failed me. It is something I find that I enjoy doing, as I believe it exercises the mind quite well.
What my ears could not prepare the mental imagery in my head for, however, was the sound of drums, far off in the distance. I sat up in my bed, confused for a moment, before finally bringing it upon myself to peer out the window. There, emerging from the gloom were several straight lines of soldiers. Though their march was formal, the men clad in red and blue sang ‘La Marseillaise’ with energy, large smiles upon their faces. Unsure of exactly what I was seeing, I could only turn and rouse my wife, Caroline. She stirred ever-so-slightly when I placed my hand upon her shoulder, causing me to smile.
“Armand, what is the matter…?” she asked in her gentle voice, groggy with fatigue. Oh, how I love my wife! There is nothing about her which I do not adore; her chestnut brown hair, which tousles into curls whenever she sleeps, no matter how hard she tries to correct it; those deep blue eyes, akin to an ocean, into which I could stare forever; her small, slender form, moulded by skin of a rich fawn colour, reminiscent of golden-brown wheat more than ripe for harvest. Perhaps Caroline often caught me in this dreamy state, where I lost myself in her beauty. “Armand,” she repeated calmly, pulling me out of my reverie. It was as though she was used to these moments where I lost myself in her beauty.
“Hm?” For a moment, I had forgotten completely what it was exactly that I was about to say to her. But the reprise of the anthem jogged my memory, and I brightened. “Oh, yes! There – are soldiers outside, look at them!” I pulled the covers away from both myself and my wife, letting the thin sheets fall on to the floor. By the time I looked out from my window once again, several civilians had joined in the early morning, energetic chant. Some of them passed right below our window, and I could only smile innocently at Caroline. “Do you think we are going to war?” I asked, in the foolish excitement that perhaps all men of twenty-four years possessed. It had been rumoured for quite some time that the situation was becoming uneasy, especially with Germany, and the hunger the French had to take back what land had been lost before, as well as a little more, only fed the proverbial fire.
Wanting to join in on whatever was happening down below, I climbed out of bed and put on my slippers, not bothering to change out of my pale green nightgown. There was a great noise being produced from both the band and the cheering of the civilians, and as I ran down the stairs and opened my front door, I could only gape in amazement at the sight. I had never seen anything like it before in my lifetime; coloured banners and French flags fluttering about, and the cheering of men who had seemingly caught the contagious excitement. It was as though the sleepy little town had been pulled into a great uproar, one of which I was a part.
I followed the mass before my wife could even realise that I had gone, almost dancing through the street, eager to follow both the soldiers and the farmers. It seemed as though I had lost their trail, ironically, as it was such a small village, and only so many places one could go, though instead I arrived in the empty centre of town where I saw large papers plastered everywhere – on the walls of buildings, upon the fountain, but most especially, littered over the ground. Stepping closer to the one nearest to me, I began to read the following words:
ARMÉE DE TERRE ET ARMÉE DE MER
ORDRE DE MOBILISATION GÉNÉRALE
Below this bold announcement, decorated with French flags, I could see that all men were obligated to join, and if they did not comply, they would be punished by law. Of course, I had no fear of being punished by law. In fact, it was quite the contrary; I was incredibly excited to at last put to use my three years of mandatory military training. The mobilisation order before me instructed me to take a booklet, in which I would find more information. More than eager to do so, I reached down took one of the neatly-made pamphlets, and returned back home, calling out to Caroline. To my disappointment, my wife was nowhere to be found. I shrugged, not surprised that she had gone back to bed. She was a late sleeper, but I did not mind in the slightest. I found that it kept the youthful glow upon her face, despite the tireless work housekeeping demanded. She had in her lifetime only experienced nineteen summers, this one being her twentieth, yet I have seen woman just as young as her who appear to be twice her age. If only they could learn from my Caroline!
