Look to the West Volume VIII: The Bear and the Basilisk



(Additional brief explanatory notes about the following artefacts, recorded by Sgt Bob Mumby (BM) and Sgt Dominic Ellis (DE):

DE: So you’ll recall I mentioned I found a store of educational-related documents in that thrift shop?

BM: Of course I do, I was there with-

DE: Not you, you fool, the people at the Institute. (Coughs) Well, among them was this revision guide, which is a bit broad-strokes for what we want, but-

BM: Oh, is this to go before the bit from the one I found? That battered old ‘Mme. Mercier’s Diaries’ book?

DE: I was about to get to that, you-

BM: Seems to have been quite popular in the Eighties here – a bit expurgated for security reasons, I imagine, but still gives a fascinating insight into the internal workings of France during the-

DE: You’re just reading off the back now!

(Recording dissolves into static)

From: “It’s Easy To... Pass 20th Century History at Town College Level” published 2013 by CNJ Press—

A common mistake students make when studying the Black Twenties is getting the order of events wrong. For instance, because the Plague feels such a big part of the period to us in hindsight, we tend to subconsciously act like it was always there in the background. But for the first, crucial years of the period, for most of the world it just seemed like another big war, and no-one suspected a global pandemic was on the way – or how the two would interact!

Or, even if we know the Plague wasn’t there from the beginning, we might think that changes such as the Tsar assuming direct command in February 1923, or the formation of the French Dictatorship shortly afterwards, were driven by the chaos unleashed by its outbreak. But this gets the timescale wrong too! It wouldn’t be for months that the Plague even reached cities such as Fyodorsk, Calcutta and Zon7Urb1, where it would reap its first, deadly harvest outside its initial focus in China and Siam. If not the Plague, sometimes students write that these political upheavals were due to the Scientific Frontier being crossed in the Belgian front, which again gets the order of events wrong – that came shortly after Paul’s direct command and the Dictatorship, not before.

So why did the Tsar and the French leadership take action when they did? The reason why this confuses so many students is that the impetus for their moves seems so minor in hindsight. But at the time, no-one knew what the later Black Twenties would hold, or even that they were in such a period of global crisis at all. From the point of view of both French and Russian public opinion, paradoxically it felt as though both nations had stumbled in the early months of the war. The naval battles of the Scheldt and Ceylon felt like triumphs for allies and client nations like England and Belgium. Russia was slowly grinding back the Persians and their French allies on the road to Shiraz, but in a bloody and punishing manner to her own forces, with missteps like the controversial aerobombing of Shiraz in August 1922, which temporarily dissuaded all nations from city bombing and made it taboo. A similar scenario was taking place on a smaller scale as French forces slowly drove back the Belgians in bitter trench warfare. It was a fight the Belgians could not win, yet French rhetoric encouraged them to fight to the last man, and to consider even forbidden weapons and tactics...

Another common confusion of events is that Tsar Paul was motivated by American victories in the Pacific Northwest; it is right that American kids be proud of our nation’s triumphs! However, at the time Paul assumed direct command, our wins in that theatre were still modest, and Paul (notoriously) regarded what would later be Vostok Russia as a a distant distraction rather than a core part of his strategy. In early 1923 the ENA was still mobilising for all-out war, taking advantage of the extensive additions to our national railway network that had been favoured under both Presidents Faulkner and Tayloe, albeit for different reasons. Probably confused by imagery from film, a lot of students portray our brave boys in their uniforms boarding the trains at the great Neo-Baroque palaces that were the stations of the Arc of Power cities, waved goodbye by tearful girlfriends, then travelling through Chichago, Saint-Lewis, even the rising western cities of Fontaine and Halopolis, all the time spreading the Plague as they went.[15] But, like we said, the great movement of Imperial troops happened before the first infected flea ever bit a Californian, never mind an American. Staggering though it is to think, the pandemic would have been even worse if this imagined order of events had happened!

