BELMÉDON, 1914

Book I of the World War One Series
Fiction: war/adventure/historical romance


 

Gabriel de Metz is the thirteen year-old son of wealthy Parisian art gallery owners. When the family takes its annual trip to Vienna to pick up prints, he thinks it will be the same as all their other summers there — stuffy and boring. But the Archduke is assassinated in Sarajevo, and Austria becomes hostile to outsiders. The de Metzes decide to cut their sojourn short, but Gabriel becomes separated from his parents, and finds himself in charge of his little sister in the midst of a Europe mobilizing for war.

 

1914 Great War Facts

Most people know that the First World War – or the Great War, as it was known at the time – was triggered by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by a Bosnian radical in Serbia. Exactly how this event led to most of Europe trying to annihilate itself has kept historians busy ever since.   At the time, Europeans seemed to think a war was inevitable, but that it would be limited, and short. What no one seemed to have anticipated was that the war would involve more than 18 countries, take over four years to resolve, and result in the killing of 16 million people. It spelled the end of the German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires, and the beginning of the end of the British. Moreover, it permanently changed the cultural and spiritual course of the entire planet. The majority of historians and economists contend that it was the "onerous" articles of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War that led inevitably to the second, yet the Kaiser and Bismarck had already brought Germany to the brink of bankruptcy with their spate of battleship-building even before the first shots of the First World War were fired. But historians write about what happened; novelists write about how it felt*, and in Belmedon, 1914, the beginnings of the war are felt by a 13 year-old and his little sister when they become lost in the midst of it. *E. L. Doctorow.  

Sample chapter: © David Andrew Westwood 2015, all rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced without written permission from the author.

4. Gabriel. Paris, June.

An opening at Galerie de Metz is always an occasion, the place to end the Grande Saison even if one does not buy. Nevertheless many do. Gabriel has overheard his father explain to his mother that fully a third of their annual income results from this one night alone.

Gabriel stands at a window and looks out at the Rue St-Honoré as the patrons arrive. Pulling up at the curb are the usual fiacres and landaulets with their decorated horses and smartly-uniformed drivers, but he is more interested in the motorcars. Here is a long silver Delauney-Belleville that takes up almost the entire length of the gallery’s facade. When it drives off, its place is taken by a boxy black Rochet-Schneider, its interior like a padded couch — a design he decides is too short a step away from the horse-drawn carriage. After this a royal blue Lorraine-Diedrich pauses, and then behind — ah, behind — is a magnificent red Bugatti Model T22, the brass of its distinctive oval radiator gleaming in the evening sun.

Each disgorges its passengers. The men wear black frock coats, carefully buttoned up over well-fed stomachs, with high white “choker” collars and glossy top hats. Male ornamentation is limited to tie pins, watch chains, cufflinks and the occasional ring. The women are corseted into hourglass figures that bell out below the waist into floor-length skirts consisting of what appear to be a hectare of fabric per person. Their necks are buttoned up to the chin, their hands encased in gloves up to their elbows, and their hair sways aloft with artful curls, ringlets and braids. Over this are draped layers of jewelry, most in the Jugendstil style in which the gallery specializes. Perhaps much of it was even purchased here. 

Gabriel turns from the window and watches as his father welcomes personally every visitor who steps through the elaborate Art Nouveau doors. This transformation always fascinates him, since with him his father is normally taciturn and distracted. When he was smaller, he used to wish that he were a patron of the arts and not a son, so that he could claim more attention. Now, though, he has become inured to his family’s coolness. It was not until he met Clive’s parents, the Teasdells, that he discovered the existence of warm and welcoming families. He felt like an explorer in Madagascar uncovering a new species — elated. It was a revelation. But in his family’s class, and in situations where the son is sent away to boarding school, such remoteness was the norm, otherwise why send the child away in the first place? Or was the coolness a result of being sent away? It is a conundrum he no longer cares to try to solve. 

The prints and paintings on the walls are eyed through monocles and lorgnettes. Comments are murmured, cigars are puffed, Perrier-Jouet is sipped. Gabriel would like to try a glass of champagne from the sommelier at the far end of the room, but he knows to do so would trigger his father’s volcanic temper and he would be banished from the show. Instead he prowls through the crowd, eavesdropping on the visitors’ conversations. 

