The Hour of Parade: Chapter One

THE HOUR OF PARADE: CHAPTER 1

  Part I 

Munich, Late Winter 1806

 

Shall I show you things as they are or as it’s convenient for you to see them?

 

The bells rang one o’clock, the end of parade—a time when soldiers are at liberty, disappointed that there’s been no news to break their boredom. He walked up a lane that promised to take him back toward the Marienplatz, occupied mostly by Marianne’s absence.

     Look for me tonight, that’s what she said; tonight—a time as distant as the horizon of a graying, wind-blown steppe.

     His footfalls echoed and disappeared against windows made from sheets of plate glass. The street was much better drained than those in Brest-Litovsk or Kraców, the gutters swept clean. But here and there, patches of dark ice touched the cobblestones, and he shortened his stride to avoid a fall.

     Down the narrow passage, a closed post chaise swayed toward him, and to avoid being run over, he pressed back into a watchmaker’s doorway. Within the scattered echo of the hooves, the chains, and the snap of the postilion’s whip, the bells of the cathedral rang the quarter-hour. He stepped out once the way was clear, looking over his shoulder at the receding chaise, curious about its haste.

     “Oof!” The wind left his lungs, bringing back all the pain that had been absent during the past month. As he bent over struggling to catch his breath, two figures pressed close to his right flank; to his left, a pair of foreshortened shadows loomed across a building’s wooden façade.

     “Mon Dieu!” a voice said. “We didn’t see you there.”

     He straightened and squinted; he’d collided with a French cavalry officer, a captain—if he understood their insignia—accompanied by a chef d’escadron, an older man who walked with a cane. “Please excuse me,” he said. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

     “The fault was mine, sir,” the Captain said. “You appeared out of nowhere. Are you certain you’re not injured?”

     “You’re Russian, aren't you,” the Chef d’Escadron said.

     The man’s challenging tone was rude. He took a step back, and the others stepped back too, as if the three of them had begun the figures of a dance.

     Whatever was happening was happening too fast. The merchant’s clothes he wore made him feel naked, and he glanced around, searching for a line of retreat, a cache of arms. But at this hour past midday, the street was empty and silent except for a trundling wagon hauling firewood and a more distant flock of sheep. He turned back to face these soldiers, enemies from the past, recognizing that they both wore the blue and silver uniforms of the Tenth Hussars—Valsin’s regiment.

     “You have a fine mustache, monsieur. Were you in the war?” the Chef d’Escadron continued, easing his weight onto the cane.

     His left hand flew to his upper lip; they’d picked him out right away. Although his temple locks were gathered along with the rest of his hair and clubbed back, a mustache like an eagle’s wings spread above his mouth—a mark as clear as any brightly colored insignia.

     “Yes, Pavlograd Hussars, I’m a premier major,” he replied. “It’s the equivalent rank to your chef d’escadron. We are, I believe, of the same rank.”

     The older officer inclined his head. “Ah, I thought you looked like a cavalryman. You fought in the great battle north of Vienna?”

     “Yes.”

     “Austerlitz,” the Captain said. “That’s what the newspapers are calling it. Crèpin,” he said to his companion, “let’s buy this gentleman a drink. What do you say?” he asked, turning back. “We’re all Hussars, after all.”

     “I regret that I’m already late for an appointment,” he said, pulling at his watch chain. “A lady. I thank you though.”

     “No,” the Captain said. “Please, one drink, and we’ll all feel the better for it. I beg you. Surely the lady will wait.”

     “Oh yes, by all means. The war is over.” The older officer put a hand on his forearm, leaning close enough that, as the man spoke, there was a slight, not unpleasant, odor of garlic. “Chef D’Escadron Pierre Crèpin, Tenth Hussars, this is Capitaine Antoine Merseult.”

     The two Frenchmen seemed genuinely concerned that he would refuse. The most likely explanation was that they were anxious to demonstrate that they were gentlemen, not conquerors, swollen with arrogant pride. Besides, Munich teems with Bonaparte’s army; this encounter is nothing but coincidence.

     “Very well. One drink. I’m Ruzhensky, Premier Major Alexi Ruzhensky.”

     “Ruzhensky, you said?” the older man asked, giving the name an unusual pronunciation. “Let’s go—there’s a place close by. Watch out for the ice there.”