Nor was the decision driven by Russia’s failures and qualified successes to subdue revolts in Tartary and Pendzhab. No; Paul’s decision to assume command was driven by the success of Case Charlemagne, the German reconquest of Czechosilesia, and Russia’s failure to drive into Germany or even hold back cautious German advances into Poland. From the German perspective, these triumphs felt fragile, with men from the Bundeskaiser on down dreading what would come when the full force of the Russian bear turned from taking Shiraz to taking Dresden.[16] In Petrograd things were seen rather differently, with Russian failures in Poland resulting in the resignation and exile or court-martial of more than one senior officer. From our perspective, it seems obvious that Paul shot his bolt too early by assuming power – and therefore responsibility for failure – at this point, but no-one at the time knew that far worse times were coming. Then and there, all the Imperial Soviet councillors could think of was that Europe had spent years in fear of ‘the Tsar’s Armart Legions’ sweeping across the continent, and the reality seemed to be a damp squib.

Weakness was not something a Russian Emperor could afford to become associated with. It was that same sense of weakness that began to tilt the balance of judgement in Constantinople. At that point, a disease that changed European and world history would not be the Plague, but scarlet fever, as Said Izzet Pasha, a leader of the peace party at the Sublime Porte, succumbed at a fatal time. The Ottomans had continued to fear Russia based on her qualified successes against Persia, but the lessons of early 1923 seemed to be that Russia had been overestimated, and could only defeat one foe at a time at best. With Said Izzet’s death, the war party of the Valide Sultan, Egyptian-born Mehveş Sultan, came to power and she pressured her son Murad X to appoint Ferid Ibrahim Pasha, a Bosniak noted for his brutal but effective suppression of the Serbs, as Grand Vizier.[17] Many at the Sublime Porte saw the only purpose of a war as being to regain Trebizond, lost in the Pandoric War, and were dubious about territorial gains, considering how troublesome Serbia had been since the Danubians had returned it as a bribe for the Empire to enter the war. They also assumed that if the Empire did enter the war, it would be as part of a formal alliance with France, the Turks’ historical European ally. Ferid Ibrahim thought differently; Paris had not helped Constantinople when she had brokered an end to the Pandoric War, and could not be relied upon. Therefore, this brutish yet cunning vizier proposed an audacious way in which the Ottomans could take advantage of Russian weakness without formally confronting Petrograd – or caring what western Europe thought...

Hopefully, this has made it clear just how important perceived Russian weakness was to the world, and how desperate Paul was to avoid this. So it was this weakness in Poland, on what to us Americans often seems like not that important a front of the war, that the European-focused Paul took the risky gamble to draw a line under his generals’ failures and seize command. By doing so, his radical move may have inadvertently distracted from the pressure the Cazeneuve government was in France, allowing the Prime Minister to avoid resignation and try a different tack...


From: “Mme. Mercier’s Diaries, Volume III: Exile’s Return” (1978, authorised English translation 1981)—

March 15th 1923.

In but one month, it will be five years since the good God saw fit to steal Robert from me. Oh, my love, are you truly out there somewhere? What do you think, looking down on us now, at the mistakes we make? Do you weep for the children of Shiraz, do your tears join the blood that flows into the Meuse every day?

Mayhaps I am truly a weak and feeble woman, as so many of our enemies always said. Would Horatie Bonaparte have wept for her husband if she had not died before him? Or did she, as I always thought as a child, have a heart of steel from which the arrows of her detractors glanced away from like those shields the Matetwa use?

Yet now I hear your voice in my head, and I know you are not truly gone so long as someone remembers you. You shake your head sadly with that annoyingly superior smile of yours, and you quote your favourite philosopher, Salles-Dutreil. “La compassion n’est pas la faiblesse; et la cruaté n’est pas la force.” Only fools confuse the two, and one day they pay for it.[18] I know you are right, my love. Monsters like the Tsar will one day face the wages of their sin, and like the lowliest peasant they once thoughtlessly evicted, they will stare at a ledger they can never balance, issued by an authority too high for them to appeal to. But as we now face a race to the bottom in the new barbarism, I fear that day will be a long time coming.

March 16th 1923.

