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The General's Mistress -- Wide Awake

One of the advance readers of The General's Mistress remarked that Elza is very modern in many ways -- that she is the product of a cynical society. She is. Elza comes from a world where people consider themselves first and where the most important thing is indulging one's desires. She wants something more, some meaning that she can't even put words to. The thing that I think ultimately dooms her relationship with Victor is that he doesn't get that.

And then there is Michel. This is from Michel's first scene, when they at last have dinner together. I posted part of this a couple of years ago, but this is a much larger piece.

“I can’t even begin to tell you,” I said. “About Charles. About my family. It’s so complicated.” I shook my head. “It’s too strange. You wouldn’t believe it.”

Michel shrugged. “I believe some pretty strange things.”

“You?” He seemed the picture of a big, honest Saarlender.

“I’m not as wholesome as I look,” he said, smiling.

I couldn’t help but smile back. “You can’t be as bad as you think.”

“Try me,” he said. “Maybe I just need some lessons.”

I laughed and looked away. The desire on his face was so plain. Every emotion was written all over him. I could read him like a book. “Like a soldier from the country looking for sophisticated vices?”

He shrugged again. “In Saar-Louis, vice is having a baby six months after the wedding. We’re wholesome people. Salt of the earth. Hardworking and early rising and all that. We love our vineyards and our farms and orchards and wells, and our big families and our excellent ham.”

“And you?”

His smile faded. He leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “I never belonged there. I’ve always been in love with blood.”

A chill ran down me.

“As a child I always wanted the darkest stories. When the old men would sit around in the tavern talking about the Seven Years’ War, I wanted to see the stumps of their arms, to touch them. And wondered how I would feel, knowing my arm wasn’t there, how it would feel to lose it, half frightened and half fascinated.” He picked up his glass, the light playing on the stem, on his clear, passionate eyes. “I ran away to the army when I was sixteen. I’d never wanted anything else. This was in ’85, when if I served all my life, I might end a sergeant. A half-lettered thug with a really big sword.” Michel raised an eyebrow at me. “I was a sergeant at twenty. Then the Revolution came. And suddenly it was a good time to be a thug with a really big sword.”

“I think you’re more than that,” I said. “You couldn’t look at yourself with irony if you weren’t. Man of blood you may be, but you’re a good deal more than a thug.”

“If so, it’s because I chose to be,” he said, lifting the glass again. “If there’s one thing that the Revolution taught me, it’s that we’re all inches from savages. It’s just that I know it more than most. I can’t dress it up in pretty explanations when the blood lust is on me, pretend that I’m fighting for anything else than the joy in it. That’s why I have to be so careful. And trust in God to help me moderate these passions.”

“You believe in God?” I got up to fetch the chicken and its accompaniments and bring them to the table. “That’s very dated.”

Michel didn’t seem offended. “I do. I believe in God and the teachings of Christ, in the brotherhood of mankind and the inexpressible love of the Holy Spirit.”

I looked at him, as shocked as if he had muttered obscenities. I couldn’t remember hearing anything of the kind before, except as a pious platitude or a clever mockery. It simply wasn’t said in society by intelligent people. But he sat there perfectly composed, getting ready to carve the chicken.

I sat down across from him. “I am only wondering how you can be anything but a rationalist after what you have seen,” I said.

"Like Moreau?" he asked, looking at me, one eyebrow cocked.

I didn’t rise to that bait. Instead I sat back down on the edge of my chair, my fragile muslin dress looking the color of old blood in the light.

"How can you be anything but a cynic after the things you have seen? How can you really believe that, other than some vague humanistic aim of good government and freedom from foreign oppression, that there is any greater good in all of this?"

He looked at me, startled. "How can I not?"

Two years ago I had fancied him my eternal love. Instead he was a stranger, a man I didn’t know. Not really. I wanted to reach out and touch him, for him to tell me something, to know it all and understand. But he was a stranger.

"Don't you believe in anything?" he asked quietly. "Not gods or destiny? Not justice or beauty or Heaven?"

