To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Chapter 2-1

This took longer than I'd expected, but I hope you'll enjoy it now it's here. We're with Henri, on the front lines.


7th Division Headquarters: Champagne , France. February 26th, 1915 The staff officer bore the same captain’s insignia as Henri, yet the difference in status between a captain on the divisional staff and a captain commanding an infantry company was clear. Captain Vasseur looked to be little more than thirty. His hair and mustache were carefully trimmed. His gold rimmed glasses would have looked just as appropriate in a doctor’s or lawyer’s office. The uniform tunic he wore was new and of the pale Horizon Blue color which was only just being issued and had not yet made its way to the 104th Régiment d'Infanterie where the more muted colors might have actually helped the men blend into their surroundings better than the dark blue coats and red trousers of the old uniforms.

Vasseur shuffled the papers of Henri’s report. “I’ve read what you wrote, of course, but help me to understand it better. You took the German first trench with few casualties.”

“Yes. With only three men wounded and none killed.”

“And then after you had captured the trench, that is when the casualties came?”

“Yes.”

***

Front Line near de Perthes les Hurlus: Champagne , France. February 23th, 1915 It had still been dark that Tuesday morning, just after 6:00 AM, when the company had filed into the jumping-off trench that the sappers had dug over the last few days, jutting out at a right angle from the front line. The attack trench was narrow -- only three men could stand abreast in it -- and it was shallow. The men crouched down to keep their heads safe below the level of the earth.

The weather, the week before unseasonably warm, had turned cold again. Men pressed together in small groups, sharing warmth and seeking the reassurance of human touch at one and the same time. Henri’s back and shoulders ached, tensed from both fear and cold. He closed his eyes for a moment and with deep breaths tried to force the painful knots in his soulders to unwind. At least the ground would be firm, frozen hard.

“Sergeant Bertrand.”

The supply sergeant, a replacement who had arrived in January but already used to the necessities of keeping quiet in the forward trenches, moved next to him and leaned his head in to hear.

“Have the brandy ration served out now. It’ll keep the men warm and they’ll be past the first dullness by the time we advance.”

The sergeant nodded and moved off again, moving like an ape, doubled over, with hands swinging close to the ground. A strange fate that modernity should have brought man back to his origins.

In a few moments Henri could hear the shifting and clattering of the men taking off their heavy packs and getting out their tin mugs to accept the warming draft that Bertrand was spreading among them.

The company had been on the move since two that morning, when the sections had formed up on the streets of Suippes. It had taken four hours to cover the three miles from the village to the front line, first walking beside the unpaved country roads along which horse wagons and motor trucks lumbered, carrying supplies and artillery shells forward, then through the network of trenches to the front line. Logistics officers had stood at each crossroads, guiding them through the maze of trenches crowded with other traffic, as units that had been in the front moved back for rest, and others moved forward for the attack. With so much confusion and congestion in the network of defenses, there was no chance that coffee or hot breakfast could make it from the mobile kitchens to these attack trenches, and so the day’s brandy ration was the practical solution to giving the men a little warmth and comfort before the attack began.

“Care for a drink, sir?” Lieutenant Morel held out a small, flat bottle. “None of your government issued brandy here. Picked it up when I was on leave last month.”

“Not yet,” said Henri. “Offer me some when we have their trench and I’m your man.” On quiet days, the wine or brandy ration gave the men a distraction from the tedium and loneliness of military life. Before an attack, it tamped down fears and made men more willing to fight. But the clumsiness that often came with that courage was something an officer could ill afford at the start of an attack, however attractive the warmth and solace it might bring. Afterwards there would be time enough.

Henri pulled out his watch when the first shells screamed over. Seven o’clock. The sky was beginning to glow with the diffuse light of approaching dawn. To the rhythmic shriek of a 75mm shells passing over thirty times a minute and the thunder of those shells exploding on the German front line trench three hundred yards away was added a more steady mechanical buzz. Henri looked up, as did others, and soon they could see the white shape against the lightening blue sky. With its enchanting slowness an aeroplane was flying forward to observe the accuracy of the bombardment that was being poured upon the German positions.

At seven twenty, with the light strengthening but the sun still below the horizon, the tempo of the shelling increased. No longer could they distinguish single shells passing overhead. Instead there was a single flow of noise, the high pitched sound of shells above and the thunder of the bombardment hitting the German line, explosions which they could now feel through the ground as well as the abused and quivering air. Over it all, the aeroplane droned slowly, making big circles like a carrion bird above the front lines. The slow two-seater carried a heavy wireless set which allowed the observation officer to tap out messages to the artillerists telling them where their shells were falling to most effect.

Signalling to his section leaders, Henri advanced through the huddled men to one of the short scaling ladders at the end of the attack trench and climbed its few steps up to ground level. The men filed after.

Up here he could see the fountains of smoke and earth erupting from the German lines, a billowing and quivering cloud, dark with the occasional flash breaking through from within the undulating mass of destruction. The officers and NCOs formed up the company into sections, each group of sixty men filing through a gap pre-cut in the barbed wire entanglements which guarded the French line. Across the no man’s land they moved, the lines fanning out as the men picked their way across the uneven, frozen ground. Just as well, lest a German shell catch a clump of men and wipe out a whole squad at a blow. It was only as they came within a hundred yards of the German trench the the men went to ground again, waiting for the deadly rain of shells to cease before they could move any closer. They were so close to the barrage now that the concussions echoed in their chests while the sound rang in their ears. Stray fragments from a shell that fell short set two men screaming, and stretcher bearers trotted forward silently to do their lifesaving work.

The enemy lines remained empty and motionless under the pounding fury of the shells. No rifles appeared on the parapet. The defenders were down in their dugouts, sheltering from the attack.

Then the shells stopped. 7:30. A ringing, screaming silence which seemed in the first moment to tear at the senses with its sheer absence of noise.

Henri fumbled his whistle to his mouth and blew it as he heaved himself to his feet, drew his pistol, and rushed forward. He could hear other whistles shrilling too, his lieutenants and NCOs and those of the other companies in VI Battalion to the right and left of them.

As he reached the German wire he looked back. They were following, just as they should. He saw no bodies lying on the ground, and still there was no activity at the German parapet. This silence could last only seconds more. In the bunkers dug deep under the German lines, the soldiers must be grabbing weapons and rushing up the stairs to meet them.

The high explosive shells had done their work on the German entanglements of barbed wire. It slowed him only a moment to pick through the gaps and shallow craters which had been blasted in the defensive barrier. A few dozen paces more and the parapet. This was the most terrifying moment of all. At any moment a rifle’s muzzle might appear, and it would be a bad soldier who could fail to hit him at this distance. His reason, his very body, screamed to stop, to slow. But the training -- distilled by the army from its experiences of the last six months -- was clear: the soldier is most in danger as he moves towards the parapet. Do not stop. Do not slow, until you are in the enemy trench. Then you can see your enemy as well as he can see you, and your chances are greatly improved.

He reached the parapet and, with a muttered prayer as his boots left the ground and his overcoat flared out around him, jumped down into the enemy trench.

It was empty, save for a grey-clad body that lay on the ground a half dozen paces away, and Corporal Sellier who had half-slid down into the trench a moment before Henri jumped. Soon more men appeared to right and left.

“Sixth Squad, come on!” shouted Corporal Sellier, and led his men off down the trench. Henri took a moment to lean back against the trench wall. His breath steamed in the cold morning air, but he felt hot enough to wish he could tear off his heavy wool overcoat. It would pass soon enough. Lieutenant Morel’s brandy would be welcome now too. Perhaps he’d find him.

Pushing away from the wall, Henri started down the trench after Sixth Squad. The trench walls were lined with tree branches woven together like a basket. The floor was lined with heavy wooden planks. Every twenty yards the trench turned, following a sawtooth path which made it impossible to look, or shoot, too far in a straight line. Each turn was a question: What was beyond it? Friend or foe?

Henri had just passed the first turning when Lieutenant Rejol came down nearly on top of him. Both men shouted and Henri half raised his revolver before seeing who the other was. Then they attack turned into an embrace instead.

“I’m glad it’s you. Are you alright? Any trouble?” Henri asked.

“Got hung up in the wire.”

“I almost shot you. Why don’t you have your pistol out?”

“Because I don’t want to shoot you.”

“You didn’t know it would be me.”

Rejol shrugged. In civilian life, before he was called back up into the army, Maurice Rejol had become a priest. The French Republic, however, was resolutely secular. Priests remained subject to mobilization just like men their age of any other occupation.

“If you won’t take the basic precaution of drawing your weapon, there will be no one but you to blame if you’re killed,” Henri said.

“I think I’ve seen enough men die while bearing weapons by now to know that holding a gun is no talisman against death.”

It was Henri’s turn to shrug. “I respect your principles, father. But what are you going to do if you meet a German at one of these sharp turns? Bless him?”

“I might just.”

From further down the trench they heard confused shouting and followed by shots. Both men ran toward the sound. By the time they reached Sixth Squad, Corporal Sellier and his men were herding a dozen Germans with their hands behind their heads into a bay in the trenchline where a machine gun tripod stood empty.