I lit a candle for my Robert today. The cathedral was filled with too many wives and mothers whose losses are more recent than mine; too many of our young men have lost their lives in the bitter fighting up north. Even the dim flames of the candles are concealed from the outside; the beautiful stained glass windows have been removed, boarded up and covered with blackout curtains. Supposedly the Belgians have pledged to restrict themselves to attacking military targets, as we have; but I am told by pilots that finding targets from above is a treacherous exercise even those with the best intentions.

I returned home and took Valéry from Anne-Marie, the new governess, and played with him for a while; ever since I saw La Femme Enchaînée at the odeon, I feel a guilty conscience telling me to give my time to my children who live, not my husband who does not. Valéry is a proud, strapping boy now but, of course, he does not remember his father, unlike Renée. I worry I am building up his father in his head to be an impossible example to live up to. Maybe Valéry needs a real father figure in his life, someone he can touch with his own hands, a good but not infallible man to teach him what it is to be one. Yet that is another way of saying I should remarry, and I still find the thought too painful. Am I selfish, then, putting my own needs before those of my children?

March 17th 1923.

I was shocked today to find a yellow envelope on my breakfast table. A lectelegram (Renée calls me an old woman for not just saying ’gram) from the Montmartre![19] A summons no less, if worded more politely than that. What the devil does that bungler Cazeneuve want with me?

Maybe a part of me was still thinking on the same lines as yesterday – some imp of the perverse suggested that perhaps he is going to propose! Valéry, Renée and Anne-Marie all gave me a strange look when I burst out laughing for no apparent reason.

Another reason for Renée to tell me to move with the times; I still wear a rubberised veil out of habit in the taxi, though the vehicle uses a Mitchell engine that runs on sun-oil and I could scarcely be left damp by steam fumes that are not there! Part of me still feels sad or even uneasy to find myself conveyed by an engine driven by a series of small explosions rather than good old steam – though any engineer will tell you how dangerous that can be, too.

Deathtrap or not, the taxi was fast, and the streets are less busy as so many vehicles have been requisitioned to help with army logistics. Unlike the early Mitchell-cars I remember, this one was even capable of climbing the Montmartre without emitting alarming sounds from its gears. Perhaps the days of steam are truly numbered, sad to say. Not La Vapeur est Républicaine or La Vapeur est Royaliste; merely La Vapeur est Obsolète !

I gave the cabman a generous tip, and found M. Cazeneuve seated at the same dinner table I remember from mine and Robert’s own years here, though he has changed the paintings. He sits before a fine, but untouched, bouillabaise in the process of coagulation – doubtless a relic of his youth in Marseillesd – and some peasant has dug a fine set of furrows in his forehead. The less metaphorical cause is the stack of lectelgrams – all right, Renée, ’grams – and other documents he is perusing. Finally he sighs, pushes them aside, and then genuinely starts when he looks up and sees me. I suppose I do not stand out, in my black and purple mourning dress.

“Héloïse!” he calls jovially to me, recovering himself, trying to hide his obvious worry. I find it more of an insult than anything; I am not some naive young slip of a girl who is not to be bothered with matters of national crisis, and nor am I a friend to be addressed by my Christian name. Bertrand Cazeneuve was not the worst among my former political party to imply I was some silly slut who cared more for the bed of ‘the enemy’ than matters of state; but nor was he entirely absent from those bitter years.

“M. Cazeneuve,” I reply, correctly but coolly. “Was there something you wished to discuss with me?”

He bids me to seat, and I do, the scent of that damn bouillabaise assaulting me as we talk. Perhaps that is his intention, to distract me. It seems such a waste when there are rumours our people are about to go on rations. Yet, as he talks, I realise the rumours may not have the worst of it. The financial situation is as parlous, in a different way, as the way it became in the Panic of the last decade. Questions are being asked in the Grand-Parlement over whether we can afford to finance our partners abroad. And so long as Belgium remains in the war under that idiot boy Charles Theodore, we run the risk of a savage attack on the very heart of l’Hexagone. Our failure thus far to achieve a knockout blow has led to fingers being pointed at Cazeneuve himself.

