NOTE: ’The Lost Estate’, by Henri Alain Fournier, was published in 1913. He was killed in action on the Western Front in September 1914.
His men aren’t marching any more, they’re trudging the same as he is, setting one foot in front of the other foot, over and over again. Their caps are pulled low, their shoulders stooped under the weight of a world they no longer even try to understand. Stumbling through the dim forest, they mutter curses at the roots that trip, the nettles that sting. The forest seems endless, though of course it’s not. Beyond the trees lie open fields. Beyond the trees lies the betrayal of daylight.
The Lieutenant glances over his shoulder; like a vein, he thinks, a narrow vein of blue uniforms pulsing its way through this body of trees. Blue blood: not that there is anything aristocratic about the men behind him. They are farmers and tradesmen and builders. They are grubby and irritable and foul mouthed. Yet the knotted veins on the backs of their hands, the livid bruises around crusty scabs are definitely blue. They are soldiers: blood is blood and bone is bone. Morituri Te Salutant: we who are about to die, salute you… who? The Commander in Chief? Joffre, Petain? The Triple Entente? What kind of Holy Trinity is that? He looks up at the trees where the few remaining leaves seem to cringe before the coming day, to cling forlornly to their mother branch…
Stop it. He is not a writer now, he is a soldier. A Lieutenant. Officer in charge. Concentrate. Allons, enfants… stop again. They have reached the edge of the forest.
A solitary leaf drifts down. He plucks it off his shoulder: a beech leaf. Only September, but already the leaf is yellowed and frail, a ghost of its former self. Once upon a time he threaded beech leaves together, once upon a harvest festival. For Yvonne. From autumn leaves, he made a chaplet of red and gold and russet: she laughed as she lifted it and lowered the tiara onto her head, stretching her arms up to the sky. And he knew it was the wrong thing to say, but it said itself, before he could stop it. Blurted it. Out far too loud. You are beautiful. All her friends laughed and clapped. Face suddenly crimson, she tore the chaplet off, tossed it to the ground. ‘Henri! Don’t embarrass me!’
Don’t embarrass yourself, she meant. He throws the leaf to the ground and strides on.
A narrow ditch separates the forest from an open field; the enemy camp is beyond the fence that runs along its left hand side. On the far side of the field, the forest continues: that is where they need to get to. He takes out his binoculars. The camp is stirring. He watches men moving between tents, men cooking or cleaning rifles; he can see their Mauser: and yes, there is the mortar. Minenwerfer. Mine thrower. Not that knowing the word for it was going to save anybody from getting their brains blown out; he can’t help it, that’s all. Words are how he lives and breathes, how he makes sense of it all, through the words buzzing in his brain like worker bees. But they are not busy bees any more, they are bees dazed, queenless…
Krauts. The Bosche. Fritz. Soldiers’ words, all spelling ‘enemy’. Grey uniforms, spiked helmets. What’s that word? Pickelhauben, yes. Pickelhauben. Bayonets for the brain. Head down, charge like a bull… bull in an infantry shop…
What is the word for him and his men? Enfants de la patrie? Morituri? Soldiers: just soldiers. Behind enemy lines. Clustered around him, looking at what he is looking at, his men say nothing. Words have failed them. Where is Jacques, he wonders. Now, this minute? In a German jail, where they hang you by the nail… His friend’s photograph is in his breast pocket, along with Isabelle’s lock of hair. ‘For you, brother mine’: he remembers her wrapping his hand around the blonde curl before spinning to fling her arms around Jacques. Jaques, who had already pocketed his blonde curl.
No glossy dark curl: no Yvonne. No arms flung around his neck, no forever vows for him. Only memories, only the secret trove of words in his head. The letters he wrote because writing was easier, because he no longer trusted himself to speak. He doesn’t even know if she’s kept them; weren’t girls supposed to keep proposals of marriage? Tie them up in a silk ribbon to bring out when they were old and grey and bespectacled? He has kept hers, her one and only. It is in his breast pocket, short and formal. Congratulations, it says: congratulations on the publication of your book, THE LOST ESTATE. She has printed the title in respectful capitals, but added a row of exclamation marks immediately afterwards, like hands clapping very fast. Not that she’s read it yet, but she will. Not that she’s recognized herself or understood the world he was making again, the bridge between yesterday and tomorrow.
Congratulations. So many congratulatory letters, from the university, from professors, from friends, from writers he’d never met. The literary world’s welcome: those letters have a special drawer of their own in his desk. But not Yvonne’s. He pats his breast pocket and takes a deep breath… like someone whose heart has long been full and who can finally share his secret. Who wrote that? Henri Alain Fournier. The up and coming author.
There is no other way, only straight on. Across the field. Cross your heart and hope… not to die. To live to tell the tale. To write it.
