Goodbye Is Forever
I’ve gathered this sprig of heather
Autumn is dead you will remember
On earth we’ll see no more of each other
Fragrance of time, sprig of heather
Remember, I wait for you forever
When the year 1914 commenced, few were cognisant of the tectonic foreshocks that were warning of a great calamity readying itself to fall upon the unsuspecting peoples of Europe.
Truth be told, ours was a blissful ignorance of the kindling we sat upon waiting for the match to strike. In fact, by the slow, insidious movements of history, we were tied to a stake above the preparations for an auto-da-fé. By the fires of war the debt of our sins and those of our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers was about to be paid. It was a payment to be made, if not in full, then at least in part.
As history can now attest, that deep debt would need two Great Wars to pay in full.
But, to us then, what came in the summer of 1914 was something of a shock. Even the most informed members of society paid little mind to the growing frictions developing between all the various kingdoms and republics of Europe. There had remained tensions since 1871 when the Treaty of Frankfort settled the Franco-Prussian War which united Germany and overthrew France as one of the great Continental Powers of Europe. But, for most, these concerns were reserved for statesmen and academics. A period of relative peace in détente existed in Western Europe. No attention was given to the fractious wars and skirmishes of the Balkans that were considered ‘wild’ places per Edwardian and Belle Époque sensibilities. We could not have known the complete decimation that was to come.
By the largely familial aristocratic ties of fealty that one royal house kept to other royal houses and by treaties in honour made to republican estates no longer pledging themselves to ‘fealty,’ a network of treaties and promises set the stage for what would become Total War. These lines of loyalty formed fuse lines alla Mr. Nobel’s dynamite bombs that linked fire from one nation to another in Europe. From the Empire of Great Britain, to the Third Republic of France, to the Imperial Majesty of the Astro-Hungarian Empire, to Czarist Russia, and ultimately and fatally to the new Kaiserdom of the New Germany, the detonators were set and ready to explode in a way never before seen in human history.
Olde ideas of valour and national superiority that had fuelled such lovely games of war in the past now would be put into play using new technologies whose power far outstripped the Neanderthal warrior spirits operating them. Such chivalric cavalry charges into the breech using clumsy rifles and clumsier sabres and bayonets were made outmoded by the machine gun and the rifled shell. Yet the ‘charge, tally ho’-into-the-verge spirit remained strong in all belligerents except the Germans who knew what weapons they had and how to use them.
Somehow, in their national fervour, the new Germans managed to reclaim their old German heritage. This being the Teutonic barbarism that brought the Glory of Ancient Rome down into ruins. With their damnable gift for engineering, the ‘Huns,’ as we preferred to call them during the Great War, found ways to conduct a mechanised war the likes of which man had never experienced in its entire history. What once was a fight to subdue an opponent and force them into surrender now became a game of utter extermination! The Germans, under Kaiser Wilhelm II’s arrogating generals, felt it necessary to purge their enemy from their midst. Capture and imprisonment were ideal, but rarely achievable under the new tactics of trenches, shells, and machine guns. More economic and expedient was it to kill all the Enemy whatever the means! Hence the lovely scientific discovery of gas as a weapon of mass extinction!
The rest of Europe, particularly France, were still caught up in the romantic grandeur of Napoleon’s wars built on the French procreative potentials (lots of expendable men to use in huge pushes against less numerous opponents). In the face of gas, machine guns, and mortar rounds, having a teeming horde of infantry is pointless. You merely loose your population against such weapons. The French might as well have been putting themselves up against H.G. Well’s Martian Invaders as face off in their ancient grand-valourous ways against the Germans and their will and ability to destroy entire populations without compunction.
The French were fighting an old war in an old way. The Germans were conducting an all too modern war in a very new and devastating way!
Honour in war was dead. The old rules no longer applied. The Germans did not abide by the old rules. They had reinvented war and turned it into the kind of bloody execution not seen since the Mongol’s use of trebucheted Plague Bodies to spread disease in their besieged target cities!
It was all madness, and into this madness Adrien and I would find ourselves plunged!
The first indication we had that something was afoot was upon our entrance into Nice after our retreat at Saint Tropez. The usually lively city was unusually subdued for a place of summer folly and mischief. The ‘Promenade des Anglais,’ as they call the sea-side frontage walk, was scarce of people and the cafés were strangely deserted.
Upon Adrien’s promptings we entered into a bistro and he did accost the owner as to what was occurring. What we learned was baffling:
(In the French: “Oh, oui, Monsieur! Many have returned to their homes upon the news coming from Paris. It is war, my friend. It is war! France’s honour is entailed upon it!”) The bistro owner insisted.
War? By Jove, I swore to myself, what idiocy had the powers gotten themselves into now? It was no secret that tensions brewed like bubbling lava beneath the surface of the European political crust, but since the Franco-Prussian fiasco most of these sabre-rattling exercises had been settled diplomatically rather than militarily. What nonsense could be stirring the pot backwards this time, I wondered?
The bistro owner was too provincial to supply too many more details other than hyperbolic Franko-patriatoism about the ‘crushing of the Hun invaders’ and the return of Imperial France to the world, etc. The bar-keep did rather look old enough to have known Napoleon Bonaparte in life.
Adrien, however, look positively aghast! By something, perhaps, he had read between the lines of either the bistro owner’s diatribe or what he had read in the Gazette, Adrien seemed most unsettled about the whole affair.
“What’s it all about?” I asked.
“(A little over a month ago, an aristocrat and his wife of the Austrian Empire was murdered in the streets of a village in Bosnia by a Serbian anarchist. This set off a chain reaction of events not unlike the dominoes: the way they fall against one another and knock each other down. Austria has declared war against Serbia which has caused Russia to declare against Austria which has caused Germany to declare against Russia which has entailed France by treaty with Russia to enter into the war on the Russians side. It is a crazy cascade, Cedric! I fear all of Europe will become embroiled in this madness!)”. Adrien said with grim astuteness.
‘Goodness gracious’ was the only thing I could exclaim to that at the time. After coming to know what was to happen later, I find I remember this insipid statement quite hauntingly because it seems, now, like such perfect British understatement. In retrospect, a better word I would use to describe the tragedy of World War I, without hyperbole, would be ‘apocalyptic.’
What would ‘happen later’ was not long in coming. By then it was August 1914 and the War was already apace. Already Russia and Germany had clashed to Russia’s defeat and the German Huns were about to initialise the ‘Schlieffen Plan’ which was a strategy whereby Germany would overwhelm France through the neutral Belgian countryside. This first strike would burn into northern France before the French could rally their troops to fight them off. Hitler would try a similar strategy in his ‘Blitzkreig’ attacks through the very same Ardennes corridor. Fortunately for the greatly unprepared Allied forces, The Flemish made for difficult resistance against the German surge which gave time for France to effect a flash attack of its own to retake Alsace and Lorraine lost in the Franco-Prussian War of the century previous. This would prove disastrous and would earn the French High Command much derision for their short sightedness. Thousands of French soldier’s fell in that contest and it gave Germany just that much more steam to roll over France and crush its defences once and for all. The Battle of the Frontiers worked to whittle down France’s Army and by the end of 1914 France was already near to defeat.
I was to learn in short order that Britain, provoked by the German invasion of Belgium, was to enter into the war as well. This would mean that, by honour, I too would be expected to take up the Union Jack in the cause against the German onslaught along with Adrien. Their mobilisation was rather forth-with as they British Expeditionary Force was the first deployed to attempt in their assistance to the Belgians. By the time of the Battle of Mons and Ypres even the British had been driven back in retreat.
By any road, it would be the strike against Belgium that would, at last, lose Adrien to me.
These were the French ‘Frontiers’ along that Belgian border and these would be the first to be attacked should Germany break through Belgium and into France. That was Adrien’s ancestral homeland and he felt honour-bound to volunteer his life in service to defending that place. I would find out later still that Adrien also had something else terribly precious he wished to protect there or rather someone.
That evening we took up rooms in the Nice West End, a hotel of repute known to both Adrien and myself. It was and still is a famous lodging for various social luminaries, royals, and aristocrats. My father had written to his household (which also ‘amazingly’ included myself) about the accommodations in Nice and had written that he had found them ‘adequate’. This was as high a praise as my father would lavish upon anything. Perhaps, I would add to that appraisal with a bit more emphasis and consider Nice West End as ‘splendid’. I actually much prefer it still to the Ritz in Paris being that I am less attuned to ostentation and more to comfort and ease of access.
That aside, upon this initial visit, the splendour of this particular hotel would be entirely lost on me. That evening Adrien slept not at all and no inducement of mine could convince him of any other nocturnal activities involving a large and luxurious bed that could, perhaps, ease his mind for a time. I had not known Adrien long, but the nature of our relationship was close enough to where his agony was most apparent to me. He shivered with fear as he pondered the moonlight upon the Mediterranean that long night. A sumptuous supper had even been delivered to our room and this remained untouched by either of us such was his distress and my distress for him.
At the last, as we both stood upon that lonesome balcony confronting the end of our world, Adrien did turn to me and, without shame or discretion, took me in hand, pressed himself up against me, and leaned his head into mine. A shuddering, nearly silent sigh expelled from him that conveyed to me the fact of his tears. He could not look into my eyes with the fading golden light of his own. His welling eyes kept focused upon the moonlight as if it would be the last time he should ever see anything of that kind of beauty again in this life.
“(It is most beautiful, is it not? Beethoven’s sonata, describing in musical bars the dance of moonlight upon rolling waters, was aptly written to capture in music what words could not. His music was written about the moonlight upon the Danube. I wonder what extra flourish he might have added to his descending chords to describe the endless shimmering shards of Selene’s Light upon the Mediterranean’s waves. In it, one can see the echo of love’s ghosts that glimmer in their time and then evaporate with such alacrity upon the ever undulating movements of time.)” The beauty of his French then was far more enchanting to me than moonlight on water and its music was far more beautiful than even Beethoven, but in his lustrous chant did I hear the doomed peal of a funerary church bell.
In a way more gentle and sweet than Mary’s last kiss upon Jesus’s bloodied cheek, Adrien was telling me that our time together was done. To him, at that moment, our love was already a ghost glimmering in its time only to evaporate upon the storm tossed sea of a world gone mad.
“You must leave me, mustn’t you?” I asked already knowing the answer like one who knows the pain that they suffer inside is that of a cancer growing.
Adrien’s silence had perfect eloquence as an answer. I remember the panic that rose in me and knew that the words that would then flow from my lips would be all the wrong ones; words selfish and craven in their sport. Words that I had no more power to hold back than I could a sneeze.
“Why must you? Why not sail with me away from this place to some shelter unreachable by either of our governments? Why waste your life on the madness of scheming politicians and deluded aristocrats? America has not declared! I am sure we could find perfect accommodation in New York or Boston!” I am made ashamed to this very day by these puerile exhortations against honour, valour, and loyalty. I can understand what drove me to say them, but they showed an incontinence of feeling I would have been better to contain. But, indeed, I was young then. God knows how young I was!
“I must pretend, mon cher, that these were words I did not hear. I must because I know, perhaps, from where they come, no? In ways I too would have tentation suprême to speak of such things to you. But, I would know better than to offend the principles upon which we must live and love on this earth in valour.” Adrien said with a deadness I had never heard in his voice before and I knew immediately that my incontinence of speech had rendered a great wedge between us at a time when such a thing was a sin to have in place.
“Please . . . please do forgive my ill conceived words, Adrien. Do continue to pretend that such ejaculations of fear never came to utterance upon my tongue. They were born of cowardice where the loss of you is concerned.” I begged in supplication seeking a forgiveness I scarce deserved. Such an affront to a man’s honour from one man to another, lovers or not, should never be made real by any utterance coming forth from the latrines of one’s ruined soul. I turned away to return indoors having felt the weight of my guilt heavily.
“Cedric! (Do not leave me! Words lie when they speak the heart’s truth, at times. A mistake in words can tell better a man’s heart than can words precisely spoken.) Please come . . .” Turning, I gazed bewitched upon Adrien’s softly yearning reach for my return. Behind him the moon glowed and it was as if I was seeing Adrien in spirit rather than in flesh.
But of course, I returned immediately to his side and embraced him for what would be the last time.
“I love you Adrien Saint Michel.” I said as tears rose unbidden into my eyes looking into his.
“(I love you Lord Cedric of Temple. May this not be our last meeting. But, for now let us say goodbye. Our time is over for now. Our honour must be satisfied as men in a world that has now come to need our blood as sacrifice to save it from itself.)” Adrien said deep and resonantly from the noble steel of his heart of hearts. Indeed, Adrien was a man out of time. A descendent of the knights of old with whom chivalrous heraldry was as common to him as the redness in his own blood. A blood he was, in some way, assured that must be shed for the preservation of our peoples and out way of life.
As always and ever after I stood in awe of the one who I had found upon a fancifully ordinary day in a time where the world still made sense. Adrien, the one who so easily stole my heart away, would take it with him to a place where he must surely break it. At that moment what he stole at first I left to his keeping. By his noblesse my courage was restored to me and it afforded me the strength to give away my heart to him freely so that it might be a souvenir of a time when he was happy. Perhaps it would be a light for him when all else was dark.
We remained for a time together staring out again upon the moon and the sea. In time the moon sank away and only the stars and darkness remained. At last, it was time to say goodbye and so we did. But, with Adrien’s assurances aside, somehow I knew that this goodbye would be forever.