“No, no — these are collotypes, not lithographs…” 

“I hear even Emperor Franz Josef ordered a set…” 

“Here — the watermark signet that shows it’s a genuine Klimt…” 

“…broke with the Secessionists in ’06, if I’m not mistaken…” 

“Klimt is a little too workmanlike in his execution for me…” 

“He is an artiste à scandale, the highest-paid painter in Austria-Hungary.” 

He watches his father circulate expertly through the crowd, cajoling, informing, giving his subtle sales pitches. To one horse-faced woman, he confides, “An artist elsewhere is always provincial; it is Paris that awards him fame.” 

A gentleman says to him, “But to use gold leaf. Isn’t that a trifle… gauche?” 

Alphonse de Metz smiles conspiratorially and replies, “Ah, but Klimt’s father was a gold engraver, you see — a genius. At this stage of his career, the son has taken those skills and adapted them to fine art in a manner far beyond that of a mere artisan. And besides…” A pecuniary glint lights his eyes, “gold never ages. That’s its attraction. Have you ever seen Greek or Roman gold coins? As bright as the day they were minted. ‘God’s metal,’ it’s called. And for good reason.” 

To a couple studying the detail of one of the ornate doors, he says, “The gallery architect? Alfred Wagon, naturally. Not as well known as Lavirotte, possibly, but much, much more expressive. This is the best example of La Belle Époque style in Paris, you know. A cultural landmark. It will last as long as Notre Dame.” 

A hush falls over the crowd. Faces look up and turn as one. Judith de Metz does not so much walk down the curved staircase as flow down it. She is dressed in a floor-length silken gown of turquoise and deep blue-green, hobble skirted, and Gabriel catches himself checking that her legs have not fused into a mermaid’s tail. At her neck sparkles a diamond choker. On her head is a headdress of the same colors as her dress, held in place by a bejeweled cap with an exaggerated widow’s peak, sweeping back to a crest of feathers easily a meter long, making her look like some exotic and rarely-glimpsed Amazonian bird. He has read that egrets and herons are killed by the thousand to provide the feathers for women’s hats. At least two must have been sacrificed for hers. All talk ceases as patron after patron looks up and watches her descend to the gallery’s floor. Then a ripple of glove-muffled applause breaks out and spreads through the crowd, sounding to Gabriel’s ears much like that which accompanies a good hit at a school cricket match. 

~/~ 

Gabriel soon becomes bored. He wanders up the stairs to the mezzanine, where his father’s assistant Simon transacts the business of the sales. Simon nods his head in acknowledgment and then returns his attention to the patron facing him across his desk, plying him with champagne from the reserved stock, the ’04 Jacquesson. 

The boy sits in a corner and picks up a catalogue for the show. The work of Austrian Gustav Klimt is an opprobrium to the bourgeois sensibilities of the past, its sensual and often lascivious symbolism unimaginable in former times of straitjacketed and prudish Christian imagery. With a subversive and Eros-centered anarchy— Disinterested in its arcane gallery language, he puts down the booklet and instead flips idly through a copy of Simplicissimus. He has heard the German magazine described as “scandalous satire,” and though he is not completely certain what that means, he thinks it describes poking fun at famous people, but with a tongue-in-cheek insouciance, and he likes it. Its cartoons show fat businessmen, mustached generals, ugly women, all with captions he doesn’t fully understand. And always in the back are little advertisements for “Nasenformer” to reshape your nose, “Egoton,” some device to flatten the ears, and a syphilis treatment. 

“A bank credit is acceptable, I presume,” the man says to Simon. 

“Of course, minister.”

“Will there be another issue to the set this year?”

“Yes, the final print is to be released shortly, and then Das Werk der Gustav Klimt will be complete. We leave for Vienna soon to collect them.” 

“Good. Save me one.” 

“Of course, sir. I will make a note of it.” 

“I’m also interested in the other… ah… more delicate subject matter of his.” 

“Ah, yes. Please have your secretary make an appointment, and we’ll be happy to arrange a private showing.” 

“Very good. Au revoir.” 

~/~ 

Later, as the caterers clear up the show’s debris — the ashtrays, the wine glasses and plates, the little printed brochures — Gabriel walks past the artworks, many with their “SOLD” stickers, to his father. “Papa — is gold really called ‘God’s metal’?”  

 “No idea. I made it up. But if not it should be, eh? Come — help me put these prints away in the safe.” 

Judith de Metz is relaxing, smoking, on a chaise lounge, looking herself like a Klimt painting. Apart from her hair, which is now revealed to be unattractively pinned close to her scalp. Gabriel would like to sit beside her, but the space is taken up by the headdress and its long feathers, and he dares not move it. 

