Days of Atonement
By Gregorio, Michael St. Martin's Minotaur
Copyright © 2008 Gregorio, Michael
All right reserved.
‘October the fourteenth . . .’
Helena’s voice faded away, her figure partly hidden by the heavy drapes of green velvet. She was looking out on the garden, where evening was turning rapidly into night. I did not need to see her face to know that she was deeply offended. Like every other Prussian, she was wounded by the reduced state of our nation, by the changes that the French had forced upon us, as defeat followed defeat, and rout followed rout. It had all begun in October the previous year.
‘Jena?’ she insisted. ‘Is that what they mean to celebrate?’
The invitation from Count Aldebrand Dittersdorf had arrived by post ten days earlier. Before the war, the annual dinner and ball had been as fixed a point on our calendar as the falling of the autumn leaves. Should we go, or might it be wiser to stay at home? I had spent hours debating the question. Helena had not been out of the house in more than two months. Her third pregnancy had been difficult, the weeks leading up to the delivery had tried her strength greatly. She had lain in for a month afterwards, though the daily sight of little Anders—a plump look of satisfaction on his tiny mottled face as Helena tucked her swollen breast away inside her wet-smock—had more or less restored my wife to herformer bloom. When the embossed card from the Dittersdorfs arrived, I instinctively pushed temptation away behind the large Dutch clock on the oak mantle-shelf in the kitchen.
But the fateful day was almost upon us, and the question had to be faced.
Memories were still strong of 13 October the year before, when we had all risen heavily from the Dittersdorf dinner table and made our way home cheerfully beneath a brilliant starlit sky, unaware of the fact that our troops were manoeuvring into position to face the French at dawn.
‘I suppose they will be there in force,’ Helena murmured, pressing her nose up against the glass, frowning out at the darkness, as if that were the true cause of her indisposition.
‘Probably,’ I answered.
‘There is nothing probable about it, Hanno,’ she corrected me pettishly. ‘They will certainly be there.’
‘It is certainly most probable that they will be there,’ I replied with a sigh. ‘They are everywhere else in Prussia. And Count Dittersdorf is the District Governor. He can hardly hold a secret dinner party for Prussian nationals alone. Our safety depends on peaceful coexistence with the invaders.’
Helena turned to stare at me. The cut-crystal bulb of the Bohemian oil lamp on the side-table cast delicate diamond patterns on her cheeks and forehead.
‘Can you offer me no more comfort than that, husband?’ she whispered. The proud tension had gone from her voice. ‘One hears such terrible stories of those who are foolish enough to socialise with the French. The rebels care not for peaceful coexistence. They show no pity.’
‘We are in no danger,’ I reassured her, stepping close and taking her hand, which was cold and unresponsive to my touch. ‘There are armed patrols everywhere, and we will have a permit to stay out after the curfew. If we decide to go, that is.’
I kissed her gently on the forehead. She was thinner than before, though whether from the strain of childbirth, or the state of constant nervousness that had possessed her since the occupation, I could not tell. Dark shadows had etched themselves into hollow cavities in her cheeks. The broad brow, high cheekbones, and slender lips that constituted the essence of her beauty had shifted in their delicate relations, and a dark furrow appeared on either side of her mouth on the rare occasions when she chose to smile. Her eyes alone remained unaltered. They were large, intelligent, enquiring, defiant, the warm chocolate brown of chestnuts. My new son had inherited those eyes, and I was glad of that. I could only pray that one day Helena would recover the fullness of her beauty, and that those two worry-lines would fade away with the slow passage of time.
‘Are you suggesting that the French will save us from our fellow countrymen?’
I shook my head, and looked away. ‘I only meant to say that we have to begin again, my love. Dinner at the Dittersdorfs is as good a place to start as any. Of course there are dangers, but nothing untoward has ever happened here in Lotingen. I do not see why the situation should change this Saturday evening.’
I caressed her chin with my thumb and forefinger, and gazed into her eyes, determined to change the subject. ‘I was hoping that you would be more worried about what to wear.’
‘What?’ she echoed, knitting her dark eyebrows, glancing up.
‘Your gown was always a matter of great concern as the autumn season approached. There is fierce competition between the ladies, I believe.’
She smiled, timidly at first, her eyes glistening ever more brightly, like coals in the blacksmith’s forge when the boy works the bellows. That smile had conquered my heart at our very first meeting. Thank heavens! I thought. Count Dittersdorf was right to revive the old customs. The autumn feast was just the thing to mark a vital change for the better. My taste buds surged at the welcome vision of the honeyed side of pork that would dominate the table. As Helena smiled back, contemplating the prospect of the dinner—with feelings similar to my own running through her head, I imagined—the dark clefts on either side of her mouth seemed to fade away to nothing.
‘I shall wear the one I wore last year,’ she said quietly. It was a declaration of a sort, though I had no intuition of what was coming. ‘That pretty ballgown will serve as an emblem, Hanno. As if these past twelve months had never been. In my heart of hearts, the field of Jena will always be a gentle rolling plain, where birds sing and marigolds bloom in the spring. But that will be our little secret.’