“Any officers among them?” Henri asked, scanning the captured men for rank insignia. A captured officer could provide useful intelligence about troop strength and position.

“He resisted capture and I had to shoot him,” said Corporal Sellier, jerking a thumb.

Now Henri saw the body, sprawled on the rough boards of the trench floor, as if he had been shot while running away.

He turned the grey-coated man over. His chest was an ugly sight. Blood soaked his tunic, the three ragged exit wounds barely distinguishable from the sticky, pulsing mess of red. He gasped for air and his eyes fluttered.

“This officer is wounded,” Henri said. “Call stretcher bearers.” That at least was a more honorable task then what he must do next. Folding back the German’s overcoat he checked the man’s pockets. A little leather bound prayer book, the spidery Gothic lettering stamped on its cover looking darkly medieval. A folded letter, which even Henri’s cursory German skills could tell was from the man’s wife, no military secrets here. A photograph of a little boy in miniature soldier uniform sitting aside a wooden horse. A box of matches. A half smoked cigar wrapped in a handkerchief.

Henri shoved the item’s back into the officer’s pockets, guilty at the bloody smear he left on the letter.

“How about his watch?” asked Corporal Sellier. “German watches are good, yes?”

“Did you send for that stretcher bearer?” Henri replied, ignoring the suggestion of plunder.

“He won’t survive that chest wound. If the stretcher bearers are going to risk their necks crossing no man’s land, it should be for our men.”

“Call them, Corporal.” Henri let an edge creep into his voice, and this time Sellier saluted and sent a man from his squad in search of stretcher bearers.

“Form up the rest of the squad,” Henri ordered. “Rejol, take Sixth Squad and find the rest of your section. Get this sector of the front line swept.”

Henri continued down the front line trench, gathering up stray men, putting squads and sections under officers or NCOs, ordering them to secure the intersections with the communication trenches. He routed a half dozen men out of a bunker where they had found bottled beer and a gramophone. The tinny sound of a walz echoed up the stairs of the tunnel as Henri drove the men before him, back to the work of securing the trench.

Everywhere were the signs of the half hour’s bombardment which had preceded their attack. Floorboards were smashed and wicker walls blown out where explosive shells had caved in the trench itself. Shell fragments, jagged pieces of metal up to six inches long, were embedded in the wooden planks here and there, while in other places scattered blasts of round holes showed where timed fuses on shrapnel shells had sent their inch-wide round bullets down from above.

After twenty minutes, the front line was secure. The company had rounded up nearly fifty prisoners. They made them stack their rifles in a dugout and then Henri sent them back to the French line under the guard of Twelfth Squad. One of his own men had been wounded in the brief, confused fighting in the trenches, but both could walk back to the mobile hospital under their own power. The German dead they could leave where they lay until later. Now they must push on.

The German line in this sector consisted of two fire trenches spaced a hundred and fifty yards apart. These two parallel fire trenches, connected every hundred yards by perpendicular communication trenches, formed the first German defensive line. The second line of defense, which the attack timetable called for their regiment to assault at nine o’clock, after a second preparatory bombardment, was a similar pair of trenches half a mile further back, beyond a wooded rise that made it difficult for French artillery observers to target.

Henri sent Lieutenant Rejol, leading Second and Third Sections, up the first communication trench. Then Henri and Lieutenant Morel gathered the remaining two sections at the intersection with the second communication trench.

As the men stood close around him, Henri gave his instructions. He could not afterwards remember the words. His recollection was like a dream, of his mouth moving without any knowledge of the words, of the faces -- intent, nervous, grim -- looking at him, and then of the stick grenades awkwardly tumbling through the air.

How could an attack possibly come from behind, from the fire trench they had just cleared? Fortunately, it was not the rational part of the mind which was responsible for reaction to the sight of a hand grenade. Everyone burst into instant motion. In the tight quarters of the trench someone collided with Henri and shoved him back against the wall of the trench. Shots rang out. Henri struggled to draw his own revolver, pushing away the man who had stumbled against him. Men nearer to the fire trench fought to level their rifles in the press of bodies. The grenades went off with a flash and an earsplitting report. There was shoving and struggling as some men tried to get away from the explosions while others tried to get at their attackers. Several men were on the ground, screaming, struck by fragments from the grenades.

***

7th Division Headquarters: Champagne , France. February 26th, 1915 “And how was it that you were attacked from the rear in a trench that you had just cleared?”

The staff officer’s tone was dispassionate, but being asked the question by this well-groomed man in his brand new uniform caused anger and frustration to clench at Henri’s throat.

“At the moment we knew only that we were attacked, and by the end of the firefight there were no German prisoners to interrogate. It wasn’t till that night, digging in to hold what we still possessed after the attack on the second line beyond the ridge had failed, that we realized what must have happened. One of the large bunkers under our sector of trench had passages leading up to both the firing trenches. The squad of Germans must have gone through this bunker to come up behind us and attack us unawares.”

Captain Vasseur made rapid jottings in his notebook. “And your men who cleared the bunkers did not notice this second passage leading up to the other fire trench still in German hands?”

“No.” Of course they had not. The attack squads were supposed to move quickly. If no enemy appeared, they moved on. Letting them slow and search only led to looting and shirking.

“It’s understandable of course. It could happen to anyone. But perhaps there are a few suggestions I could make that would help you in future.”

The other officer’s last sentence robbed all that came before of reassurance. Did he think that the frontline officers were incompetent fools? Let him try to lead a company and clear a sector of enemy trench. Had he even been in combat, or had he spent the last six months in staff positions telling others how to do their jobs?

“There’s no way to make a detailed search of every dugout and bunker while maintaining the speed of the attack,” said Henri. “We clear them as best we can. We’ll do better in future. But attack cannot be without risk.”

“Of course, of course.” The staff officer held out his hands. “Don’t misunderstand me, Captain Fournier. You were there and I was not. Nor can I claim credit for any of these ideas. I sit here. I interview men like you who have fought in the front lines. They tell me what worked and what didn’t. When I hear of something that worked well, I write it up. And then I read reports from others like me in other divisions. It’s not glorious work. But day by day, we learn. And one of these days, we’ll defeat these invaders.”

It was an honorably made little speech. Despite their equal rank, this man who talked with colonels and generals every day was under no obligation to treat a reserve captain from the line with consideration. He was going out of his way to polite, and if Henri had any justice -- or self interest -- he must find some way to return the courtesy. After all, had this man done anything to cause offense? Nothing, except to have the duties and influence which, had obligations to family not intervened, Henri himself might have had.

“I’m sorry.” Henri gave a slight bow of the head as he said the words. “You said there were suggestions you could make? What has worked for other units?”

Vasseur closed his notebook and steepled his fingers. “Our infantry companies are designed for fighting open warfare in the field: two hundred and fifty riflemen all trained to do the same things with the same weapons. However what we’re fighting now is essentially siege warfare. That takes specialized troops. Designate one of your sections as trench cleaners. They hold back in the initial attack, and follow along to clean out every bunker and dugout. It’ll be their job to be sure that you aren’t taken from behind by enemies who’ve hidden underground.”

This was the great insight? Assign a whole section to clearing duty? “That’s a quarter of my men. It will decrease my attacking strength.”

“Your men will attack better if they aren’t slowed down by having to clear every shelter. But this is not just a duty assignment. Don’t assign one of your existing sections or rotate the duty amongst them. Pick the right NCO to command the cleaners. Pick the right men. You need killers; not your nice farm boy who follows along bravely in the attack but fires his rifle high because he doesn’t really want to kill anyone. These men will be clearing rooms. Not every Poilu is going to like that.

“Once you have the right men, you’ll need to train them differently. Each squad in the section should learn to fight independently. That way you can assign a squad of cleaners to follow each section of attacking infantry. They also need to be armed for close quarters fighting. Rifles and bayonets will only get in the way in a bunker. Have your supply sergeant to talk to division and tell them I approved you to form a cleaner section. They’ll need hand grenades, revolvers, and knives. The supply situation is wretched, but they’ll do what they can for you. The 104th Regiment is being rotated out of the front line for a bit to recover from Tuesday’s attacks, so you’ll have some time for the training and equipment issues.”

Henri nodded. What he thought of these suggestions he wasn’t yet sure, but he must at least show outward assent. If the in the end decided to ignore the advice… Well, this fellow would probably be promoted to some other duty soon enough, and perhaps he’d even remember which company commanders had obediently listened to his ideas.

“I know it sounds like a great deal of change, I know.” Captain Vasseur leaned forward and spoke in a lower tone. “I wouldn’t throw all this any every officer. But I see from your file that you were a professional soldier before going to the reserves. These mixed function companies are the future. The army needs our most experienced officers to test these tactics and tell us what they learn. We’ll have to learn a new kind of fighting if we’re to defeat an enemy dug ten meters into the ground.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Chapter 1-3

This took a little longer than I'd hoped. I guess I'm still getting into the swing on turning out wordcount. I am, however, pretty pleased with the results.

Incidentally, the events in this chapter are drawn very closely from an incident in the WW1 diary which future priest Yves Congar wrote as a young French boy living under occupation in Sedan.