Looking down at the papers, I re-read what the booklet said, not fully comprehending what it would mean for us, as a small family. “France is at war…” I remarked placidly to myself, murmuring under my breath, the dawning reality rendering me seemingly calmed-down, which had been a product of the excitement and great energy amassing just outside of my door. The letters written upon the papers plastered outside kept echoing through my head, and those letters formed into sounds, with meanings that I was too naïve to grasp fully. Among those were ‘mobilisation’, which was a word that was hardly understood by my vernal ears. As I listened to the new noise of a gathering crowd mingling with the familiar din comprised of cattle and vendors, my mind wandered and my thoughts became distant, therefore I was unaware of the warmth that had suddenly appeared behind me. Caroline wrapped her arms around my waist, and I could feel her cheek pressed against my back.
“You are going to fight for our country, then?” she asked softly, in a voice that only betrayed the slightest of emotions. At this point, I could tell that she was tired, and nothing more. I ran my hands over hers, squeezing them gently; for how was I supposed to reply? If I said no, it would be a blatant lie, and she certainly would not appreciate if I was gone the next day without a word. However, if I said yes, she would fear for me. The last thing I wanted was for my dear wife to worry about my life, my future, every single day; but I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I could never tell a lie to my sweetest Caroline.
Gathering up all my energy, I took a deep breath, the gravity of the situation finally coming to me. “Yes, dear. I am going to war.” I handed her my mobilisation papers, and she read them with only very little difficulty. She placed one of her delicate hands over her mouth, as if she did not believe what she was reading. I could only watch her silently, not exactly certain what to add. The war would only be a year or two, at most, and with Napoleon’s military tactics, we had always emerged victorious; or, most of the time. In the year 1870, we lost to the Germans because our leader was a fool. Now, we would finally have the chance to avenge our ancestors who lost to the Prussians and Germans long ago, and show them that France is the greatest country of all. Stuck in these thoughts of patriotism, it was not long before ‘La Marseillaise’, which the men had been singing for at least an hour, gave way to other military songs outside. I recognized ‘Le Chant du Depart’, but nothing more, to my dismay. Their lively rhythm lifted my spirits somewhat, and I kissed Caroline upon her brow.
“I will be back before you know it, my dear,” I replied confidently in the most delicate tone I was able to muster, gazing into those eyes I had first fallen in love with. I was so lucky, and still am to-day, that she chose me. Caroline came from Bordeaux, for I do not know what reason. Perhaps her father disliked city life, or her mother liked to get the supplies from her knitting more locally, as it was better and cheaper. Whatever the cause, the petite brunette with the pretentious accent unfortunately similar to mine still managed to be humble and sweet, something that had caught my eye almost immediately. After an awkward first encounter – in which I nearly spilled wine upon her flawless white dress –, and much persuasion on that day, her father had at last agreed to let me take her hand in marriage. Oh, was I ever so thankful for his approval! I believe he saw me as somewhat of a klutz, and I do not think that he is incorrect. However! That is beside the point, and I am certain that I can be sure-footed if I work at it.
With a long, drawn-out sigh, Caroline at last withdrew her arms from around my waist. I missed the warmth, definitely, but I had had her all to myself for all of these years; but I knew that I would not during the war. What, then, if I did not make it back at all? I would miss thoughts dear arms around me, the soft voice that always seemed to be there, supporting me, comforting me. If I could never hear that voice, never feel that touch – well, the thought was frightening. Simply to die, to never experience anything at all, ever again, was almost horrifying, in a sense that I would leave Caroline alone, without love.
I knew not to focus on such things. For, I was a conscript, much like most of the Frenchmen who joined the army, and I had no choice but to fight for my country. This blind patriotism, surely, must have some sort of solid basis, as the government could not possibly want to send its own men to their death. I furrowed my brow at these troubling thoughts, when I once again felt Caroline’s delicate hand upon my arm. “Armand, you are so incredibly distant,” my wife noted softly, and I could only wave off her concern, stroking at my moustache with my free hand. Caroline could only shrug in response, anything that I was feeling being beyond what she could remedy, and went to go prepare her favourite recipe of Danish pastries.