     The Marienplatz was just ahead; they drew him into it and then down the next side street to the left and on until they reached a coffeehouse. The interior, painted dark green, had wooden candleholders suspended from the high ceiling by blackened chains. Several stoves gave off heat, their iron chimneys making a maze of pipe as they twisted and turned aloft, and light from the street filtered in through colored glass panes framing the door.

     They settled around three sides of a square table and ordered brandy. The Frenchmen were friendly enough and eager to discuss the political situation in Europe in neutral terms; they made no wild boasts about their Emperor, no exhortations toward Jacobinism or democracy. Like him, they were middle-aged soldiers in the middle ranks of the army, accustomed to giving commands and being commanded.

     No doubt, he thought, Valsin himself stares at them in the same way, awaiting orders or merely fascinated by the sheen of Merseult’s cropped but elegant hair.

     “The Emperor Napoleon only desires peace,” Merseult was saying, “for all of Europe. Imagine, a Europe without borders, open to unobstructed commerce and travel. In time, we could all enjoy a single currency!”

Crèpin snorted and winked. “Come now, that would put soldiers out of a job.”

     “Soldiers will always have things to do—even in times of peace. Don’t you agree, Ruzhensky?” Merseult signaled for more brandy. “So, a Russian officer in Munich. By the way, if you don’t mind me asking, what brings you here?”

     “Merseult,” Crèpin interrupted, “I’m sure the premier major will tell us in his own time. Unless it’s none of our business.” He looked at Ruzhensky and raised his brows.

     “No, no, that’s quite all right. It’s my family—my father, business dealings in Austria. The war has…disturbed accounts. I’m here to straighten things out.”

     “Ah,” Merseult said, “then you must understand ciphers.”

     “War disturbs everything,” Crèpin said, making a clucking sound with his tongue. “We soldiers blunder forward, never looking back to see what we’ve left behind.”

     “You were wounded at the great battle, I take it?” Ruzhensky asked, extending his chin toward Crèpin’s injured leg.

     “Austerlitz,” Merseult said.

     “No, I didn’t have that honor. I was shot in the hip a few days before, at a place called Wischau.”

     His hand gripped the glass hard enough he expected it to crack and give way.

     Wischau—Mischa died at Wischau.

     From one moment to the next, Mischa and Valsin had each moved closer, both of them—the dead and the unknown living—crowding around the table, reaching out to hear, to bear witness to what was being said and would be done.

     “I’ve heard about the skirmish at Wischau,” he said at last. “Your Emperor was drawing us into a trap there, wasn’t he?”

     “I suppose that was the grand strategy,” Merseult said, nodding. “But we light cavalrymen weren’t told anything; we just followed orders.”

     “That’s right,” Crèpin said with a laugh. “No one asked our opinion.” He paused and sipped loudly at the brandy.   “The thing I remember about Wischau—besides being shot—was the single combat, Lieutenant Valsin’s single combat.”

     A silence, not at all empty, occupied him. His feet pushed against the floor, the muscles around his knees tense and hard, as if he were gripping a saddle instead of a chair. Outside, on the street, a horse whinnied, and then, like bubbles breaking loose from the bottom of a red-hot iron cauldron, the sound of gunfire began to pour through the windows of the coffeehouse. The shutters opened, the walls dissolved, and—his senses worn and beginning to fray—he was once again astride his mare Pyerits, leading a charge over a snow-covered field. Above her tossing mane, riders in green surged forward—French cavalry, shouting, shaking their swords. He pressed down against the stirrups and heard a wild cry.

     A different awareness scurried across his brow, pinning him between the past and the present. He was dreaming the dream, the one that tortured him most early mornings—at least a section of it, like an installment of a story serialized in a newspaper. How could that be—was he asleep?

     An instant later, back within the dream, the horses of both nations made way for each other by some animal agreement, and scores of men came together, stabbing, scrambling, sealing the joint with their blood.

     “—Valsin’s single combat.”

     He looked up, blinking, forcing himself to notice real things: the orange hue of the serving woman’s hair, the sweet-sour residue of the brandy in his mouth, the tremor in his hands. Only a faint odor of gunpowder and horse remained, and the pounding of his heart began to slow.

     “Were you familiar with that yourself, Premier Major?”