This concludes Chapter 1. Chapter 2 will focus on Henri.


Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. May 13th, 1915. Pascal returned home on a Saturday afternoon. Even before his call of, “I’m home!” brought his sisters thundering and squealing down the stairs, he received his first greeting from Yves. The dog had been lying on the entrance rug wondering when someone would think to take him out for a walk. When the young master opened the door, Yves was instantly upon his feet, barking excitedly, and then clambering up to rest his paws on Pascal’s shoulders while showering his face with doggy affection.

It was a sight which caused Philomene a pang when she arrived a moment later to greet her son with her own maternal hugs and kisses. “Not tonight,” she told Grandpere, as Pascal went up to his room to change from his dirty work clothes. “There will be time to tell him tomorrow.”

Louis shrugged. “No longer, then. We’ll have to get it over with.”

It had only been two weeks, and Pascal seemed already to have changed. Could he have become taller? He was certainly browner. And yet there was still so much of the boy about him. He played with his sisters, leading them in the backyard adventures which had been listless without him. And he romped with Yves so happily that Philomene felt it weighing upon her heart.

The dog, only two years younger than Pascal himself, and thus in the children’s mind as established a member of the family as any of them, had become the most difficult resident of the household to maintain. Before the war, the pork butcher, Monsieur Jobart, had often thrown in a pound of scraps for Yves without charge when filling the family’s order for meat. Now meat of any kind was becoming scarce, and there were people who were eager to pay good prices for the scraps which before had gone to Yves and others of his kind. The family had made attempts to adapt him to a diet of beans and potatoes such as they themselves increasingly lived on, but while he happily ate whatever was put before him, such meals seemed always to make an untimely and catastrophic re-appearance from one end of the dog or the other. And so Yves continued to eat meat, even as the family got less and less. Philomene shuddered at the expense, and felt pangs of guilt when she thought of that some people went hungry in the village even as she fed a dog, but when she saw how tenderly the little girls and Pascal clung to the animal who was a constant from the happy and peaceful days before, she had always relented. Now, however, it was out of her hands.

“There was another requisition announced by the Germans while you were gone,” she told Pascal Sunday evening, after the little girls had gone up to their bed.

“Another labor requisition? When will I have to go?”

“No. Not another labor requisition.” She hesitated. The news would hurt him. And yet, she could see the alarm building in him as she paused. What terrible thing must he be imagining, and what possible good did she do by drawing out the revelation? It would have to happen. Refusing to say the words did not avoid the end. “This is a requisition of dogs. All dogs larger than ten kilograms to be requisitioned for army use. They will take those they want for the army and have the rest destroyed so that they don’t consume excess food. The only exception to the requisition is if we purchase a special license for three hundred francs.”

“We can’t let them take Yves! He’s not a fighting dog. He’s our dog. And he’s French. He doesn’t like Germans.”

“I know.”

“No! This has to stop. We have to--“ He had raised his arms, as if to strike someone, but he turned abruptly away and stalked to the other side of the sitting room, his hands working as if crushing something.

Perhaps two weeks of work in the fields had put new muscles on his boyish frame, or perhaps the absence had allowed her to see changes which had been developing for some time, but as she saw his arms and shoulders working in anger it was clear in a way it had never been before: he was stronger than she. Not yet twelve, still a child in so many ways, but if he were to lose control of himself he was no longer the little boy who in his childish tantrums she had carried kicking and screaming to his room not so many years ago.

“We can hide him,” said Pascal, turning back to her with the light of hope in his face. “I could make a dog house for him out in the woods, and go visit him every day. We could say he ran away.”

“Pascal.”

“We can’t let the take him, Mere. We can’t.”

She could see the tears glistening in his eyes even as he blinked them back, and he was her little boy again. But before she could pull him close and comfort him, she had to tell the worst.

“We would never let them take Yves. He’s not the kind of dog they would keep anyway. They would only put him down. But we also can’t pay the Germans three hundred francs, which would only go to help their war effort. It would be like buying them bullets to shoot at Father. Even if it weren’t for that, meat is harder to come by every week, and he’s an old dog who can’t get used to eating other things.”

He was shaking his head. He seemed to know what was coming, and the tears in his eyes accused her.

“Grandpere and I talked about this a great deal, and we agree that there is only one choice. We must have Doctor Durand put him down. It will be painless. He will be here with us. He has had a long life. It is the kindest thing we can do.”

Pascal was snuffling unashamedly, and smeared the back of his hand across his nose. “But we’d be killing him. We can’t kill Yves. You wouldn’t have the doctor kill me to keep me from working for the Germans.”

“Come here.” She tried to pull him close, but he shook himself away. “We love him very much, Pascal, but he is a dog, not a person. If we have to choose between meat for him and meat for people, if we have to choose between having him die peacefully with us or letting him die scared and alone with the Germans, we have a duty to give him a quiet, happy end. He can’t understand suffering. God has given us the duty to decide for him.”

She tried again to take her son in her arms and comfort him, but he turned away. Instead he sat on the floor and cried muffled sobs into the well-worn cushion of Grandpere’s chair.

“It’s not fair. It’s not right. We’ll be murdering him.”

She sat down next to him and ran her hand over his hair. “I’m sorry. I know. I love him too. He’s a good dog.”

Pascal’s head came up from the cushion suddenly and he turned red rimmed eyes on her. “I hate you. You’re killing my dog, and I hate you.”

Before she could reply he ran from the room. She heard his feet pounding up the stairs and then the slam of his door. She thought of going up to try again to talk to him, but perhaps what he needed more than anything was time.

She put the house in order and went upstairs. Standing, for a moment, outside of Pascal’s little room, she could hear muffled sobs from within.

Back in her own room, settled in her own bed, the candle out and the darkness drawing round, the cold cruelty of it all seemed to crawl in next to her filling with its malign presence the place where Henri should have been, the source of strength and warmth that belonged next to her.

How could this be happening? After so many people had died, after her own husband had been taken she knew not where, why was she crying over a dog? And yet she did. Death and separation had come before, but always from outside. Now she was forced to take an active hand in ending a life. And however well she had braced herself against the quiet, loyal place that Yves had filled in their family for nearly ten years, the look of sadness, anger, and betrayal which her son had turned on her was not one which could be easily dismissed.

***


The day came all too soon. Pascal had slept only fitfully. As soon as the window was brightening with daylight he got up and dressed. He found Yves sleeping in his usual place, on an old blanket by the kitchen door. The dog looked up and focused large brown eyes on him, but did not rise.

Pascal crouched down and stroked the dog’s soft ears, one brown, one white.

“Shall we take a walk, while it’s still early?”

The returning gaze was soft, but without comprehension. Part of the cruelty was that the dog could not know why this morning was important, could not treasure this last walk together. Or perhaps that was a kindness. In school they had read about Iphigeneia, the Greek princess sacrificed to the gods by her father, King Agamemnon, so that the Greeks could have a favorable wind to sail and attack Troy. Surely she must have looked at her father on the last day with fear and hatred, but with Yves there was only trust.

“Come on.” He pulled gently at the dog’s collar, and after a moment’s confused resistance Yves got to his feet and shook himself.

It was not usual for the boy to want to go out so early. Many days, when the boy was home from school and crouched next to Grandpere’s chair in the sitting room reading one of the books from the shelf, Yves had to nuzzle and prod him repeatedly before he could persuade the boy to take him outside. But if today the boy wanted to go out early, Yves would shake the growing stiffness from his limbs and go out to see what sights and smells awaited.

The streets were mostly empty in the peaceful morning light. Yves nosed and looked about just as always, but Pascal turned back often to look at his companion, trying to imprint on his mind each moment so that he could recall it later: Yves sniffing at a beetle that walked along the paving stones, Yves pausing to scratch an ear, Yvet watching wrapt as a squirrel jumped from one tree to another.

A pair of German soldiers, out walking early, saw the two of them. One of them waved while the other called to the dog and tried to make enticing clicking noises at him. Pascal remained outwardly calm, even returned the wave, but seethed with anger. How dare they call to Yves when it was because of them he must die?

He turned aside into the Mourat Orchard, where he and Baptiste had so often played before the war. On a hot August day last year, he had taken his lead soldiers here and played out the triumphs and tragedies of a great battlefield struggle, even as miles to the north the real French army was facing the invading Germans. How long ago all that was now.

Yves was nosing at something, and Pascal approached to find a cache of items left by someone else seeking privacy in the garden: two empty wine bottles, a few cigarette butts, and a hair ribbon.

It had been by no means unusual to find such signs of assignation in the orchard before the war, but the knowledge that this was almost certainly from a German turned it from tawdry to disgusting and spoiled the orchard as a place of privacy.

On the way home, they stopped by Monsieur Jobart’s butcher shop, and Pascal purchased a packet of scraps for the last time. Yves watched, quiet and well-behaved, his frantically wagging tail the only sign that betrayed his excitement as Madame Jobart wrapped the scraps in paper and tied the package with a string. Once home, Pascal spilled the scraps onto a dish and watched as Yves eagerly wolfed them down.