Any negative feelings I had towards the mobilisation order were snuffed out as quickly as a candle would be, as the soldiers made their rounds in the streets again. Feeling the music pulsating within my very veins, once again, I gave my wife a kiss upon her cheek while telling her I was going out, put on a coat, and joined the excited men in the streets, cheering and applauding. There were some women who did not take the news very well; they were sobbing and blowing their noses into their handkerchiefs. Myself, I could not understand why they were like that, so upset. They should have been happy that their husbands were going to war, to save France, and perhaps the entire world.
Caroline, she was quite strong, for taking the news so well, if this seemed to be the general reaction in the village. I knew that woman to be strong from the beginning – it was the very way she carried herself. Few women possessed that confidence, that poise; no, my Caroline would not cry for me. I turned back to look into the window, and could see her hard at work, as always. How I wished she could join me in this sort of celebration! Alas, it would have been out of place for a woman to participate so enthusiastically in such events, and I know that she is rather shy, so she would not want to do so.
Suddenly, a pole was thrust into my hands by a man I did not recognize, and crudely fastened on top was the flag, bearing the blue, red, and white in rough linen. I could only look at the large – and rather heavy – object for a few moments, before scanning the crowd to see what it was exactly that I was supposed to do. It took me a few moments before I caught on, waving the colours with pride. I started to follow the procession cheerfully, caught up in the rallying and the songs, before I heard a very familiar voice calling my name from behind me.
“Armand!” Caroline certainly did not look impressed in the slightest, her head the only part of her visible from out of the door frame. “You did not even shave yet. Put that flag down, if you please, and come back inside so that you may at least look presentable in public.” Shamelessly, I handed the large flag back to one of the soldiers, before returning quickly to my gorgeous wife, who appeared to not want to have any more to do with either me or my shenanigans. “Here, I fetched some water while you were in your dazed stupor out there, so you can shave. The Danishes will be ready in only a few minutes.” Oh, what ever would I do without my dear Caroline! Her voice was a joy to hear, even when she was reprimanding me.
I could only smile back fondly at her, wrapping an arm around her waist to pull her close and kiss her. Whenever she was in a mood like this, I enjoyed how a few kisses always seemed to cheer her up. “Thank you, love,” I murmured against the soft skin of her lips, then let go to do what any respectable man would do. Shaving, while difficult to grasp at first, soon became part of my daily regime. While I doubt other men think twice about it, for me, taking a sharp blade to the hairs of my sensitive skin had always been a herculean task. With practice, however, it was soon facilitated, much to the satisfaction of Caroline. I remember so many years ago, deeply apologising for the bloodstained linen, which was so incredibly precious to us, but she always seemed forgiving. God had indeed granted my wife the patience of a Saint, who always understood me as I was fumbling through life. In a way, she seemed to find it charming; at the very least, I hope this was the case.
Returning to the kitchen, clean-shaven save for the moustache I had styled so carefully, Caroline walked up to me and ruffled my hair, almost as if I were a child. Sometimes, I feel as though she treated me that way simply because we were unable to have children; my fault, perhaps. I always knew that she wanted a child, but sometimes, things do not work out in quite the way we want them to. “The pastries are ready, Armand,” my precious Caroline informed me, before she gave me my space once more, returning gracefully to cleaning the room – but not before kissing me upon my cheek. These movements, I quite enjoyed. It was a sort of slow tango between lovers; in, then out again; teasing, taunting, and playful; but with eyes set on the end goal. When dancing, this end goal would be the completion of the music, a cue to thank one’s comrade and part. But in a relationship – when did this dance end? Death would be a logical answer, were my death not looming over me, vast distances away from my life, from this tango. Only God can say for certain, what our demise will be.
