This is a two-part fictional story, prompted by a photo of a painting seen on Sue Judd’s blog.
That summer of 1914 had started hot, and kept getting hotter. The sleepy town at the edge of the Massif Central felt more like the tropics, and Serge was uncomfortably hot in his Sunday Best suit as he walked along the path leading to the lake. But he wouldn’t slow his pace, as time with Sandrine was all too fleeting, and he wanted to make sure he got there early. They had no option but to meet in the old boat house. It was far enough away from the prying eyes of those who might recognise them, and it had proved to be a good choice, as they were never disturbed. Every Sunday for two months now, the only time she could get away, and his only day off work.
Serge had a good trade. He had been apprenticed to M. Henry, the cabinet maker, and soon earned a reputation for fine carving. Customers frequently requested his adornments, often playing down their enthusiasm so the price would not increase. “Oh, Monsieur Henry, have the young man carve something nice on the doors too”. This was usually said after a price had been agreed, and the old man never liked to ask for more. When he turned eighteen, he had been summoned into the living room behind the workshop, and told to sit. “I am very pleased with your work, Serge. How would you like to take over this business one day? You should save some of your pay every week, and when I am older I will sell you the whole thing, at a special price”. He had felt honoured, and happily shook hands on the deal.
Weeks later, they had finished the special bookcases for a wealthy customer. M. Henry had employed Marcel the carter to make the delivery, and they would accompany him to carry out the installation. The house was well known, but the inside was grander than Serge had ever imagined, with a huge chandelier in the entrance hall, and more rooms than any family could ever need. The owner, M. Aubertin, was a man of some mystery. He was exceedingly rich, but owned no lands outside of his small estate. He had no wife, and his son was hardly ever seen at the house. Some said his money had come from a banking family in Paris, though others insisted that he had investments in the South Seas. The housekeeper had let them in, and they set to work in the library.
As they stopped for lunch, Serge was entranced by some beautiful music he could hear coming from the next room, and opened the door slightly, to sneak a look. A young woman was playing a piano with great skill, her face a vision of beauty in the afternoon light. She stopped to look at the sheet music, and saw him looking in. He moved to close the door, but she called to him. “Come in, you can help me”. He shuffled in awkwardly, embarrassed by his dusty work clothes and shabby boots. “Serge Dujardin, miss. I am with the cabinet maker”. She was a confident young woman, bright and modern. “I know that, silly. You are working for my father. I am Sandrine, and I need you to turn the page for me, when I nod”. As she started to play once again, he stood to the side, waiting expectantly for her to nod. He had never been so close to a lady of such refinement. Her smell was intoxicating, and her piled hair shone like chestnuts. He missed her nod, and she laughed at his distracted face. “Perhaps you had better go back to what you do best, Serge?” He nodded, and as he turned to leave, she spoke again. “What do you do on your day off? Is there anything interesting to see around here?” He thought for a moment. “I usually go down to the lake. There is an old boat house there, and I sit inside it. Old man Duclos once kept his boat there, but he is long gone”. She smiled, and he felt stupid to have related how dull his life was. But he really couldn’t think of anything else. He smiled in return, and left the room.
Her voice made him start with surprise. “So, this is your boat house? May I sit? He jumped up, clutching his hat. “It might be dusty, miss, and make sure your shoes don’t touch the water”. “Call me Sandrine, and I don’t mind a little dust. My legs are short, so I doubt they will reach the water”. She perched rather than sat, so elegant in her movements. Twirling her furled parasol, she chatted with great animation. Talking of her life at a school for young ladies near Montpelier, that her mother had died giving birth to her, and how she didn’t understand her generous but distant father. She had an older brother she rarely saw, as he was an army officer. Since coming back to live in the family home recently, she had felt bored and listless, with little to interest her in the small market town, so no reason to go out. Serge listened, without a word in reply. This girl was nothing like the cackling gossips he knew in the town, and a world away from the lewd country girls who appeared each week on market day.
She stood suddenly, smoothing her dress, and picking up her parasol. “I must go, but I will be here next Sunday, if I know you are coming”. She extended her delicate gloved hand, and Serge touched it gently. He watched her walk away, already knowing he loved her, and aware that nothing could ever come of it. M. Aubertin would never countenance his fine daughter taking up with a tradesman, however honest and respectable he might be. But he resolved to be there next Sunday, nonetheless. And every Sunday after that.
She looked troubled that afternoon. There was talk of imminent war, and her brother had already been mobilised with his artillery regiment. She embraced Serge fondly, allowing a soft kiss on her cheek. They had not spoken of love, but both knew the other’s heart by now. “Will you go, Serge? I don’t want you to.”. He shrugged, staring at the lapping water where the boat had once been moored. “I don’t see how I cannot. All the able men will go, and those who stay will be thought of as cowards”. Reaching into her small bag, she stiffened her tone. “In that case, we must make a pledge. Whenever you can get home, we will meet here as usual, on a Sunday. I brought this for you, as I anticipated your answer”. She handed him a small oval frame. It contained a painted miniature of her face, protected by glass.
Serge gazed at the gift, his eyes moistening.
“I promise, Sandrine. Whenever I am home, every Sunday”.
When they left the boat house, they took the luxury of holding hands for a few steps, before parting with a fond glance, and going their separate ways.
The next day was the 3rd of August. The town seemed hysterical with the news of war against Germany. Many men stayed away from work, as excited crowds lined the streets, and filled the market square. Old men who had fought against Prussia in 1870 shook their heads, looking at each other with grim expressions. They knew what awaited those overjoyed youngsters.
Continued in Part Two.