Doctor Durand arrived in the mid-morning. He was a small man with thick white hair, and a voice barely above a whisper. Yves at first glared at him and whined, recalling earlier and unhappy times spent with him, but with soft words and gentle hands the veterinarian soon reassured his patient.

“You don’t have to watch if you don’t want to,” his mother told him. The little girls were both hiding in the nursery. Pascal, however, knew his duty was here, even as his throat felt so choked with held-back tears that breathing was difficult.

“You’re a very brave boy,” said Doctor Durand. “And I can see he trusts you. Here, will you hold his head in your lap and talk to him while I give him the shot? Really, this will not hurt him at all. For you and me, very bad perhaps. But for him, it will only feel like going to sleep.”

For Yves’s sake, Pascal remained stoic until the veterinarian told him that it was all over. Only then did he lay his face against the dog’s still warm flank and cry.

***

“We have to hold a funeral for Yves,” said Charlotte. Funerals had been the tender-hearted seven year old’s passion for nearly a year. Whenever she found some small creature suitable for her tragic instincts -- a mouse some cat had finished with, a fallen nestling, sometimes merely a large beetle -- she insisted on holding a ceremony, digging a small hole, then placing flowers on the mound and providing speeches and prayers of her own imagining.

“This isn’t one of your games,” Pascal told her.

“But Yves is a hero of France. He died because of the Germans. He has to have a funeral.”

There was a justice to this. In the numbness that had filled the day, he had not thought about what was to be done with the body that was lying under a blanket in Grandpere’s stock room. Surely Yves deserved some final recognition for having given all rather than help the Germans.

Pascal found Grandpere sitting behind the counter in the shop. “What are you going to do with Yves’s body?”

“Well.” Grandpere scratched at his chin, patted down his pockets, pulled out his pipe, then put it away again. “He’s not a small dog, Pascal. Durand said I should take him down to Monsieur Oudin.”

“To be carted away like bones from the butcher shops and made into glue?”

“I don’t say I like it, but what can we do?”

“We should give him a proper burial.”

Grandpere spread his hands. “I’m sorry, but he’s a good sized dog. We’d need to dig quite a deep hole, and we couldn’t do it in the garden for fear of attracting animals.”

“I’ll do it.” Pascal drew himself up in ready to defy any gainsaying. “I’m not afraid of work. I did plenty of digging for the Germans on labor requisition. I can dig for Yves.”

“There’s still the matter of attracting animals.”

“We’ll go somewhere else. We won’t bury him in the garden.”

“All right.” Grandpere shrugged. Perhaps this final service was what the boy needed to reach some peace with the painful necessity. “You can take my big shovel and the wheelbarrow.”

The funeral procession set off down the Rue des Remparts a little while later. Pascal pushed the wheelbarrow. In it, Yves was draped in his blanket, across which the little girls had scattered flowers. Charlotte carried Grandpere’s garden shovel, taller than she was, over her shoulder. Lucie Marie brought up the rear, carrying a discarded glass jar filled with water and more flowers.

The first place that Pascal had thought of was the belt of trees to the north of town where Baptiste had been accidentally shot and killed by German soldiers. It seemed appropriate that Yves stand eternal guard over the place his friend had been slain. But when he recalled the rifle shots ringing out across the fields, it became clear that he should not take his little sisters there. Where was a safe place within the town boundaries?

He had settled on the abandoned Mourat Orchard where he and Yves had rambled that same morning. There was a clearing on the east side where he could dig without running into tree roots, and the grey stone wall could serve as a headstone.

As Grandpere had predicted the digging took a long time, but it was work that Pascal was hardened to after the last few weeks. The girls wandered among the trees and collected more flowers.

At last all was ready, and they gathered solemnly to give Yves his last respects. It seemed wrong to shovel dirt directly on him, so Pascal lowered the dog into the hole still wrapped in the old blanked which had for many years served as his bed. It was so faded and redolent of doggy smells that perhaps Mother would not object to its being used as a shroud.

For a moment, as the body settled on the uneven bottom of the grave, one back leg with its glossy brown fur came uncovered and lay against the bare earth. No wonder people were buried in coffins. There was something so desperately sad about seeing a once living limb against the dirt. Pascal reached down and tucked the blanket snuggly around the body. His throat was suddenly tight and he didn’t trust his voice. Instead he nodded to Charlotte who, accustomed to improvised prayers for animals, assured God that Yves had always been a good dog and would always do what he was told if he were allowed into heaven. Pascal could not afterwards remember the words, so much as the conversational tone of the small voice saying them. What he did remember long after, with perfect clarity, was how after a moment’s silence, she became to sing in pure high tones.

“Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé!”

The Marseillaise, along with the Tricolor, had been banned since the occupation. And yet what better tribute could there be to a dog who had died loyal to France. Grandpere had always said it was a filthy song of revolutionaries and atheists, but Pascal had seen him take off his hat and join in when the children’s choir had sung it at the fete, that warm summer night when the announcement of mobilization had arrived.

After the first lines Charlotte began to stumble, clearly not knowing the words as well, but Pascal joined her and together they finished strong, a fitting tribute to the hero dog.

“What’s all this? That song if forbidden.”

Caught up in their farewell to Yves, they had not seen the three soldiers, one with a gefreiter’s red and gold tabs on his tunic, approaching through the trees.

“Well, boy?” the NCO asked, pointing at Pascal. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Pascal swallowed, trying to fight down panic. He mustn’t let any harm come to the girls. If someone had to be punished, it should be him.

“It’s my fault, sir. I’m sure they don’t even know all the words.”

“But what are you doing?” the German persisted.

“We’re burying our dog, sir. He had to be put down because of the requisition.” Was it wrong to admit this? The tragedy of losing Yves had weighed so heavily it had not occurred to him until this moment to wonder whether having their dog put down to avoid the requisition was itself a crime.

“Because of the requisition, eh?” The officer seemed to be contemplating the same question.

“We were singing the song because Yves died a hero of France,” announced Charlotte, in a surprisingly carrying voice. “He died like a soldier, so we had to give him a soldier’s funeral.”

Pascal would have stopped her if he could have, but the words poured out as he listened helpless. He had just a moment to imagine the soldiers marching all three of them off to jail, and to wonder how he could ever explain to Mother that he had allowed this to happen to his sisters, when the gefreiter burst into laugher. The two soldiers looked between their officer and the children for a moment, until he recovered enough to explain to them in German, “She says their dog is a French soldier, so they had to give him a soldier’s funeral!”

The other two howled with laughter in their turn. “We’re fighting an army of dogs, lads. That explains everything!”

Slapping each other on the back and still laughing, the three soldiers ambled away into the trees.

For a long moment the children stood looking after them. Then Pascal began silently to shovel the dirt back into the hole.


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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Chapter 1-2

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. March 30th, 1915 The one person who had been distinctly unsatisfied with the resolution to the relief committee question was Madame Perreau, but she was someone who had a gift for sharing her feelings with others. After a campaign of conversational needling waged every morning and evening over the dining room table -- a sequence of battles whose first casualty was Justin Perreau’s wife, who began to take her meals in the nursery with the children in order avoid her mother-in-law -- Justin at last promised his mother to speak to the commandant.

It was at the end of a long day that Justin was ushered into Major Spellmeyer’s office -- what had in peacetime been the mayor’s office -- and stood before the big mahogany desk. Justin’s own office was small, a room once inhabited by the town clerk. The commandant did not look up as Justin was announced by the orderly, and the mayor had time to wonder if the timing of his visit would prejudice his results. Still, it was too late to flee. He planted his feet firmly, overcoming the nervous urge to shift his weight from foot to foot, and tried to focus his mind on the peace that would return to his home once Madame Perreau’s sense of injustice had been relieved.

The commandant signed the document he had been reading with a satisfied flourish and favored Justin with a smile. “A long week, and it’s just Tuesday! Can I offer you a drink, Mister Mayor?”

He pulled open a desk drawer and brought out a bottle of cognac. It was not a luxury that was easy to come by. Surely it was a good sign as to the level of respect the commandant had for him that he was willing to share something of which there could be no more supply so long as the war lasted. The Cognac region was on the other side of the lines, and so it was necessary to conserve what bottles were left or develop a taste for German Schnapps, or American Rum or Whiskey.

Major Spellmeyer took a pair of tumblers out of the drawer and splashed large portions of the amber liquid into them. Justin was shocked at how generously the major poured.

“Thank you, Major.” He accepted the glass, which must have held twice as much as a proper cognac class would have. Nor was it a cheap vintage. Rather than any harsh taste his first sip offered a refined bloom of well aged flavors.

“I just had three cases of this seized,” said the commandant, knocking his glass back with a casual glug that genuinely shocked his guest. Without a pause the officer refilled his own glass before corking the bottle and putting it back in the drawer. “Smugglers, God bless them. There’ll be a commendation for suppressing illegal activity, no ill will from the local citizens, and a goddamn good deal to drink, eh?”

He knocked back the second glass, unfastened the top brass buttons of his tunic, and leaned back in his chair. “Yes, now that’s nice. All right, Mayor. Tell me what it is you wanted to see me about.”