I took a quick gulp of the wine. It stung my throat and my eyes. "Heaven is no comfort for me," I said lightly, "I hope it does not exist, as I never plan to reside there. Which is just as well, I suppose. It would be awfully boring, sitting around with Augustine and the Church Fathers, playing the harp and wearing a little white chiton. I'm all fumbles with stringed instruments anyway. Can't you just see me taking up foot washing in the St. Mary Magdalene room? Seen the error of my ways? Forgiven, but only so much?" I spread my finger and thumb apart.

He raised his chin. "How many men have you killed?"

"What?" There was, unbidden, falling past me, the bandit on the road with no face, the other whose face I had never seen.

"How many men have you killed?" he demanded again, leaning forward, nothing nonchalant in his pose now, just intensity of line and feature.

"One or two, perhaps,” I stammered. “Does it matter?"

"451 dead at Heinsberg, 72 at Maastricht, 967 at Altenkirchen, 244 at Winterthur, close to 1,200 in other actions. These are my casualties, my troops killed by my orders. Close to seven thousand of the enemy. Hundreds who have lost legs or arms or their sight." His voice was perfectly steady and terribly precise. "So you have shared men's beds. You have not dismembered them, or seen your own wounded hacked to pieces by surgeons in a futile attempt to save their lives. You have not written the letters. 'Dear Madame: I send you your son Jean-Paul in three pieces. I am dreadfully sorry. I made a stupid mistake in the disposition of my left flank!'"

Michel reached for the wine and poured again. "So when I am here, safe and sound, where there is only the guillotine and a crowd of mad ex-Jacobins to fear, please forgive me if I do not die of guilt at the thought of spending the night with a woman I am not married to, or in some other sophisticated vice. It pales next to more than 9,000 counts of murder."

I sat there in stunned silence while he poured carefully and drained his glass. "And you believe in God?" I asked.

He looked up at me over the gilded rim of the glass. "Of course I believe in God. I have come within inches of death more times than I can count. Men have fallen at my back stricken with the bullets aimed for me. A saber once turned in the air above my head as though it had been stopped by a blade I couldn’t see. I believe in God. I must. In all these slaughters I am spared. God has something else in mind for me. And given the slaughters to which I aspire, I can only say," he paused and took a sip of the golden wine. "He delights in it."

"Delights? You don't believe then?"

"In a good and just God?" Michel met my eyes. "Oh, yes I do. Because hackneyed as it is, I believe in the Republic. I do believe that this is necessary. It's better. Not perfect, because nothing made by the hand of man ever is, but better. Better than starvation under a corrupt king. Better than hundreds of thousands of lives stifled and dying for lack of air, living and dying in ignorance, spirits broken by the sameness. By doing as their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers before them, with no hope and no choice. It is better that the responsibility of sin be taken on by those who agree to do it."

His eyes were shaded in the flickering light. "Make no mistake. Our enemies mean to destroy us. If they should win, it will be French citizens who bleed under a Terror like we have never known before, and French children who grow up in ignorance and poverty, condemned to accept it with the fatality of the inevitable. If we go back, we will go all the way back. It will be 1648 again. Who knows how many hundred years it will be again, before we once again have the idea of revolution?” He gave me a sideways smile, rueful and sharp. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t know that my hands are covered with blood."

I looked down at the chicken on my plate, half touched, then looked up. “How can you do it then? Wide awake, knowing what you do?”

“It’s what I was born to do,” he said, almost gently. “We are both who we were born to be.”


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 14th, 2012 07:26 pm (UTC)
God, I love Michel. Self-aware, sardonic, and very appropriately bound to Michael, because his ruthless conversation here is pushing forward to enlightenment and grace. And so very, very human, doing evil for good and knowing the best he can do is do it well and enjoy the ride.
Sep. 17th, 2012 06:44 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, that's Michel! Taking responsibility. And leavening the darkness with charm.
Sep. 19th, 2012 03:59 pm (UTC)
Whew!! Wow. I am so impressed with this scene: you write Michel's integrity with such passion and intelligence! I'm always grateful for fiction like this, as it provides models for what humanity can be.

Thank you!
Sep. 20th, 2012 01:09 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you like it. That's Michel -- passionate and bright, light and dark together. He's not perfect, but he knows it. And he's always kept Agrippa's promise to try harder.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )