G. S. Singer
May 10th 1940
A distant rumble shook the window. Roused from his nap, the Squire of Doorn House pulled himself upright in his chair. “Thunder?” he asked himself. But hadn't the sky had been clear? He glanced at the clock. Yes, he remembered now. The late afternoon sun shone brightly when he drew the curtain not an hour before.
Again the window reverberated. He cocked his head and listened as the boom faded to an ominous drone. Not thunder and lightning, he thought, something worse.
Curious, he rose from the chair cursing his eighty year old knees. They still hurt from winter's cold. And it is only May, he mused. The ache is usually gone by now. What will the pain be like in October? Or November? He shuffled across the room, stopped at the window and slid open the curtain.
Aircraft darkened the twilight sky, bombers and support planes. Beside them fighters dove and climbed. One exploded as he watched and fell to Earth with a smoky trail. “Fools!” he spoke out loud, “had they not learned?”
The shriek of an aerial bomb ended the squire's rage. He rolled away from the window, covered his ears and braced himself against the wall. The ordinance exploded in the nearby garden and the window shattered in its frame.
When the smoke and noise subsided, he looked once more. Through broken glass he saw a Rolls Royce approaching on the gravel drive below, its British flags illuminated by the burning residue of the explosion. The squire’s back stiffened. History calls me once more.
In the closet he found his old military coat, frayed at the collar, worn at the seams. No worse than me, he thought, slipping his arms into the sleeves. Chin high, he turned in front of the mirror and marveled at how large the garment had grown.
From his dresser he took a decoration the significance of which he’d long forgotten and with his right hand, pinned it to his lapel. He met his visitor downstairs in the drawing room and after introductions, the two men sat by the empty fireplace with glasses in hand.
The squire swirled his wine. “I appreciate the great risk you have taken on my behalf.”
He raised the glass to his nose and inhaled long and slow. It was one of the few good vintages he had left.
A lengthy tremble shook the house and the messenger shifted uneasily in his chair. The old man released his breath and lowered the glass to a small table.
“Before I consider your offer, let me tell you a story from my past. Forgive me this indulgence, but tonight I remember things I had hoped to bury long ago. It began in 1907, when I was a young man.”
Madness affects many men; this is widely known. So it is also true that some who seem mad, actually aren't. And of course, some who aren’t, actually are. But as to whether Eugene Lelouvier was or wasn't mad I cannot say. Still, what else would drive a man to cross fifteen hundred miles of open desert on foot? Fame? Destiny? Love? In time, you may offer your own explanation.
June 1st, 1907
There were no shadows when the Lelouvier stopped walking seven hundred and eighty miles into the Gobi Desert to wipe the dirt from his smoked glasses. By now the lenses were scarred and scratched and cleaning them did little to clarify his vision. As he rubbed the hem of his tattered burnoose across the glass a rare breeze closed his eyes. When the breeze passed he opened them and squinted. In the distance, mountains shimmered like rocks beneath rippling water.
Lelouvier replaced the glasses on his boxer’s nose and pulled the hood low over his gaunt cheeks and mustache. It was a poor and dangerous disguise. He had neither the features nor gait of a native, nor could he speak the language. No matter, he’d been in such hopeless situations before.
The first occurred by chance. He was crossing the English Channel on the brig, l’Aimee’, when it sank in a storm. For days he clung to the floating mast. His survival and subsequent rescue made headlines in Le Matin, the Paris newspaper. Such a small sip of fame, but it left a powerful thirst.
So like opium was the applause from the Paris crowds as he embarked on his next attempt at fame. Some labeled his decision to walk around the world a stunt, others called it a whim. But what else could a man of little means do to attract a cynical press? Six months later, he lay among the sparse brush outside Vladivostok, exhausted and near death.
Lelouvier drew a rough hand across his brow and thought of Anna’s touch. Anna, who nursed him back to health. Anna, the Governor of Vladivostok's daughter. His Anna now, his loving Anna. But fame is love too, and the addiction is strong.
He squatted on the cracked clay. From a pocket he took a map and spread it on the ground. From another he produced a compass. The wavering needle flicked sunlight across his eyes and the silent desert seemed to echo with cheers.
When the needle stilled Lelouvier drew a short line across the map. Now, three months later, he stood in the Gobi with ten days to get to Peking. Ten days to finish the map and begin his third attempt at immortality.
He folded the paper and tucked it under his clothes. If he got to Peking in time he would give the map to a Monsieur Cormier in exchange for a seat on a motorcar entered in the Peking to Paris race.
Arriving in Paris onboard the winning car would be his final chance at fame. Then, with his glory carved upon the stones of time, he’d return to Vladivostok and his Anna.
Lelouvier tugged the hood low. With a single step he began his journey anew. For now he would walk with the setting sun at his back, toward the darkness and Peking, hoping the automobiles and their teams would still be there, hoping he’d arrive before the start of the race.
* * * *
Madmen were everywhere in those days. Many were in Peking. One man in particular possessed a different madness—-one of greed and cunning. Like Lelouvier, he too was French. His name was Charles Godard.
Godard poked his head from the red passenger car and looked nervously down each side of the Trans-Siberian railway. Despite its grandiose walls, crumbling as they were, Peking was no different from the thousand other decaying towns he'd traveled through: chickens and peasants, dirt and dog shit.
Relieved to see no Europeans, he stepped to the ground. Wind rustled his long leather coat. A fly buzzed his face. He swatted and missed, striking his jaw. His skin stung from the hurried shave he'd given himself. Good looks aside, the beard was a detriment. Besides, circumstances dictated a change.
The clack of boots on metal sounded behind him. Godard turned to see Auguste Pons, a Frenchman as well, step from the train. The little man spread his arms wide and smiled at the coolies, rickshaws and broken pavement. “Peking is a shit hole to be sure, but a much nicer shit hole than I expected.” He moved to Godard’s side and laid a hand upon his friend’s shoulder. “I doubt if the Spyker brothers will chase you to this level of hell.”
Godard smiled uneasily. “So I sold some of their supplies and spare parts to pay the entry fee.”
“All their supplies and spare parts,” Pons added rubbing a gloved palm over his closely cropped scalp.
Godard waved his hand. “Some... all... In auto racing, as in love and war, all things are fair. My victorious arrival in Paris will compensate for any deception.” Amused, Pons shook his head.
A short distance down the track, laborers on a flatcar untied ropes from a canvas covered mound. With a snap they threw back the tarpaulins and for the first time since leaving Paris, sunlight glistened off brass radiators and headlights. After being hidden for two weeks how wonderful the machines looked.
Godard watched Pons’ entry, a one cylinder, six horsepower TriContal, come down the ramp first. Built with two wheels in front and one driving wheel behind, the machine disgusted him. Only a fool would choose to race nine thousand miles in such a ridiculous automobile.
Godard's machine, a Spyker, named for the brothers who built it, came down next. With four wheels, a powerful engine and a good racing history, his victory was assured.
Pons kicked the Spyker’s tires. “Pity, your car is too heavy for the desert sands.”
Godard suppressed a laugh. “Unlike your tiny bug, the wind will not blow the Spyker away.”
The corners of Pons’ mouth rose. “It is the perfect car for tilting at windmills.”
Pons primed his car’s little engine as a crowd of Chinese gathered. He pulled the crank and a light popping broke from the exhaust. The Chinese backed cautiously away. The engine's beat lent pride to Pons’ voice. “Lightness and efficiency, my dear Godard, twin keys to victory."
The Russian conductor walked toward them. Expression grave, he spoke briefly to Pons. Pons' mouth straightened as he turned to Godard. "My fuel has been stolen.”
Godard ceased adjusting levers on the Spyker’s steering column. “Thieves!” He walked to the front of the vehicle then paused as if seized with inspiration. “Are we not friends? You’ll share my gasoline. How much can the little cricket possibly use?”
He clasped the Spyker's starting crank and spun. A crack like gunfire exploded from the exhaust followed by loud brumming and black smoke. The Chinese crowd scattered. Godard laughed again and slapped Pons on the back. “More impressive than the pop, pop of your puny insect, no?”
His laughter died. A European man, half-shaven and wearing a ruffled coat approached them. Godard’s body tensed. He stepped back, heart pounding.
The man's eyes darted left and right. He snatched the bowler from his head and clutched it flat against his chest. "du Tallis," the man said, "reporter for Le Matin."
Godard relaxed. The reporter's gaze flicked nervously. "The newspaper wants me on a car during the race." He shook his head from side to side. "Not a journey I look forward too." He offered a nervous hand.
Pons tried to grasp the man's hand but it moved about too rapidly. Giving up he asked: "Will you pay?"
"Of course, of course. Five francs per diem. But I must telegraph a story to Paris every day."
Godard smiled. He stopped the man's jittery hand and shook it. "Together, Monsieur du Tallis, we shall enter Paris triumphant."