The thing had seemed so easy when Justin had rehearsed it in his mind earlier in the day, one man of authority asking another for a little favor. Now he came to it, however, the mayorship his mother’s force of will had won for him from the Germans, a position that he had at for years dreamed of as a fitting proof that he was a worthy holder of the family name, long before the war put it suddenly into his hands, did nothing to increase his sense of dignity and confidence and he stood before this foreigner. He felt more like a schoolboy, standing before the headmaster to ask for some undeserved privilege.

“It’s about this relief committee, sir,” he said. He found himself shifting from one foot to the other, exactly the boyish habit he had been seeking to avoid. “I’d had my doubts about the Serre woman as an administrator, but the other committee members overruled me. Now as she begins her work I am more than ever convinced she was a poor choice.”

“Is she dishonest?”

Justin spread his hands. “No, not dishonest. She’s all too zealous in the execution of her duties. To read the reports she has compiled, we’re a town of paupers. It’s embarrassing to the town’s reputation.” On consideration, this attack on Madame Serre’s conduct as administrator had seemed the best way to suggest a replacement, far more dignified than to baldly assert his mother wished she had received the post instead. And now for the subtle bait, “I think that if someone else,” he gave these words a little extra emphasis to make his meaning clear, “had been given the post it would have been administered in a more responsible fashion.”

The lids of the commandant’s eyes had become heavy, and he sat with steepled fingers, not responding. Justin wondered if the quickly slugged cognac had made of the officer sleepy, but in fact Major Spellmeyer was very much aware. The wordless regard focused on Mayor Perreau was the same attention which many a businessman had faced when trying to renew a loan, and in Spellmeyer’s experience, if such a man had a guilty conscience, the silent gaze would soon make him give himself away by explaining more than he had to.

The silence became unbearable. “She has almost a quarter of the town listed as requiring relief,” Justin said. “What will the Americans think? That we are all poor? That under your administration we are being starved? Surely for the honor of the town--”

Major Spellmeyer waved the concern away. “The honor of the town can take care of itself, I think. What is it Christ said? Let the dead bury their dead?”

The phrase was jarring. “The dead?”

“Your town is defeated, Perreau.”

The commandant’s tone was sharp now; he leaned forward in his chair. Justin felt the omission of any title before his name.

“It’s a harsh word, defeat, but what more can one say?” The words were coming easily to Major Spellmeyer, indeed he had several times had occasion to deliver a similar oration to businessmen: You are bankrupt, sir. Insolvent. There is no good being afraid of the word. “Industry is at a standstill, many of the working men are away with the French army, and our own army is expending considerable resources to provide order, which in turn makes it necessary for us to requisition supplies. If the Americans and whatever other neutral parties they can muster find it in their hearts to feed a quarter of the town -- even half! -- why should we object?”

It was not at all the response he had expected. “Then you would have the town throw itself at the feet of America for food? They’re allied with Britain in all but name. If the town’s honor is of no account, how about German honor?”

“German honor will be best suited by winning the war.” Major Spellmeyer leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. “I’m no grand strategist, Monsieur Mayor, but I do know a few things about commerce, so allow me to tell you about war as I understand it. At this very moment, the British Navy is doing its very best to starve my country. They are stopping ships that are carrying food to Germany, even civilian ships from neutral countries. And what does that mean? It means that some day soon, if the war is not won yet, we will have to decide who gets the food, my mother back at home or our soldiers on the front line. If Madame Serre and the committee report that the town is in great need to help, and if the Americans are thus inspired to send food which the British do not stop because it is meant for poor starving Frenchmen, do you know what the means? It means I can send off a nice full train full of all the food grown here in Chateau Ducloux to feed Mother back at home. And the food grown back in Prussia can be shipped to the troops. Once all the trains have stopped moving, the Americans will have fed the German army, and the British will have allowed food through their blockade that goes to help the men who will defeat them in the spring.”

Now it was Justin’s turn to sit staring without words.

“But tell me,” Spellmeyer asked, leaning back again in his chair with a supremely satisfied expression. “Is it the honor of the town which is so very much at stake, or is it simply that your esteemed mother has not yet reconciled to another woman being the relief’s administrator?”

Justin nodded.

“Well,” the commandant went on. “I can’t think that it’s been easy for you. But you’ll have to bear up, and consider it your contribution to the war effort. Tell your mother this honor is not for her. We’re all the better off having this at arm’s length from the town government, and letting Madame Serre do her best for the deserving poor, all the better since she had no idea the service she’s doing us.”

The defeat was total. Justin nodded and turned to go.

“Wait!” Major Spellmeyer said, getting up from his chair and coming around the desk.

Justin stopped but did not reply.

“I can’t imagine it will be very comfortable at home for a bit,” the commandant said. “I’m going to host a little gathering tonight. Mostly officers. A friend or two. Some feminine companionship if you know what I mean.” He smiled and winked in a manner worthy of a comic opera. “How about if you join the throng. There’s this contraband cognac to celebrate, and a few other delicacies we relieved the criminal element of as well. Why not?” He clapped a hand onto Justin’s shoulder.

It would indeed be a dismal evening at home, the more so when he reported his failure to mother. And yet in the commandant’s invitation he saw, for the first time, with utter clarity how this appointed office of his would be seen afterwards should his own country somehow win the war. He was being invited to join the enemy in enjoying the spoils of war, and the invitation was only being offered because he was already considered practically one of the enemies himself.

His fellow citizens would not think kindly of him, indeed already did not.

“No, I’m sorry. I must be at home tonight,” he replied.

The commandant nodded, hearing from the tone that the refusal was for more than this night. Justin was not again invited to join what became known as the commandant’s Round Table. But the revel, which became a weekly institution, was already on its way to becoming a fixture of the week for the occupation forces.

***

Spring had came, with its lengthening days and dreary rain. It was the time for plowing and planting. Nature’s inherent bounty was unchanged by the war, but nature left to herself does not produce the fields of grain, potatoes, beans, turnips, and sugar beets which feed men and livestock. Too many of the men who in peacetime worked the fields were gone -- either lying under wooden crosses on the fields of the autumn’s battles, or manning the French side of the battle lines which stretched from the Swiss border to the Atlantic. If the farms around Chateau Ducloux were to yield up their harvest for the benefit of Frenchmen and occupiers alike, something had to be done.

Philomene heard the sound of the front door, but not the usual clatter of Pascal running through the hall. She put down the potato and vegetable brush and dried her hands on her apron as she stepped out of the kitchen. From upstairs she could hear the voices of Charlotte and Lucie Marie playing with their dolls. No one else should be coming or going this time of day.

“Pascal?”

There was a dull thud of Pascal dropping his school satchel on the floor, and her son stepped slowly out of the entry hall, holding a folded piece of paper in his hands.

“I’m home, mother.”

He bent and folded the paper nervously in his hands. Was it a letter from the teacher, or even the principal? Had he got into some kind of trouble? In the fall, when the boys had defaced the door of a teacher they suspected of consorting with the Germans, a German officer had come to the door of every boy in Pascal’s to warn parents of the consequences of further misbehavior. Pascal did not meet her eyes, but looked down at his hands.

“Do you have something for me?”

He nodded and held out the paper. “It’s not just me. It’s not any kind of discipline. All the boys my age and older got one. Orders from the commandant.”

The sheet was printed, a proclamation rather than a letter.
Due to the lack of agricultural workers, all boys aged 10 through 16 are subject to periodic labor requisition effective immediately.

Those within that age range will report for spring planting duties from April 5th through April 16th. Work will be supervised by their teachers, and food and lodging will be provided.

Boys subject to requisition must report to the town hall on the morning of April 5th in clothes suitable for working and bring no more than one small bag. Failure to report for labor requisition is punishable by a fine of 250 francs or by imprisonment of parents or guardians.

Philomene stared at the paper. “They are going to make our children work in the fields? What are we to them? Natives that they can round up and put to work at will?”

Pascal shrugged and looked down at his shoes. His chin had the slight tremble which, a few years before, might have presaged silent tears. Philomene made her own thoughts quiet and put her hands on his shoulders. He was still thin, his frame boyish, and still several inches shorter than she. How could they force a boy so young to leave his home and work in the fields for nearly two weeks? It was wrong and cruel, like everything that came with this war. But she must not frighten or upset him further.

“It’s wrong,” she said, schooling her voice to make it calm and even. “They treat us unjustly. But you will be all right. It says right there your teachers will be there to look after you.”

“Will--” The word came out as a half sob, and she saw her son stop and force his features into order before speaking again. “Will I be betraying Father?”

“Betraying Father? No! How could you do that?”

“By working for the Germans. Will I be helping their army fight father? I’d to anything instead of that. I could run away. I could live in the woods. I could fight. I could--”

“No.” She gave the word firmness, and she could see Pascal’s shoulders relax. “You will not be serving their army or betraying your father or your country. You’ll be helping to grow the food we all need to live. That’s honest work. There is no betrayal in that.”

Pascal nodded and surreptitiously wiped at his eye with the back of his hand. “All right. I couldn’t do it if I was betraying Father. But if it’s just work… I can work to support the town just as well as anything else can. Even for the Boches.”