“A good show, my dear?” she asks. 

“Not particularly. Adequate.” 

His mother smiles a little vacantly. “Oh.”

Gabriel knows she takes medicine for her nerves, and he suspects she has just downed a dose. Either that or imbibed one too many glasses of the champagne. “Papa — I’m bored,” Gabriel tells him. “I want to go home.” 

His father glances at him in irritation. “In a minute. First, we need to have a family discussion.” 

Gabriel groans inwardly. His father’s “family discussions” can go on for hours, and it is late. 

Alphonse de Metz grasps his own lapels and addresses his audience like a lecturer. “Next year may be very different, and we need to prepare.” 

“Different in what way, my dear?” Judith asks. 

“In many ways. For one, in the art world all is fashion. Already people are asking for the work of the modernists.” He makes a disgusted face. “La Belle Époque is coming to an end, I fear. We will make the most of the Jugendstil while it remains in vogue, but tomorrow, who knows? We may be representing a whole new style of art. Klimt is getting old. Taste is in a state of flux, as always. What is au courant one day is passé the next. Soon, the public will be clamoring for all the isms — futurism, cubism — though I don’t know what people see in them. A bunch of splotches and scribbles, a child’s paper cutouts. But soon everyone will be collecting Picasso, Braque, Matisse. I don’t pretend to understand it, but I am not foolish enough to ask, ‘what is art?’ I am a businessman. I sell what people want.” 

Gabriel wishes he would finish. But his father’s speeches, once started, are impossible to stop, and will end when he has nothing more to say and not a minute before.

“Because of all this,” Alphonse continues, pacing, “I have decided that our summer trip to Vienna is more important this year, to find new sources, new artists. To accomplish this we must leave Paris a little earlier than usual.” 

Judith frowns and gets shakily to her feet. “But what about the races? The Grand Prix de Paris? The end of la Grande Saison?” 

“I am sorry, my dear. Not this year.” 

“But I have a new ensemble from Jeanne Paquin, prepared especially. I was going to be the talk of the event.” 

“I am sure you were, ma chérie. But we have no choice. I have considered this carefully.” 

She looks at him as if to assess whether a confrontation will be to her advantage. “Bon. I will pack in the morning.” 

Vienna. Gabriel absently fingers the balustrade’s stylized calla lilies. Stuffy old Vienna, with all its white buildings like wedding cakes. It promises to be a long and boring summer. Within the month he will remember thinking this, and weep. 

~/~ 

Back at the Rue Albert de Vigny house Gabriel is almost falling asleep on his feet. His mother goes up the staircase to bed, and he is about to follow her when his father calls, apparently not yet finished with him. 

“Come in here, son.” He opens the door to his study, a room Gabriel is never allowed in alone, and besides, it is always locked unless occupied by his father. “How old are you now?” 

Gabriel stifles a yawn and tries to appear interested. “Thirteen, sir.” 

“Already? Well, then you’re old enough to be the man of the house,” his voice drops and he stares at his son intently, “if it should ever become necessary.” He pulls back the Dilmaghani rug next to the desk, and crouches on the parquet flooring with a grunt. “Here — remember this. If anything should ever happen to me…”

Judging by his father’s red face at the exertion, Gabriel wonders if something might happen to him at this very minute. Alphonse pries loose an entire section of floorboards to reveal a metal safe set into concrete, a small white enamel dial in the center of its door. 

He meets his son’s eyes. “You have a good memory, eh? Remember this: fourteen right, five left, eighteen right, three left, twenty-one right. Got it?” 

“Fourteen right, five left, eighteen right, three left, twenty-one right.” 

“Good. Never write it down. Again.” 

Gabriel repeats the sequence. “I’m not going to open it now, but if, as I say, anything should happen to me—” 

“What could happen to you, papa?” Gabriel cannot imagine anything or anyone besting his bear of a father. 

“Ah, who knows?” Alphonse replaces the parquet and stands, puffing, kicking back the carpet with a glossy English shoe. “Probably nothing. But soon, I think…” again he favors his son with the unnerving stare, “things will be changing. The world is going to be different…” 

Who cares about the world and its changes? All Gabriel is concerned about is his bed. “Different? Because of cubism?” 

“We’ll have to see. Now,” he ushers Gabriel out into the hallway, “forget all this for now. Never… never… tell anyone else, and I mean anyone, even your maman. This is our secret. Now off to bed with you.”