Grateful as I always tried to be, I thanked my wife both audibly and with another kiss, placed tenderly upon her forehead. The poignant smell of strawberries blended with the skilfully-crafted Danishes teased at my senses, and I reached for one of the warm goods to enjoy. As always, when my eyes went back to those of my wife, she gaze at me in anticipation, as if waiting for praise. She always did; so uncertain was she of her talents, so ignorant of her flawless grace! Was that my fault? I certainly hope not. I loved her with all of my heart, and only hoped that it showed. Despite whether or not my adoration for Caroline manifested or no, I gave her the verbal praised she so clearly craved. “These are delicious, as always, Caroline.” All the tension in the small woman’s shoulders gave way instantaneously, and I had no choice but to wrap her in a comforting embrace. “There, there. From whence comes this nervousness, love?” She made pastries nearly every morning – when the income allowed – and I was unable to fathom what bothered her so.
Caroline, always preferring to be withdrawn, merely shook her head passively. “It is nothing, I suppose. I simply… worry. I shall be all alone, and I do not think I will have anyone to care for. Not a child, nor a husband, nor even parents who are ailing. I wish to do something with my time, no matter what that something may be. Yet, all I will be able to do is write letters to you, and send you what I can, even though it will not be enough.” There was a sadness in her eyes that I was unable to comprehend fully; was that a hint of the stone-cold resolve wavering, at last? Was there anything I could do to remedy this? As she turned away to return to our bedroom, I knew that it was impossible for me to reverse her sadness. After all, Caroline could not become a nurse, as she was married to me. In any case, the horrors of war are not a sight fit for women to see. That was what I had gathered from the stories I had heard from the elders of the village, at least.
Being a very close community where one knew all of one’s neighbours by name, what crops they grew, when they took their cattle to the market, et cetera et cetera, I head learned all I knew about war from them, the few men and women, all quite young at the time, who had seen the Franco-Prussian wars of 1870. I respect those men who fought, even though none of them were my fathers. My lineage, the history of the Lacroix family, comes from somewhere in France, even more rural than the place in which I currently live. I had never brought together enough strength to trace back the names of my forefathers, but I could only guess that they were insignificant little farmers. Not this Lacroix, however. My father tried to start a new life for us in Paris, but after the both fell ill with tuberculosis, they sent me off to my proverbial roots. I know that I will make a name for the future generations, should my wife and I finally be lucky enough to conceive. That child will wear my name with pride, I am sure of it. He will remember his father as a brave man, who fought fearlessly for France.
As my gay thoughts segued into the realisation that I no longer held anything in my hand, I furrowed my brow and stood, aiming to search for more of the delectable Danish pastries. This action subsequently brought me back into the silence of the kitchen, and I realised that Caroline had been gone for quite some time. She was up in our room, I knew that much, but I only hoped that she was not upset. Setting the pastry aside, knowing that I had more pressing matters to tend to, I removed my coat, thus revealing the night gown that I had failed to change out of. It was not long before my bare feet were upon the steps once more, heading up to the bedroom, where I was worried I would find my dear wife crying. In such a situation, I do not know what would occur. Perhaps – but this is only a possibility – I would cry along with her.
When I opened the door, however, the thoughts I had conjured up in my mind of my Caroline curled up on the bed miserably, sobbing for her fear of the loss of her husband for France, was not a sight with which my eyes were met. Instead, Caroline appeared oddly cheerful, and she had a bag set out for me already, in which she was packing my clothing. “I will not need that bag, love,” I commented softly. “The army will provide me with everything I need. The papers say that.” I looked once again at the booklet explaining the mobilisation, which I had so carefully placed into my pocket, reading it for what must have been the one hundredth time. Remembering the date written on the posters outside, I continued, “I will be gone to-morrow, to the camps. But this afternoon, I will take the medical exam, and they will decide into which regiment I must go.”
Collected as always, Caroline ceased putting my things together, and she raised her fingers to her lips thoughtfully. “You will need these clothes – I am certain, Armand. You cannot go to war with absolutely nothing; in fact, I will not allow it. Take this bag, as I packed some biscuits that will last a little longer than pastries. Madame Tys made them; oh, am I ever so glad that I decided to buy them the other day.” I was unable to resist my wife’s gentle persuasion, eventually giving in and positioning myself upon the bed.
“Oh, Madame Tys. Bless her heart!” I replied in my eternally-grateful manner. “It is incredible that she can still make wonderful biscuits and pastries after all these years; I remember buying them from her as a young boy, long before you came to Clermont, dear.” I gave my wife a final kiss before setting off to leave for the office at which I needed to apply. Despite my excitement, I could not seem to shake the little knot that had been forming in my stomach for all that time. I was ecstatic, of course, to finally be able to get my revenge upon the Germans for our defeat in 1870, but as always, war possessed risks. I tried to shake those thoughts as I dressed in the best clothing I owned, then walked out the door, following the throng of eager men around my age, who were all forced to join the war as myself, but did not seem to mind in the slightest.
After waiting in line for quite some time, my booklet in hand, the man behind me decided that just as I was the next man to go in for my medical examination. “Hey, comrade,” he said in a voice that almost tried to sound like proper French, but I could immediately tell that he was from the deepest parts of the countryside. That little, curious face was familiar, and I believe that I recognized him as Dupin’s son. “You’re awfully little. D’you think they will let you in?” he probed mockingly. “I mean, you have a moustache and all, but you don’t seem to be very strong, from what I can tell. Well - ! I suppose what I should say is that they might think you faked your papers, as you don’t look to me to be a day over sixteen.”
One could imagine my surprise at the audacity of this young man! Stubbornly, I replied, “I have twenty-and-four summers, thank you very much, and they will surely allow me in.” The man himself certainly did not appear to be old enough to join the army, but of course, that was not my place to say. If a man was energetic and able-bodied, he was needed by France. I am certain that they would not have the time to verify every single application received. However, I was not to worry about that, nor the pestering boy who seemed to inflict his own fears upon me. Shaking my head, I immediately felt my name as I was ushered into the room to get my medical examination.
Needless to say, it is an odd experience, to have a stranger poking around in parts that certainly were not meant to be poked. I squirmed several times under the scrutiny of both the man’s finger and the eyes of the men waiting in line for their turn. It was embarrassing, certainly, but not the worst thing I had ever been through. In fact, it was quite enjoyable, if one ignored the breeze meeting with parts of the body that usually did not come in contact with the outdoors. I needed to dull my sense of modesty, in any case – I doubted that there would be private toilets, baths and the like in my camp, located in God-knows-where. It would be the border of France, most likely, as that seemed like quite a reasonable place at which to begin.
Just like that, the examination was over. A man checked off a piece of paper that declared me fit for war – I doubt that they would say many men were unfit. France needed all the men it could gather together if it wanted to win this war. However, I could not help but feel a sense of elation within me, easing the stress I had felt earlier. It was as though with that piece of paper, the war was suddenly becoming real, and I would be a part of it. It was not history for myself I wished to create in fighting; rather, a future for the ones who would live long after me. I was uncertain of what Germany was capable of doing if they had captured France, bit by miniscule bit. It simply could not happen! They would ceaselessly fight with the neighbouring countries, and be callous enough to declare war upon the young, yet quickly-growing United States of America. I would stop it from being the case; myself alone, if absolutely necessary.
Moving onwards from the medical examinations, I took both the examination paper and my booklet to the office where they would decide to which regiment I belonged. There was less of a line here, and I wondered vaguely why this was the case, but put it out of my mind as soon as I entered the building. The chill of the dissipating mist was soon forgotten in my excitement, as I opened the door to a bulky, heavy-set man who owned a very large and impressive white moustache, perched precariously on an almost nonexistent upper lip, and curled at the ends to give him a more pompous look.
He failed to fool me, however, with that righteous look that seemed to fit perfectly on a Parisian. The man sat at a desk, keeping his glare severe as he regarded me, taking my papers and eyeing both them and myself. “Civilian Armand Lacroix, you have thus been mobilised as an infantryman in the 92e régiment d’infanterie.” His peasant accent, however faint, was still there and blatantly obvious to me, therefore I accepted the paper he offered me with a grin, as though in triumph at his failure to mask the way in which he spoke.
I bowed curtly in thanks, not exactly certain what it meant to be in the ’92nd infantry regiment’. All I knew was that at that moment I became a soldier – a real soldier – prepared to bring glory back to France once and for all. It was at that time that I realised my hands began trembling in trepidation for what was to come, though I would first have to break the news to my wife. I was certain that it would not be news to her, as it seemed she was preparing for the upcoming war, somehow. She knew much more than me already, even at such an early time of war. Then again, I suppose that is what happens when one stays inside all day, cleaning and reading the papers. Oh, those horrid things, which tell nothing but bad news. I do not doubt that they hinted to some turmoil in Germany.
I soon received my uniform; it was a bright blue and red, much like what was worn in 1870. A thought occurred to me, that perhaps, only perhaps, it was because of these easily-visible uniforms that we lost the war against the Prussians all those years ago. I told myself not to be ridiculous, since we lost because of our idiot of a leader at the time. Chuckling to myself about how foolish I had been, I put the bright cap upon my head, walking down the street with pride at my new outfit, which other men were seemingly flaunting as well.
It was not a long walk to return back to the small home that belonged to myself and Caroline. Our home was rather quaint, just the size we needed to house two people, and luckily incredibly close to all the commotion in the town. Gently, I opened the worn oak door, and when I did not see Caroline in the kitchen, I called her name. Still receiving no response, I walked up to our room with slight worry. “Caroline, love, are you here?” Perhaps it was foolish of me to worry so much; she was incredibly independent, rare as such a characteristic was to find in a woman these days, and she did not need me to watch over her every moment of the day. Confused when I did not hear a reply from her, I returned back downstairs. A small piece of paper placed on the dinner table caught my eye, and I stepped closer to see a note written quickly in my dearest love’s pristine handwriting, explaining curtly how she had gone to the market to buy ingredients to make an extravagant final dinner for me, before I went off to save France.
Pleased at reading this, I settled back into a chair, my cap which was slightly too large for me falling over my eyes. I made no move to put it back to where it was, however, as I quite liked the artificial darkness it provided. The crackling energy that still resonated in the air from the soldiers that had long since left the village to move on to other places still clung to me, and only when it had calmed down outside did I realise just how exhausted I was. This silence gave me a chance to gather my thoughts, almost rehearse in my mind what I would tell to my wife on our last evening before I went off to the war.
Suddenly, I heard the familiar click of the door being unlocked, followed by the turn of the door-knob, to which the door responded by squeaking the hinges upon which it rested. They definitely needed some oil, I thought absently. I lifted up my cap to the cheerful expression of Caroline. I wish not to use the Lord’s name in vain, but dear God, was she ever beautiful when she smiled at me in the way that she did at this very moment. I only wished such an expression would stay in my mind with me as I went off to fight, thus I was suddenly inspired to take a photograph with her that very evening, which allowed me to take along a reminder of exactly what she looked like, though I could not imagine forgetting the face of my very own Caroline, in a war that would only last a few months!
On Caroline’s back, strapped over her shoulder, was a large bag filled to the brim with goods that I could not decipher based on the shape of the bag alone. “I am terribly sorry for taking so long, Armand.” If only she knew that she did not need to apologise for a single thing, my perfect wife! I only waved it off, as I often did her apologies. She went on; “I spent a little more than planned on food, but I supposed it was worth it. With only me in the house for the next year or two, there will be hardly any money going towards food.”
“Even if that were not the case, please do not worry, Caroline!” I exclaimed, sitting up in my chair and looking back at her with interest, both in her and the contents of the bag. “What shall you be making us for dinner? Oh, no, keep it a surprise, I beg you! Then, I shall have a surprise for you also, and it will all be fair and well. Leave your bag here, but keep on your shoes; we are going for a little outing.” I offered Caroline my arm, ignoring her looks of confusion. She complied without any protestation whatsoever; oh, how I so dearly adored her.