The clock struck seven and Helena retired upstairs to feed the baby. I sat down by the fire, intending to read through the Court House proceedings, happily distracted by my wife’s soft voice in the room above. The lullaby she sang was one that I had known since the cradle. Im zoologischen Garten spoke of a family visit to a menagerie, something that I had never seen. One day, perhaps, I would take Helena and my children to Berlin on such an outing to see the exotic animals and wild beasts. Before going upstairs that night, I opened the window, as I always did, and stuck my head outside to check the weather. Nature had been as dour and unforgiving as the occupying French in the past two months. Cold, tumultuous winds had gusted down from the Arctic circle throughout the month of August, turning the melancholy green waters of our Baltic shore wild and black, sending huge white-capped waves crashing in upon the seashore. September fog had shrouded the flat countryside, the smell of salt impregnating every shrivelling ear of spelt and corn. Then, the worst had arrived: ice and frost, glazing the world like the sugar coating on a cake.
But that night, the wind had changed direction. The air was considerably warmer, heavy with damp. The unexpected thaw was a welcome sign for the days to come. The crows would have his eyes once the crust of ice encasing them dissolved away. Rats would venture out along the gallows arm, and shin down the rope with the careless skill of able seamen, ripping and tearing at the flesh and guts of Adolphus Braun-Hummel. Helena had not been to town since spring. If the weather continued mild, I thought gratefully, she might hear of it, but she would never need to see that sight.
A lance corporal in the Alt-Larisch battalion of royal Prussian grenadiers, Adolphus Braun-Hummel was just twenty-two years old when he was rounded up after the capitulation of the Erfurt garrison. In a fit of youthful passion, he had more recently attempted to stab a French prison guard with a spontoon. The unwieldy spear had been ripped from his hands in no time, but his intentions were clear. He had been court-martialled, found guilty in the course of fifteen minutes, and hanged within an hour. The French had stripped him of his black leather knee-boots and fine uniform before the execution. He had been stiffly swinging from the gallows for two weeks now, his regimental sash of blue-and-white silk tied to his wrist, the rest of his body naked, the sex and the buttocks frozen black, a warning to us all. Well, I thought with grim satisfaction, stretching my hand out into the night, feeling the warm caress of fine drizzle, he won’t be there much longer. The French would be obliged to cut the body down and have it hastily interred. If the sun should shine for an hour, the stench would settle like a miasma on the town before noon.
Yes, they would certainly cut him down.
I secured the parlour window, and prepared to go to bed with a lighter heart than I had felt for quite some time, hoping against hope that for a month or two, we might be spared the grim humiliation of another Prussian dangling from a hangman’s noose. If the corpse were removed before the feast, it might be easier for us all to sit down and share a meal with the French.
Helena came skipping lightly down the staircase at a quarter to seven. A delicate shade of rose-pink greeted my eyes, and my thoughts flashed back to the last occasion when she had worn that gown. The night we had dined and danced at the home of Count Aldebrand and Countess Dittersdorf, the previous year. The final waltz, so to speak, before calamity fell upon the nation. The colour set off Helena’s pale complexion to perfection, and she had allowed herself to suffer Lotte’s hot irons in taming her hair. Those wild wiry locks had been miraculously transformed into a curtain of tightly bunched ringlets.
As she turned her bare shoulders to accept the heavy cloak that I held out, I closed my eyes, touched my lips to the crown of her head, and filled my lungs with the sweet, powdered perfume of her hair.
‘Nothing has really changed, my love,’ I murmured, almost drunk on the scent of honey and roses, happy that we had decided to go, glad beyond belief to see her looking so well.
The children were sleeping in their cots protected by their own dear Lotte; Helena and I would be absent for a few hours, a short walk away, eating our share of roast pork and drinking ruby-coloured wine from the Dittersdorf cellar. Life in Lotingen would go on, as it had always done. What danger could there be that we had not already faced and overcome?
We left the house and took the gravel road in the direction of the mansion, which stood on a slight rise within visible distance of our gate. The cold had come on again—it was sharp, stinging. The moon was low, and there was still a trace of daylight in the sky on the western horizon, though the garden was dark. Curfew had been set for seven-thirty after recent skirmishes by roaming bands of starving rebels in the province, but I was not unduly concerned. The foreign troops were heavily concentrated around Lotingen, and together with the dinner invitation from Count Dittersdorf, there had been enclosed a late-night pass signed by Lieutenant Mutiez, the recently arrived officer of the guard. He was reputed to be a revolutionary gentleman of the new French breed, and I was expecting to meet him at the dinner table that evening.
Along the way, we were stopped on three separate occasions by Frenchmen on patrol. They emerged suddenly out of the woods, muskets at the ready, their bayonets fixed, demanding to see our papers. I felt Helena cling more tightly onto my arm as I told them who we were, and handed over the protective note. I felt reassured by this vigilant foreign presence, and I did not share my wife’s anxiety about the rebels.
My sympathies went out to the defeated remnants of our own poor army, of course, but I wanted everything to go off without a hitch that night.
The autumn feast promised a new lease on life. Copyright © 2007 by Michael Gregorio. All rights reserved. Continues...
Excerpted from Days of Atonement by Gregorio, Michael Copyright © 2008 by Gregorio, Michael. Excerpted by permission.
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