     The Frenchmen regarded him with solicitous, inclined heads, as if they’d become aware of the gravity of his wounds, and he straightened and frowned. The duel had been discussed throughout the army, so he reasoned he could admit knowledge of it. “Yes,” he said, alert for any loosening of his voice. “Of course. The single combat.” He balanced on the front of the chair, crossing his arms over his chest, squeezing each hand against a bicep to quell their trembling.

     “Listen,” Crèpin continued, “it was most unfortunate. Your cadet was too young; no one likes to see that sort of thing happen. Valsin felt terrible—I can assure you of that. He wouldn’t deliver the coup de grace; he could not. Your man—there’s no doubt he had courage. Valsin begged him to retire. At the end, he knocked him out of the saddle.” Crèpin shrugged. “You know—to put an end to it. What choice did he have?”

     Now his hands were not only shaking, his palms were moist, and he wiped them on his sleeves and swallowed spit. The story was coming out, unraveling like a cut hem.

     “Yes, it was regrettable,” Merseult said. “The incident haunts Valsin. He told me so just the other day. To have to kill someone whose courage you admire, who obviously isn’t a worthy opponent; it’s a heavy burden.” The Frenchmen each took a drink.

     “Please excuse me,” he said, the words coming harsh and staccato. “But did you say—not a worthy opponent?” His shoulders had become like stone.

     “Yes, that’s right,” Merseult said after taking time to wipe his mouth with a handkerchief. “Valsin was shaken by it. Does that surprise you?” A touch of steel had entered the Frenchman’s voice, a slender warning.

     I understand. This is no chance encounter, no victor’s magnanimous gesture. These men know who I am; that accounts for their telling me what I’m not prepared to hear. Like a pair of gamblers, they’re playing me, building—not to a fleecing—but a denunciation. They’ll close ranks around Valsin, and I’ll be checked.

     He had been exposed; someone—no doubt the Austrian police official he’d bribed to learn of Valsin’s whereabouts—had sent word to be on guard against a Russian gentleman. These two had spotted him on the street and known right away who he was. Despite his civilian clothes, his identity was as clear as if a sign printed with his name had been hung on his back. He had to think, to calm himself. His hands were now still, and he laid them flat on the table. For defense, his only recourse was a walking stick and his wits. He must do something unexpected, something to forestall the inevitable violence until he was prepared.

     “Gentlemen,” he began, choosing his words as he would soldiers for an important mission. “It’s just that…this story you tell of the duel…it’s…different from the one I’ve heard—the one that we on our side believed. If I seem surprised, that’s the reason.”

     “What have you heard, monsieur?”

     He drained the glass. “I’ve heard that he…that is…we—we were told that your officer—what did you call him, Valsin?—that he behaved in an arrogant fashion…and…that he…he boasted of the killing and abused the Russian officers as they tried to retrieve their comrade’s body.”

     Crèpin and Merseult looked at each other with widened eyes. “I assure you, that wasn’t the case, and I was there,” Merseult said, sitting forward in his chair. “I rode out as Valsin’s second. When one of your countrymen asked for it, he did announce his name—too loudly, I suppose, but Pierre, would you describe Valsin as arrogant?”

     “Not all the time.”

     “He spit on the ground—in contempt. That’s what I heard.”

     “No.” Merseult leaned forward, his eyes glittering. “I’ll tell you what really happened: Your infantry—several battalions’ worth—was preparing for assault, drums rolling, flags flying. We were behind a stone wall, ready to snipe at them. All of a sudden, two riders galloped out in front of the column, between the two armies. The drums stopped; we could hear your officers roaring. One of the horsemen advanced twenty paces and spoke. ‘Messieurs,’ he said, ‘I challenge any of you French gentlemen! Come and fight me, for the honor of both our Tsars!’ It was well said, we all agreed. Valsin was the most junior officer among us; Pierre ordered him to respond—you did, Pierre, don’t you remember? Valsin was reluctant, not that he lacked courage, but to duel like that in front of all of us—well, it was a hero’s job. He asked if I would second him, and I said yes.

     “We advanced, and he called something to me that, at the time, I didn’t understand. ‘If something happens,’ he said, ‘take care of her.’ ‘Take care of whom?’ I said, but he’d already spurred ahead, and his reply was lost in a rush of wind.

“The two champions charged, striking at one another as they passed. But as your countryman struggled to turn his horse, I could see that he was unskilled. Valsin saw it too—he told me later. For several minutes, they hacked and stabbed with their weapons, searching for flesh but finding only steel and air. Finally, Valsin got inside your man’s guard and laid a saber against his throat. ‘You’re my prisoner,’ he called. ‘Stop.’

