A Natural Progression
by Kevan Youde
Louis entered the General's office the dining room of a commandeered château and saw that the enormous table carried the remains of last night's dinner. Dirty plates were stacked at one end and half-filled wine glasses were arranged at the other. The general his tunic thrown over a chair and his waistcoat unbuttoned stood scratching his unshaven chin. By a window, the infamous Colonel Laplace lounged, paring his fingernails with a knife.
You are the pup that will by my aide de camp, yes? the general snapped.
Louis clicked his heels to attention, proud of the golden cords at the shoulder of the new uniform that Helene had bought for him.
'Sir', indeed. Well, you look smart enough. Let us hope that there is a brain under all that silk and polish. What do you think of my strategy? Come, see.
Louis approached the table. He could see only dirty wineglasses.
Sir? I don't understand.
It's all plain enough. The reds are the enemy and the whites our own troops. This flute of flat champagne is the division of General Bouchard, he will have my left flank. Next to him, the disappointing Chablis is General Du Lac and so on across the line until the heavy and unimaginative Burgundy of General Maupassant's grenadiers. The level of wine indicates the strength of the division. I see that I have over-stated Du Lac's strength. Let us deal with that. Hmmm, yes, decidedly disappointing. Not unlike General Du Lac himself. The reds of the enemy are all equally filled since we do not know their strength.
The enemy's dispositions are unknown to us sir?
Yes, of course. They are not in the habit of sharing information with me.
But what of intelligence, sir?
The general slapped the table, making his armies dance.
Colonel Laplace is an intelligence officer, said the general. When he says that it is raining, everyone turns to the window to see for themselves. That tells you how much you can believe intelligence officers. They deal in truth dressed as lies and lies dressed as truth. I have many reports of the enemy's strength and I trust none of them. No, the only approach is to press over a wide front. Where the enemy is weak, he will give ground, then one may exploit that weakness. You seem disappointed, young man.
I beg your pardon, sir. It is just that I believed, that is, it is widely thought that your victories to date your great victories made brilliant use of intelligence.
Hah! I use it brilliantly alright I ignore it. The enemy call me a genius because it is convenient for them to believe that they were beaten by a genius. My superiors agree because it is comforting to believe that one's forces are commanded by a genius. Colonel Laplace is useful for finding and executing enemy spies but, to use intelligence in planning one's battles? No, no no.
Oh, I understand sir. I apologise for my ignorance.
Think nothing of it. You are clearly a clever fellow. I understand that you obtained your post through the influence of your mistress, Madame Bonnaire.
Sir, I really must...
Oh, nonsense, nonsense. Promotion through the influence of one's mistress is the natural progression for a young officer of talent. There's no need to be coy about it. Now, shake that bell on the table and some damn fool major will come to tell you your duties.
The rest of Louis' day was taken up learning his place as the most junior member of the general's staff. He had believed that he would be working at the shoulder of the nation's greatest general but he found himself a lackey to a drunken buffoon. He was in low spirits when he returned to his billet but Helene, as usual, was wonderful. She made him explain what was troubling him, listened attentively then reassured him that all would be for the best. By the time they slept, he felt altogether better.
The second time Louis saw the general's table, he knew he had been deceived.
It was the day after the battle and General D'Hubert's brilliance was the toast of the nation. An advance, a feint, an encircling manoeuvre and the enemy was scattered. Louis had spent the battle running errands and had never seen the General. Now headquarters was in turmoil as the army prepared to advance and the general had called for him personally.
The table was clear except for a map on which wooden markers showed the dispositions of both armies. Neatly trimmed pieces of paper fixed to the markers recorded the strength of each division in foot, horse and artillery. The general and Colonel Laplace were both impeccably dressed.
Ah, young man. What would you say if I were to offer you a dangerous mission for Colonel Laplace?
I would accept with honour, sir. The click of Louis' heels rang around the room.
Yes, I thought that you would, so I sent you on the mission without asking. Congratulations, it was a total success.
Sir? I do not understand.
No, I don't suppose that you do. I am afraid that I sold Colonel Laplace's talents short during our last conversation. Not only does he detect and execute enemy spies, he uses the time between those two events to feed false information to the enemy.
I am afraid that your association with Madame Bonnaire is to be severed, as is the lady's head.
Sir? But no!
But yes. We have known she was an enemy spy for months but have kept her in our pocket until we could make use of her. When she established a connection with a young officer of good name and sought to place him on my staff, the time had come.
Sir, I can assure you Helene Madame Bonnaire would never...
And I can assure you that she would, that she did and that she has done so on several other occasions. She is a formidable operative, exploiting men who make perfect spies because they have no notion that they are spies.
But, I... Sir,
Oh, don't take it to heart, young man. Colonel Laplace is telling everyone that you were aware of the situation and have shown exemplary courage and cunning. Certainly, without the information you unwittingly supplied, the enemy would never have fallen for my little gambit. And if you are worried that your career might suffer because of this affair, have no fear I have several suggestions for mistresses who would be happy to help you on your way.
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