To find another Lost Estate, where his words go out into the world and come true. Whatever kind of world climbs out of this slaughter, whatever they can see. The Estate is mapped, its coordinates fixed in unknown imaginations. His words have given it a locality, a name, as it has named him. Who wrote this? Somebody called Fournier. Never heard of him. Here, read it.
Allons, enfants de la patrie: children first. We are all children first, whatever the patrie. The Pickelhauben glint in the early morning sunlight as they load and unload, polish and pack. They too were children once, as were we all: christening robes, knickerbockers, what’s its, lederhosen. First pair of long trousers, first downy moustache: curtains ruffling out from an open window, a scent of jonquils, catch me if you can… they would have children themselves, some of those Pickelhauben. Not him. Not now. Grey uniforms. Krauts, Bosche, Fritz. He could always attack instead of trying to cross the field: element of surprise, rifles blazing. Become a hero: would she listen then? No. No chance. And anyway, there are too many, far too many, far too heavily armed. Minenwerfer. Dead hero. Busy, preoccupied: cleaning, shifting equipment, preparing to move on. He scans the field, estimating time and distance, how far they might get without being seen. Not far. But orders are orders. They are his men, he must lead them.
He beckons and they creep forward, muscles taut, eyes narrowed, waiting for his signal. Forest behind, forest ahead: no man’s field in between. Some will make it; who will it be? Farmer, tradesman, builder?
Jacques. Whooping as they raced each other downhill; or standing tall and thin on the bridge over the river, angular white shoulders braced to reel in the fish. He cannot imagine Jaques in a cell. Locked up. Though right here, right now, locked up doesn’t seem so bad. In a German jail, with pen and paper. Because he was an officer. All that was needed. To write… what? Another wish fulfilling estate? Better just a letter, just a signature. Love always, Henri.
Jacques would claim his own estate after the war. When he came home to find Isabelle waiting.
That last stupid argument: it occurs to him, for the first time, that Jacques might have been jealous. Of him, of dear old also ran Henri. Just the tiniest soupçon, would never have admitted it even to himself: because old also ran Henri had done what Jacques had not, Henri Allan Fournier had written a book. A novel: published, well received. Now available in bookshops and libraries. Which had reviews with words like ‘promising’ and ‘a young author to watch.’ Not by Jacques. He could still see Jaques thumping his fist on the table, his handsome face flushed. ‘Yes, that’s all very well, but what’s the point? There’s no going back. It’s there in the title, the estate is lost. Then is then and now is now.’ No point explaining either: the then in the now, the now in the then, the longitude and the latitude. There are none so deaf as those who don’t want to hear.
Then: waiting for Yvonne on the banks of the Seine. And waiting. Now? Henri the hero? Allons enfants de la patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé… except it’s not. He’s just following orders. Orders that mean crossing that damn field: why? To get to the other side, of course, to re-join the rest of the regiment, to prepare for the next assault. Whichever of them made it. How far before they were spotted, before they came under fire, sprinting, heads down, arms, legs pumping… allons, allons! To get to the other side, to fall into the arms of protective trees.
And what then? Medal? His name engraved instead of printed? He pictures himself, limping along the banks of the Seine. His arm is in a sling, a pale scar accents his left eyebrow like a tick of approval… and here she comes, running towards him with those dark eyes wide and sparkling, opening her arms… She might have read it by then, might have her copy for him to sign. Then what? A second letter? While she was terribly flattered, she hoped that he didn’t think… Or: she’d only just this minute finished reading, Henri, she had no idea…
Stop it. Congratulations. Exclamation marks. Signature. ‘Your sincere friend Yvonne.’ That’s all. Jacques, Isabelle, readers unborn: his only children now.
Behind him, a shuffling, a clearing of throats. He gives the signal and they creep forward, bent low, eyes trained on the forest ahead. They get half way before the shout goes up and the Pickelhauben cluster, pointing, gesticulating. A shot rings out.
The Lieutenant sucks in his breath and sprints.
The letter they find in his breast pocket is still legible.
Reference: THE LOST ESTATE by HENRI ALAIN-FOURNIER PENGUIN POCKET CLASSICS 2016 001 (No.19)
An Irish-Australian, Dorothy Simmons is an English/Drama teacher whose first ‘published’ work was a stage play (MRPG). Since then, publications include 4 YA novels, the historical fiction, Living like a Kelly, short stories in literary journals (Best Australian Stories, Etchings, 4W (Fiction Prize, 2018), Hecate, Newcastle SS Award), microfiction (Spineless Wonders, On the Hour and Time). She also holds a doctorate in Creative Writing (Melbourne University), comprising the critical Myth and Meaning and the creative work which became Living like a Kelly. For more information, please visit her website: www.dorothysimmons.org