After a long sniff, and scrubbing at his nose with the back of a hand, Pascal shook off his mother’s hands and dashed off with his customary energy.

There was something reassuring in how easy it was to restore the boy’s spirits, and yet when she looked at the printed notice she still held in her hands, a cold emptiness replaced her stomach.

“There’s nothing we can do,” her father said, late that night in the sitting room.

“I know.” She had not told him because she expected him to offer a solution. They were trapped in the same position, both parents, both unable to shield their children from the effects of war and occupation. It seemed that similarity should draw them closer together, and yet it was irritation she felt with Louis, for stating the obvious and painful fact.

“He’s a big boy, you know. A good boy too. He’ll be all right.”

It was more than Philomene could stand, and as soon as politeness would allow she complained that she was tired and went to bed.

There, in the darkness, the empty place in bed next to her seemed to cry out as never before. Henri would have understood the particular desperation which had hold of her. She did not want to be told what to do; there was nothing to be done. Her son -- this boy, this small person who had been created inside of her, whom she had nursed and held close and seen gradually yet startlingly turn into a creature that showed unexpected flashes of manhood -- he was to be taken from her and sent to do work in the fields under the eyes of German soldiers carrying guns.

Who knew what sort of other boys he would be thrown in with. “All boys aged 10 through 16” the notice had said. Surely that meant not only the boys from the school but the boys who lived in workers shanties down by the lime pits and the cement factory. What would they be talking about at night? What would they teach her son?

And yet there was no way to protest, no course of action. The event was as unexpected and as inevitable as a cancer: one day everything normal, the next “Madame, I regret that I have some very serious news to give you,” and from there the creeping inevitability, no cure, no treatment.

Henri would have understood this and held her in his arms and said, “Our son.”

But no. The cancer, the cruel inevitability which possessed the whole world, had him in its grips too. Henri had been taken to serve with the army. Now Pascal had to serve in this labor requisition. What else before it was all over?

It was in the small hours of the morning before she was able to fall asleep that night, and the question, the fear, the helplessness continued to gnaw away like a tumor, with her always, until the following Monday when Pascal left the house early wearing an old set of clothes and a cast off overcoat of Grandpere’s. In his bag were two changes of clothing and also a loaf of bread in case they did not give him enough food.

Philomene kissed him and held him close for a moment, but felt him tensing with embarrassment that his mother was making a scene on the doorstep. And then he was walking away down the grey morning street. Her only son, going to work under the eyes of the enemy.

Louis put a hand on her shoulder and told her that it would be all right, but she shook the touch away and went to the kitchen where she could be alone with the yawning despair of helplessness. She tried to pray, but words did not come. Nor did tears. Before the morning was over she had scoured and polished every pot in the cupboards, and her hands were cracked and bleeding with the unaccustomed work.

***

There was pushing and words exchanged as the boys moved through the line to get their dinner, a stew seemingly made from all the leavings of a cellar: potatoes, beans, carrots, turnips, and here and there small fragments of the salt pork which gave it flavor. Whatever its failures in taste, there was a great deal of it in the pot, and the farmwife in whose fields the boys had worked the day ladled it into Pascal’s tin bowl until it was full.

His back ached. His shoulders ached. The heat of the tin bowl reached through and seared his hands on the two spots where blisters had popped and left tender raw skin exposed.

Pascal found a spot to sit away from the others and balanced the bowl on his lap. That morning, in the square in front of the town hall, German NCOs had divided the boys into working parties. He had been standing with Lucien and the other boys from his class, with the result that when they were asked to count off they had all been assigned to different groups. There were ten boys in his work party, of which the three he recognized from school were all at least two years older. The boys his own age were poorly dressed: peasants or children of the workers from the cement factory, many of whom went to the smaller school near the worker settlement outside of town and stopped going at all when they reached the age of thirteen and were no longer required to by law.

These boys had seemed much more in their element during the day. One had coaxed a handful of cigarettes out of one of the Germans and shared them with the other boys over lunch. Pascal had tried one and immediately fallen into a coughing fit, which he tried to excuse with, “I’m not used to these. Grandpere and father only smoke cigars and pipes.”

“Don’t lie. I bet a nice town boy like you has never smoked before.”

“I’m not lying. They don’t smoke cigarettes. I’m not used to them.”

“Have you ever smoked at all?”

He had wanted to retort, but the thought of Pere Lebas and the wooden box of a confessional held him back from directly saying what was not true. Saying that his father didn’t smoke cigarettes and letting them think this meant Pascal was used to a pipe or cigar was something he could excuse to himself, but there was too much training against untruth for him to lie so directly over a matter of mere prestige. Instead he had turned away and throughout the rest of the day he had kept mostly to himself, as he did now over his dinner.

A commotion drew Pascal’s attention back to the other boys.

“Take it back!” shouted a short and wiry, dark-haired boy named Denis. He shoved an older boy, half a head taller than himself, and shouted again. “You’re a liar. Take it back!”

The bigger boy, who significantly outweighed his opponent, absorbed another shove, then drew back suddenly as Denis was trying to shove him again. Off balance, Denis lurched forward, and the bigger boy gave him a shove which sent him to the ground.

“Why should I take it back?” the older boy asked. “Your mother is a whore. A Boche-loving whore.”

With a yell of wordless rage Denis launched himself from the ground and flew at the other boy. This was not like the schoolyard fights Pascal had seen and occasionally joined in, administered by an honor code according to rules gleaned from tales of heroic prize fighters in the boys magazines that were passed around at lunch. Denis attacked with the ferocity of a brawling cat, punching, kicking, hair pulling, biting, his fingers trying to tear at nose and eyes. The older boy was briefly driven back, then doubled the smaller boy over with a punch to the gut, kicked his feet out from under him, and dropped bodily onto him, bringing his weight to bear while raining punches on the boy’s ribs with his free hand.

Even without knowing the origin of the argument, Pascal felt strongly the urge to help Denis. What cause could be more just than defending a mother’s honor? He started to put his bowl aside, but already the two German soldiers who had been their supervisors during the day were rushing in, shouting in their own guttural language and pulling the struggling boys apart.

The NCO gathered all the boys together and delivered a collective scolding, though it fell on even more deaf ears than the instructions of an occupier might anyway because after saying with careful emphasis, “This fighting is forbidden. I will not allow it,” he lapsed into rapid German in order to express himself at more length. Afterwards the boys were given five minutes to finish their dinner in silence before being sent to bed, which in this case meant the hayloft in the barn.

Outside the sun was setting, and little enough light filtered into the barn through the wooden planks of the walls, but no lantern was allowed inside due to the risk of fire. The boys climbed the ladder to the hayloft in semi-darkness and clambered around to find places of relative comfort.

While looking for a place to sleep, Pascal came upon Denis. The small, dark boy had been making a noise very like crying, but he immediately stopped as Pascal rustled through the hay towards him. Denis glared at him. Even in the dim light he could see that he had several cuts on his face and puffy bruises still forming.

“That was brave the way you protected your mother’s honor,” Pascal said.

Denis gave something between a snort and growl and turned away.

Pascal hesitated. He wanted to say that he would have helped if the Germans had not rushed in so quickly, but claiming credit for such a non-action seemed empty. “I’m sure she’d be proud,” he offered instead.

“I hate her.” The words came out in a near sob. Then in a stronger voice, “I wish Father could come back and deal with her.”

What had seemed a simple chance to express solidarity with a boy who had fought for his family’s honor had proved to be more murky waters.

“I’m sorry. My father is away with the army too.”

“My father was killed.”

“I’m sorry.” The words felt hollow. Silence drew out for a moment. Should he leave? It was uncomfortable to stay where another’s pain was so clearly exposed. And yet would leaving itself be cowardly?

He stayed. In the dimness of the hayloft the sounds of movement and talking began to die down. Despite the early hour, exhaustion after the day’s work was taking its toll. Pascal lay on top of the old overcoat of Grandpere’s which provided some protection from the prickles of the hay. The smell which the hay gave off -- half summer field, half dusty room -- was comforting.

“Does your family have Germans quartered with you?” Denis asked from the darkness.

“No.”

“Lucky. We don’t have any with Grandmere, but she lives in a one room cottage. There’s no room for soldiers. She took us to live with her because she said we shouldn’t have to live with mother’s shame. You can’t escape a thing like that, though. I have to fight those Goddamn bullies all the time because of what they say about mother. I can’t let them say it, even if it’s true. But it’s her fault.”

Pascal could think of nothing to say, and perhaps in the quiet darkness Denis was no so much talking to him as confessing what he could not normally say to anyone.

“The worst was during February. Grandmere ran out of coal and we couldn’t afford more if we were to eat. Mother found out, and she’d meet me once a week and give me a bucket of coal. I told Grandmere I was stealing it from the Germans, and she said as long as I didn’t get caught, stealing from thieves as no crime. But I know mother got it straight from that Goddamn sergeant of hers. And I think Grandmere suspected as much, but we needed it so badly she couldn’t say no.” Another drawn out pause, and then Denis concluded in a whisper. “One of these days I’ll find a way, and I’ll kill one of these Boches.”

Read the next installment...

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Chapter 1-1

It's good to be back, friends, and here at long last is the first installment of Volume Two: The Blood-Dimmed Tide. This volume covers 1915 and 1916 and is, like the first volume, twenty chapters long, with each chapter broken into several installments.

Now that things are rolling, I hope to have the next installment up within a week or two.


Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. February 16th, 1915
Through some administrative oversight no one was on the platform to meet the new German commandant as he stepped off the 9:18 train from Sedan, the ample stomach under his military overcoat giving him the look of a field gray ninepin. There was something ridiculous, something trivial, about this event in comparison to what had come before: the men called up into the army, the refugees streaming south, the Germans who had occupied the town and set up their headquarters in the town hall. There was no hint that his tenure would end under a cloud of accusations that his corruption and incompetence had led to the unnecessary execution of two of the town’s prominent citizens -- accusations of sufficient volume and gravity that the occupation authorities were forced to make a rare gesture to public opinion and move him to another assignment.

A freezing drizzle was falling. The new commandant’s orderly shouted and gestured at the station master while Major Spellmeyer himself stood with his umbrella, sheltering his luggage from the rain. It was new luggage, covered in tan leather and fastened with polished brass buckles. He had purchased them to celebrate his promotion to the temporary reserve officer rank of Major. The suitcases were of the same design and finish as the ones that he had seen the bank’s vice president use when he had arrived from Königsberg to visit their branch. And here, through the slackness of this first assignment, their pristine finish was being spotted with rain. He would bring some order to this posting, that he resolved.

When at last the station master secured some transportation for them it was not a car or a taxi, such as the Major had expected, but an open farm cart. By the time they reached the town hall Spellmeyer was furious, and his new luggage was mottled all over from the rain.

He tried to make this displeasure clear to Major Dressler as the two men met to hand over the command of the town, but the regular army officer who had been the town’s commandant since August and who far surpassed Spellmeyer in both experience and seniority, being a professional officer with the permanent rank of major (even if an old one recalled from retirement) raised a hand to silence the new officer. For a moment the silence drew out between them, and Spellmeyer had time to reflect on how imprudent it would be to offend this man who was doubtless destined for promotion and a frontline command.

“It was an oversight,” said Dressler, shrugging the matter away. “There is a motor car in town and we have requisitioned it for army use. You will have it at your disposal in the future.”

Major Spellmeyer gave a nod combined with a slight bow and tucked away the lesson for future use: An officer does not apologize to his inferiors.

He must remember that. At the bank even the branch manager had not been so secure. The eddies of politics within the bank hierarchy were unpredictable. The man who was under you today might be promoted to some higher place tomorrow. In Dressler’s calm reserve Spellmeyer saw something nearly regal. He must learn to cultivate this himself. He was in command of a bataillon now -- a depleted, picked over, reserve bataillon with well under a thousand men, but a bataillon nonetheless, and the responsibility for governing a town and its environs as well. There was far more scope here than deciding which merchant’s line of credit should be extended and which should be forced to pay up or provide more collateral.

Major Dressler was talking, offering those thoughts he had not thought it appropriate to put in writing: about who among the French administration could be trusted, about the tactics for successfully conducting requisitions, about the necessity of maintaining some degree of goodwill among the population to ease the difficulties of governing.

“Perhaps this will all come more naturally to you. I hear you’re a man of business, and no doubt that’s what’s required here.”

Spellmeyer nodded gravely and let the words flow over him. No, this would be nothing like business. This would be his kingdom.

***

Nine days later, by contrast, a small crowd was on the platform when the 9:18 from Sedan arrived at the station with a squeal of brakes and a long sigh of released steam. Philomene Fournier, along with Madame Serre, stood just behind Pere Lebas, representatives of the parish. Madame Perreau, who in peaceful times would have stood with them, now took a more prominent place at the front of the crowd next to her son Justin, who had been appointed mayor by the Germans since the elected mayor, Monsieur Binet, had taken the town archives (and his young secretary) to the safety of Reims as the Germans approached.

Philomene shifted from foot to foot, trying to bring some feeling back without losing her balance on the ice-slick paving stones. The weather had turned bitterly cold, but after long hesitation she had left at home her fur-lined coat. There were too many stories of luxuries being requisitioned on sight. The thought of a German officer taking away the coat which Henri had settled on her shoulders with a kiss and a “Merry Christmas, Ma Cher” two years before was unendurable, and so she was wearing her autumn coat instead, her shoulders tensed by the icy wind.

Next to her, Eva Serre coughed, a rough, rattling sound which made Philomene forget her own self pity. The older woman’s coat looked old as well as thin. Was she getting enough food? Had the soldiers quartered in the Serre house displaced her from her room to some drafty attic? Most of the affluent families in town had thus far escaped quartering, a token of solidarity from Mayor Perreau, but when Monsieur Serre had burnt down his cement factory rather than turn it over to the authorities for German war work, he himself had been arrested sent to Germany while their house had been turned into a virtual barracks.

The door of the first class carriage opened and the crowd stirred as a porter stepped down carrying two large suitcases. Then a tall woman appeared in the doorway, nodded to the crowd assembled to meet her, turned up the fur-lined collar of her coat against the wind, and stepped down to the platform.

Mayor Perreau stepped forward and bowed. “Madame Hawthorne, it is my pleasure to welcome you on behalf of Chateau Ducloux.”

The visitor returned the greeting and expressed her thanks in French that was fluent, though slow and strangely accented.

Introductions were made, and Verna Hawthorne insisted upon giving a firm handshake to each one, man or woman. Justin had secured the town’s remaining motor car to take Mrs. Hawthorne to the Perreau house. Once it pulled away in a growl of steam and petrol fumes, the rest of the crowd dispersed, some to return home, those who had been invited to the ladies’ tea in honor of the visitor to make fifteen minute journey on foot.

“If I’d known how close this place was, and that all of you were walking, I would have got my exercise too!” Mrs. Hawthorne declared once the company was reassembled in the Perreau sitting room.

Philomene did not doubt it. The tall visitor was not young. There were lines and folds forming around her eyes and a slight looseness of the skin over her strong cheekbones, yet there was no tiredness or sickness in her at all, and the sense of energy and freshness about her was magnified by the obvious newness of her clothes. The war had come in summer, and there had been no new shipments of clothing or materials. Instead of poring over catalogs from Paris, even the town’s best families had sat up nights mending and cleaning last winter’s clothes. Watching the visitor from America served as a reminder of how quickly peace and comfort had come to look alien.

Madame Perreau poured tea and coffee, encouraging the ladies to help themselves to the little cakes which were piled on a silver tray. Philomene took and and savored each small bite. The cakes were clearly made with white flour and white sugar. Those, along with the generously poured servings of coffee and tea, were a clear sign of both the Perreaus’ wealth and Justin’s connections with the occupation authorities.

“I’m sure this is a poor spread compared to what you are used to in Boston,” Madame Perreau said to their visitor.

Mrs. Hawthorne waved the comment away. “These are delicious. I just can’t thank you enough for your hospitality. I know how hard each little luxury must come these days. I’ve been touring with the CRB for six weeks now, seeing what needs to be done, and do you know, there are towns where they do not even have tea or coffee? It is that bad. I have seen it.”

Philomene saw looks exchanged by the women seated around the room. Few enough of them had any tea or coffee at home. The shelves of the Mertens store had been bare of such things for several months. They could only hope that Madame Perreau’s determination to show off her hospitality (and ability to procure scare supplies) would not keep them for receiving the supplies which rumor had it the Americans where shipping by the boatload to those in need.

“All the official meetings and inspections are later, but I believe that this gathering is the most important that I will have here,” Mrs. Hawthorne said, shifting from a conversational tone to one with a touch of authority which brought all other discussions in the room to a halt. She set her cup and saucer to one side and looked around to make sure that she had the attention of all assembled. “As you know, our mission at the Committee for Relief in Belgium is to help the ordinary people who are deprived of everyday necessities by this cruel war. My country is neutral, but I think here among friends I may say what I believe: that it is a war of aggression, and that we owe those of you suffering under occupation every help that we can provide.

“That’s the Committee’s mission,” she said, her tone going back from lecture to conversation. “Now I’ll tell you my own mission. If there’s one thing that I’ve seen it’s that while the men do the fighting, we women are the ones who suffer most in war. You are the ones trying to feed your families while lacking basic necessities. Now there will be a committee established for this town to oversee the distribution of aid. It will be made of up of leaders from the town, and that invariably means it is mostly men. But there is also an administrator who will be appointed by the committee to lead the daily work of helping those in need. And my little hint to the committee will be that the administrator should be a woman.” She looked significantly around the room. “A respectable and responsible woman who can make sure that our aid goes to help those who are suffering, not to line the pockets of profiteers or help the German war effort. A woman such as one of you.”

***

“Looking around the room, I could see that everyone thought it even before she said it. One of us,” Philomene said in her kitchen that night. “And Madame Perreau’s thoughts were even more clear. She was thinking that she will be the administrator.”