It took him a long time to come around to his point; even I felt the minutes slipping away, and I am not Prime Minister of a country at war. He dallied for quite some time on Tsar Paul’s strange decision to declare himself personal supreme commander of Russia’s armies, in response to the Germans’ surprising successes out east. Anything that puts more distance between us and the Armarts is a good thing in my book. But I didn’t follow where Cazeneuve was going, he took such a circuitous route, and my response when he finally got to the point was almost to burst out laughing again. I think I would have been less surprised if he had proposed to me!

He didn’t say so, but reading between the lines – and reading the newspapers, for that matter – it’s clear he’s faced pressure to resign, to take responsibility for the failures in Belgium. But, no surprises here, he doesn’t want to. And, to be fair, it’s not just a desire to spare his own skin. If he goes, His Christian Majesty will most probably have to appoint Philippe Changarnier in his place. I know a thing or two about foreign policy, and Changarnier has not impressed at the Tuilleries. What successes have been attributed to him, I know, are more those whose processes began under Camille [Rouillard] or Vincent [Pichereau]. Self-interest and Cazeneuve’s obvious dislike and rivalry aside, it is a reasonable argument that it is not in the interests of France for Changarnier to occupy the Maison. Of course, it may also make it rather easier for the Diamantines to win the next election, but we cannot afford such petty concerns right now.

Indeed, it slowly became clear that this may be why Cazeneuve came to me, not Camille or Vincent—there was clearly some sounding out behind the scenes. I am a wild card; do I stand for myself, or am I some kind of cipher for the memory of poor Robert? Consciously, I am aware that my past in crossing parties would make it very easy for Camille or his successor to disclaim connection with me if things went wrong. That is politics.

Let me get to the point myself. Cazeneuve wants to do what Leclerc would not do, what no-one has done since the last time we were in a bloody war with Belgium, when Horatie Bonaparte herself was just a girl finding her father dead at his desk. Not just a national alliance; he wants to form a triumvirate and Dictatorship.

Yet he clearly can’t get everyone on board with it, even in his own party. Maybe that’s the point; he’ll replace Changarnier’s faction with a tame Diamantine Party, or part of one. I rebel at the idea, yet Cazeneuve has a strange way of proving he is sincere; he has also managed to get Thierry Vachaud on board. Vachaud’s leadership of the Noirs is fragile, yet he has passed some reforms that made the party more respectable. I recall Robert being concerned at their successes in the parlements-provincial elections during the Panic, and those successes were not only driven by a simple appeal to beat up the so-called lesser races and take their lunch money. The Noirs have reinvented themselves as an anti-corruption force rooting out secret societies, though I’m sure there are plenty of unreconstructed Neo-Jacobins in there that want to turn us into Portugal. It is a gamble to bring Vachaud into government, yet I understand Cazeneuve’s fear that leaving him outside could be even worse in the long term, leaving him potentially untouched by any failures.

To counterbalance Vachaud and head off criticism he is bowing to the forces that made Europe fear French power for so long, Cazeneuve proposes to appoint me as Foreign Minister. Me! I know at times I found myself practically running the government when Robert was ill, but this? It will be a slap in the face to Camille and Vincent, and I fear it will burn too many bridges I had hoped to leave intact. And yet, and yet...consider the other side of the coin. I always wanted to hold a ministry in my own right, as Horatie Bonaparte only dreamed of. To prove to scum like dead King Max and the Tsar that the corridors of power should not be the province of the first sex alone.

Am I a moth blundering into a candle flame? Perhaps. But at least I will be a bright light in the night as I burn...

[15] Fontaine is roughly OTL Pueblo, Colorado, whereas Halopolis (Greek for Salt City) equates to Ogden, Utah.

[16] The imagery of Russia as a bear long postdates the POD, but is a fairly obvious one to go for; similarly, the idea of Russia bestriding the globe with military, diplomatic and economic interventions from one end of Eurasia to the other (and into even Africa, North America and the Pacific) has also created in parallel the OTL imagery of Russia as an octopus with tentacles stretching across the world.

[17] The Valide Sultan is a title given (usually) to the biological mother of the reigning Ottoman Sultan, who oversees the imperial harem and has considerable political power. While the nature of the Ottoman court has shifted over time in TTL with modernisations, the Valide Sultan usually remains a powerful figure.