I led my wife out of the house, however unnecessary such formalities were. I enjoyed going out of my way to be what Parisians would consider to be a ‘gentleman’, as that was most likely the kind of man my wife would be interested in. Here in Clermont, farmers had not the slightest idea what manners were. On several occasions, I attempted to be their teacher, but it never ended well. Eventually, I had given up on trying altogether. I must admit that one needs to have a certain personality to teach, with all the patience in the world to teach well.
The day was coming to a rather cheerful close, as God had decided to paint the sky with rich hues of indigo and purple. A deep magenta was the favourite colour of my wife, as she has informed me once or twice, so she was quite pleased to see that God had heard her as well.
Finally, after a few minutes of walking in silence, Caroline asked, “Armand, will you please tell me where we are going? You know very well that I despise surprises!” Her voice was teasing, with a hint of playfulness to it, which I absolutely adored. I only responded with a little smirk, shaking my head knowingly. All the charm in the world could not wrench a secret from my lips. When I was sworn to something, I was sworn to it for life, whether it be a secret pact forged by myself alone, or a promise kept by a friend.
“You shall know soon enough, my dear wife,” I replied in a tone that I believed to be mysterious, the most ominous sort of voice I could muster. Perhaps it was not very convincing, but it had quieted Caroline, whom I had noticed had appeared to be more anxious than usual. My response seemed to calm her, which was not the intended effect at all, and only caused me to wonder what was the matter with her.
Stopping outside of the photography studio, I opened the door and bowed dramatically. “After you, mademoiselle.” Shy as always, Caroline curtsied, going along with the joke. The fact that she did not question my motives led me to believe that she already knew them; and perhaps as well my deepest and darkest worries. However, I tried to dwell upon those as little as possible. The time with my wife before I was sent off was limited, and so I resolved to enjoy every last moment of it. I followed her into the studio, requesting from the photographer two photographs – one for each of us to have.
The photographs themselves only required us to stay still for a few minutes, though I despised holding the same smile for such a long time. After a while, the smile began to feel fake; stretching and pulling at my lips unnaturally until I remembered that I was holding close to me the love of my life, my arm wrapped around her waist. Upon completion, the photographer showed the photographs to me, and asked me if they were to my liking. After consulting Caroline, we both agreed that the other looked very charming in the photographs. The man only chuckled, telling me that it was a sign that the photograph was very good. At that moment, I was in a particularly gay mood, and I requested that the photographer frame the photographs, and write our names at the bottom. He told me that it would cost more than what he usually charged, but I insisted that the price did not matter. He asked for our names, and at the bottom of each frame, in his practiced calligraphy, he wrote;
Armand et Caroline LACROIX
le 1 août 1914
Thoroughly pleased, I paid the man the hefty sum that was due, my face pained in the slightest bit when he announced the price. Then again, I argued to myself, what I was purchasing was a permanent imprint of such a flawless moment, engraved upon paper for eternity, or so I liked to believe. The photograph would pay for itself a tenfold in sentimental value, no doubt. Caroline did not seemed to be too fazed by the price, either, so I let it go without complaint. It was my choice, after all, to have the frame.
When we left the photographer’s studio, I gave my wife a loving kiss upon her lips, to remind her that I appreciated her so dearly. Caroline responded as she always did, with a kiss in return and a tug upon the front of my shirt – this time being the lapels of my coat. It was an attempt to pull me closer, I know, but she was so small and I so large that she could not move me an inch in any direction. It was no matter, for the fact that she kept trying to do so was oddly heartening to me, and I wished her never to stop. It was part of the will of that amazing woman, no matter how subtle the action.
“How did you like that surprise?” I asked jokingly as I walked along with her. The sun had long since sunk behind the horizon, the only trace that it even existed being the streaks of colours staining the sky in shades of red and yellow. The perpetual noise of the day had died down as well, giving way to the distant sounds of the town which I so greatly adored. My attention had been drawn to these sounds so acutely that I almost missed Caroline’s reply.