     “But no. With his gauntlet, your man grabbed Valsin’s saber and pushed it away. He made a lunge for Valsin’s chest, dead-on, but Valsin parried and followed through, getting his point into the man’s side.

     “Valsin told me. He said: ‘Right away I knew it was over. I’d killed him. I called on him again to stop, but he urged his horse forward in a charge. And I pulled toward the flank and knocked him to the ground with the flat of my sword.’” The Captain paused to drain his cup.

     “But really, Premier Major Ruzhensky,” Crèpin said. “We don’t wish to dispute this with you—you can be sure. Let’s just agree it was an unfortunate affair.”

     The Frenchman stared at him with narrowed eyes, as if he were judging the effect of his words, and he felt even more certain they knew him, that this was all an elaborate piece of theater staged, if not to unmask, at least to deceive. His thumb and finger found the ring—Natasha’s ring—suspended around his neck by a chain and hanging in the center of his chest. Small and hard, a sapphire, the stone set in silver, elegant, as she had been. Because it hung next to his skin, the metal was buffed smooth and always warm.

     “Yes, of course,” he began and stopped, squeezing the ring until his voice gathered strength. “As you say.”

     “No, no, let me finish,” Merseult said, signaling to the proprietor for more brandy. Then he turned back, squeezing his eyes shut and opening them, revealing a distant focus, a lens of a power that Ruzhensky himself had regarded the world through—the sort of lens used by those who’ve witnessed mortal events, births and deaths, and must learn to remember them as blurred and indistinct, so that ordinary life can be viewed without distortion.

     “Please. I feel it’s important that I tell you this,” Merseult continued. “Perhaps I have a need for confession, eh? There’s a little more. I rode up to find Valsin retching on the frozen grass—as you are a soldier, Major, I’m sure you can understand that part of a duel. I told him to get a souvenir of the combat. After all, that’s the custom, isn’t it? Your man was lying on the ground, curled on his side; his headgear had come off, and his life’s blood emptied out onto the snow. Valsin knelt down to cut off the sword knot. ‘I could not, he said later,’ take my eyes from the Russian’s face.   ‘He was too young; I felt I’d killed myself.’

     “By that time, a party of your fellows had ridden out to retrieve their comrade. They began cursing us, and I drew my pistols, thinking there’d be a fight. One of them called, ‘Who are you, sir? Tell us your name so that we will not forget you.’ And Valsin rose and—you’re correct, he did spit, not in contempt but to clear his throat—and he said, ‘Valsin, Louis Valsin.’ Now, tell me, what else could he have done? What else?”

     The Captain let the question hang, fixing it with his gaze. The other Frenchman, Crèpin, had become absorbed in a study of his brandy glass.

     He shifted to one side of the chair, then the other, rolling the bones in his hips, trying to regain purchase, a fresh point of balance. The Frenchmen’s words had riddled him, run him through again. Perhaps they hadn’t recognized him, but they knew he was Russian; it could be that they were exaggerating Valsin’s innocence out of loyalty, to present a killing done with little honor in a better light. Yet the faraway look of Merseult’s eyes, the gravel in the depths of his voice, rang with truth. Even the other officer’s obvious discomfort only added to the story’s force.

     If it were true, he thought, shaking his head.

     “Gentlemen,” he began, “Valsin, is he—”

     “Major,” the Captain said, “we’re all such pawns, pawns of fate. Don’t you agree? Valsin responded as best he could, but your comrades perceive it in a different way than he intended. From that—well, wars begin over such things.” He shook his head. “Puppets…that’s what…”

     He stared hard, unblinking, aware of all the times he’d felt the pull of strings against his own limbs. “What did you say?”

     “That we’re all puppets, controlled by others whom we can’t see. Fate.”

     “Philosophy, I don’t understand it. Do you, Major?” Crèpin asked.

     “No. But—”

     “So,” Crèpin said, picking up his gloves and standing. “I think Capitaine Merseult and I must excuse ourselves—other duties, and I believe you mentioned a rendezvous. It’s been a pleasure to meet you—may I say, despite the sad tale we’ve had to share. I hope we meet again, to speak of happier things.”

     “Yes. Munich isn’t such a big city,” Merseult said, also getting to his feet. “We’ll watch for you. Adieu.”