[18] “Compassion is not weakness, and cruelty is not strength”. The fact that even a Diversitarian-translated work leaves this in the original French indicates how iconic and recognisable a quote it is.

[19] Used here, imprecisely, to refer specifically to the Maison de Montmartre as a metonym for the Prime Minister of France.


Also thank you for the comments everyone - you'll understand if I can't always respond due to me not having worked out what happens next yet spoilers for my extremely elaborate and well thought through plan.
or the formation of the French Dictatorship shortly afterwards,

Found this a bit alarming until I remembered that that's a contingency baked into the French constitution in this TL.

Mercier has a very poetic style to her diary, good job on depicting that.
So I can't remember which post it was in the last volume, but there's a post stressing how Diversitarianism and Societism share their origins in a critique of the society of the Long Peace. What's interesting to me is that, even though to all appearances that global society broke during the Pandoric War, it definitely seems like here is where we're really seeing everything fall apart. In retrospect all the damage to the global order during the Pandoric War was kinda temporary. Ironsharks can sink ships, but ships can be rebuilt. Armies can be destroyed, but also reconstituted. The First Interwar was tense, but honestly? As long as you aren't in Nusantara, Kongo, or South America you're kinda safe from the worst of it. The historiography has been stressing that nobody realized how dangerous the Combine actually was until the Black Twenties, and I think we're starting to see why. The nations made it through the Pandoric War intact, but the triple-whammy of war, economic collapse, and pandemic is something that can actually weaken the pre-Pandoric War order enough to totally destabilize it. France and Russia both look to be coming out of this thing substantially weakened and that's *before* we see the full impact of the plague, America is doing well right now but it doesn't seem like that's going to last, and it really looks like the way the global situation is developing once the Combine put the Doctrine of the Last Throw into motion the entire world really will be divided down between the World Societist Combine and everyone else.
I have a feeling the bubonic plague outbreak wasn't going to be in the story before the Pandemic.
I mean fiction usually reflects the world it's written in so that's not surprising, or even a bad thing. I wasn't paying attention to when certain updates were written my first read through, so I'd be interested to see if other developments synch up with current events.
I have a feeling the bubonic plague outbreak wasn't going to be in the story before the Pandemic.
A disease outbreak following or during a global war in the early 20th century is par for the course in AH, so probably not. I think that Thande at most changed which disease it is, just to be different from the real world, and added that bit about social distancing in 2012.
My own guess is that this was always the plan.

The first mention of the black death was in an update from march last year. Post pandemic admittedly but it seems a little tight for extensive rewrites and a bit reckless to not have any idea what would happen in your 'black 20s', a thing you've been talking about for years, until it actually happens.
I have a feeling the bubonic plague outbreak wasn't going to be in the story before the Pandemic.
When was the section in the previous volume that pretty much spelled out that the Black Death was making a global comeback tour posted? I THINK it actually was after 2020 started but it might have been at the tail end of 2019.
My own guess is that this was always the plan.

The first mention of the black death was in an update from march last year. Post pandemic admittedly but it seems a little tight for extensive rewrites and a bit reckless to not have any idea what would happen in your 'black 20s', a thing you've been talking about for years, until it actually happens.

On the OTHER hand the opening sections of THIS volume definitely owes its existence to OTLs lockdowns
If not the Plague, sometimes students write that these political upheavals were due to the Scientific Frontier being crossed in the Belgian front,
"Crossing the Scientific Frontier" - is this LTTW jargon for "used WMDs"?
It was a fight the Belgians could not win, yet French rhetoric encouraged them to fight to the last man, and to consider even forbidden weapons and tactics...
Gassing the French will only get the Belgians gassed in return. If the Belgians are still considering it, I suppose they think that their scientifc technologies and stockpiles exceed the French ones and resorting to gas warfare will be a net favour to them.

If the Germans and French trust each other it might make sense for Germany to put in some more effort into the western front while Russia is still mainly focused on Persia, temporarily exposing its eastern front but accelerating the arrival of French help there. On the other hand doing this might provoke a Russian offensive meant to relieve the pressure on Belgium and encourage it not to surrender....