“It was indeed a wonderful surprise, albeit an expensive one. Nonetheless, I thank you for taking me, Armand.” That gentle voice pierced my daydreams, and I smiled down at Caroline, reaching down to squeeze her delicate hand with the lightest touch my significantly-larger hands would allow. I was always so frightened of hurting my precious Caroline; she was so small and still had about her that youthful glow, highlighted with the wisdom I knew she possessed. If I was ever too rough, I knew she would have let me know, but it did not stop me from worrying.
When I opened the door to our abode for the last time that evening, it was only then did I remember the ingredients that Caroline had purchased from the market less than an hour earlier. As I had kept my surprise a secret, I could only assume that she wanted to do the same. Thus, I kissed the top of her head, murmuring, “I will be up in our room, dear. Just call me down when dinner is ready, as I will be re-arranging the items you packed me just to make the bag a little lighter.” Perhaps Caroline knew what I meant by this; that I would remove about half of what she had to carefully placed into the bag. I appreciated the thought sincerely, but there was no way that such an innocent woman could know anything about war, let alone what to pack for going into it. It would simply be far too heavy.
My wife did not protest in the slightest; granted, she never did, but it gave me some reassurance. Since Caroline said nothing, she was fine with the decision; that was the agreement, also made upon the same grounds. I disappeared up the stairs into our room, looking around at all the objects I would dearly miss, from items as important as my collection of letters I had received over the years, to the insignificant, such as the hairbrush my wife ran through her hair every morning and every evening. Of course, I would long for Caroline most of all, but I knew that I could always write to her. These objects, on the other hand; I could not write to them. It pained me in an odd sort of way that I was utterly unable to describe. Deciding that there was nothing more I could do about the situation, I simply sat upon my bed and pulled from my shelf a book by Voltaire.
Soon, from down stairs, I heard that familiar and so dear voice announce that dinner was ready. I smiled in genuine appreciation, heading down to the source of her call, where I was met with the delectable aroma of fresh vegetables. It was warm and comforting, and though my wife was an excellent cook, I daresay she outdid herself with this. Sitting upon the table were two bowls filled to the brim with a viscous orange soup that smelled of squash, and nestled beside the bowls were loaves of fresh bread. I kissed Caroline as a way to express my deepest gratitude. “You are so incredible; thank you, love.” In a flustered fashion, she replied in words that I could not quite decipher. Nonetheless, I sat down at the table and invited her by my side. It really was such a shame that she thought so little of herself.
We ate mostly in silence, as we did most meals; however, this one had more of a foreboding air to it. The realisation hit me that it was our last meal before I was sent away, and also our last few hours together. I could almost hear the grandfather clock in the corner announcing the hours I had left before I was required to leave. I was only grateful that time seemed to pass more slowly this time, as every second was more precious than I could ever possibly say. When we were finished, I thanked Caroline once again, and, as though her resolve was fading, she wrapped her arms around me tightly. I looked down at her in surprise, but hugged her back, running my hands over the soft linen of her dress which covered her back. “I am going to miss you dearly,” she said at last, though I could detect no trace of the tears other wives had had trailing down their cheeks that morning.
“I will miss you too, of course. But you needn’t worry; I promise that I will write to you as often as I can.” It was a solemn promise, and one that she knew I would keep; I could tell that she acknowledged it by the way she nodded into the front of my shirt. I moved my hand up to stroke her hair. “Do not do that, Caroline. You will make your gorgeous curls messy.” She did not reply. Instead, she only hugged me tighter. I had never been vast distances away from anyone I loved, so how could I possibly comprehend what it was like to only have a photograph and letters by which to remember my wife?
Soon, night fell in its entirety. The streets outside had fallen completely silent, replaced by the distant chirping of crickets, and the occasional call of an owl, or some other creature which preferred to hunt at night. I settled into bed beside Caroline, who had fallen asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. I let her steady breathing lull me to sleep as well, preferring to take my mind off of what would happen the very next day.