Her father, Louis Mertens, was fingering the unlit butt of a cigar as he sat and watched her work -- putting it between his lips, then taking it out to roll between his fingers again. He was trying to make each cigar last three days, and so he would spend the evening handling the stub before finally smoking it just before he went to bed. “And?” he asked. “Will she be?”

The exchange gave Philomene a sudden pang. She was walking to him as she would have to Henri. Before the war, Grandpere would have gone off in the evening to sit in his threadbare old armchair in the sitting room, taken a pipe or cigar from his tobacco cabinet, and sat there quietly reading while she and Henri talked. Where was Henri now?

She put the thought away. “I want to stop her. She already has her son as mayor. That’s influence enough for someone who like getting her way a good deal too much.”

“Don’t we all like that?”

“Oh, I do too, I suppose. But you should have seen the way she looked around the room and said it would be important to make sure the supplies went only to those who really needed them.”

“Shouldn’t they?”

“But I tell her real meaning was, those she thought were deserving. She would use that post as a way to treat all the needy families in the town like one of her tenants. And as for respectable families who are having trouble with their men gone, women like Eva Serre. Can’t you just see the eyebrow going up? ‘But my dear,’ she’d say, ‘You know these are for the poor.’”

“Philomene.”

Her father’s somber tone stopped her.

“You can’t be the administrator for this committee.”

“Why not?” She had not, until that moment, thought of seeking the position herself, only of finding some way to deny it to Madame Perreau, but in the moment her father told her she could not do it a vision sprang into her mind of the good that she could do. Why not indeed?

“Think what I do.” He gestured towards the pan she was scouring, in which she had made the an omelette for them that night. An omelette from some of the black market eggs which Andre the postmaster had collected from the outlying farmers while making his rounds and then turned over to Louis to be sold from the backroom of his store. And there was the pan, on which she had baked rolls for the children using flour and sugar which had come from Sedan in return for produce smuggled out to the city. Even here in the safety of her kitchen it seemed dangerous to say the words: black market, smuggling. The feelings of alarm and guilt crowded in a simply at the phrase ‘what I do.’

“We cannot draw attention. And if anything should someday be discovered, would you want people to think that you had been abusing your access to the supplies sent for the needy?”

“No. You’re right, of course.” Her brief vision was already spoilt, replaced by dark images of people accusing her of having stolen and sold the food meant for the poor. How had she let them reach this point? What had they become? It had seemed such a good thing, to find a way for Madame Chartier, a young farmwife whose husband was away with the army, to sell her eggs to support her family rather than turning them over to German requisition. She’d asked her father and Andre to help. And now what were they? Something very near to criminals. People who must hide from the public eye. “But I still have to find some way to stop Madame Perreau.”

***

When the answer came to Philomene, it seemed such an obvious solution that she could not think why it had not occurred to her before. Had it not been the middle of the night, she would have been tempted to set out at once to put the idea into motion. The delay proved useful, for in the next morning’s copy of The Lantern, there was a brief paragraph in the Announcements section of the front page which caught her eye:
After meeting with Mayor Perreau, Madame Hawthorne of the Committee for Relief in Belgium announced the formation of a three member Relief Committee to consist of: Mayor Perreau, Pere Lebas, and Monsieur Thierion. The Relief Committee will be responsible for assessing need in Chateau Ducloux and for distributing any relief supplies sent by the CRB.

So, the head of the Masonic Lodge was to be the third committee member. Mrs. Hawthorne must know well enough what she was about. She had the town government and the church already, the lodge drew its members primarily from the secular half of the town’s great cultural divide and politically from the supporters of the Republic.

If only Henri were there. Despite having at last begun, after several years of marriage, to go church with her, he had always gone to the coffee house and the bar frequented by the masons and the radicals rather than the rival conservative establishments at which her father was a patron. He and Monsieur Thierion had not been close, but Henri would have known how to approach him and convince him. Instead, this was yet another reminder that Henri was far away, if he was still alive at all.

The thought left her blinking at the paper through eyes that suddenly found it difficult to focus, but she fought back the choking feeling and the tears which seemed to come so unexpectedly these days, and addressed herself instead to the problem at hand. Justin Perreau would support his mother for the administrator post, that was certain. That meant that she would need both Pere Lebas and Monsieur Thierion, but before she could make either of those approaches, there was something she must do first.

***

“This should really be a question for Reverend Mother,” said Sister Genevieve.

Philomene looked down at the teacup on the table before her. It was the same fine bone china, with its pink roses and gilded rims. The same dark, rich tea. The same wood paneled visitors parlor. The war’s only incursion into this sanctum of hospitality was that the old sister had not poured herself a cup of tea when she poured one for Philomene, as if it were already lent. Was the convent rationing its tea, or had the sisters decided to offer up such comforts as a sacrifice while they prayed for peace?

“I know. But I wanted to ask you first. And perhaps you could put it to her. Surely you know the best way.”

Sister Genevieve paused a moment, her lips pressed together. “She will ask me why you think it necessary to engage in politics over this charitable appointment.” Philomene was about to reply, but the sister raised a hand. “Surely you realize that this there are many in our town who would be unhappy to see this post put under what they would see at clerical control. And antagonizing the anti-clerical faction might make it harder for us to do our work helping those who are most in need.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t say no. But there is a risk.”

“I do see that.”

“Do you believe that Madame Perreau would be sufficiently ill suited to the task that it is worth incurring any ill will that may come our way? I hope it is not only the desire to frustrate her which is at play here.”

Philomene looked down at her own hands. It was not easy to sort reason from desire, but if it was the right thing to do, it would remain right even if her motives were less than pure. “I would be lying if I said that it would not please me to see Madame Perreau denied this position of power, but I honestly do not think that she would fill the office well. At the tea with Mrs. Hawthorne she talked repeatedly about helping the ‘deserving poor’. I think she does mean to help, but she sees that help as something to be given out as a favor.”

The sister nodded. “I think you are probably right.”

“Then you will help?”

“I will ask.” Philomene hesitated over whether to press for more assurance. Sister Genevieve seemed to waver as well, and it was she who broke the silence first. “Speak to the committee members. If you are able to persuade them, I think that you will find support here.”

“Thank you!”

Philomene got up to leave, eager to set about talking to the committee members, then hesitated. The one thing that was always lurking at the back of her mind, she was almost afraid to ask out loud lest facts crush hopes.

“I don’t suppose…” She let the question trail off.

Sister Genevieve shook her head. “The letter was sent within a packet to our house in Munich. I know it was received there, because we received a reply on several urgent questions directed to the superior there. I’m sure they forwarded your letter to the house in Bern at the very earliest opportunity. But recall that Henri’s letter took three weeks to reach you. And you must allow time for him to receive your letter and then reply via the house in Paris. It must be another few weeks at the very least.”

Philomene nodded. “I know. It’s just-- Do you know, perhaps it’s wicked of me, but when I pray for him I hear nothing at all in return. I’ve read in books, like the one by Sister Therese of the Child Jesus, about receiving consolations, about feeling God’s love around one. There have been times, such as on retreat, when I’ve felt such peace when praying. But now…” She shrugged. There did not seem to be words that could be spoken here for the cold, taunting silence which answered her, making her almost afraid to pray. The only thing which kept her from giving it up was the fear which she knew to be very close to superstition: If she did not pray for Henri’s safety every night, and something happened to her, would it be because of her omission?

“There is nothing wrong or shocking in hearing silence in response to prayer.” Sister Genevieve put out a hand to Philomene’s cheek, and with the comfort of that warmth she realized how much she has missed the simple caring touch of another person. “Even our Lord felt that emptiness, remember? ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ All we can do is pray, and wait, and hope, and do the work that is before us.”

***

Julien Thierion owned the town’s clock shop, a small storefront in which a dozen clocks and an impressive array of watches were displayed, as well as a few telescopes, binoculars and cameras. A bell hung from the door chimed as Philomene entered. Monsieur Thierion was seated on a tall stool at the workbench, taking a pocket watch to pieces. He set his work aside and rose when he saw that his visitor was a lady.

“Madame Fournier.” He bowed. “I hope there is nothing wrong with the watch your husband bought you.”

Philomene’s hand went automatically to the little brooch that ticked quietly under her coat where it was pinned to her blouse. “No, certainly not.” She hesitated. As she had walked from the convent she had rehearsed in her mind the arguments she would use, but she had not given thought to how she would begin the conversation. “Has your business been much slowed by the war?”


Monsieur Thierion shrugged. “Well, of course, it’s not the moment for buying a new clock or watch. I do a few repairs. This one,” he waved towards the workbench, “is a German watch. Say what you will of them, their watchmakers know what they are about. If the owner were merely here on holiday, I would say it was a pleasure to get the chance to work on.”

“It was about the… situation that I came.” She could not bring herself to say ‘occupation’. “I read in The Lantern this morning that you are appointed to the relief committee.” There was nothing for it but to plunge in.

“It’s true. Mayor Perreau asked me, and I could hardly claim that I was too busy here.”

“I wanted to speak to you about the position of administrator. Mrs. Hawthorne said she desired it to be a woman.”

“Ah.” Monsieur Thierion smiled and ran a fingertip along his mustache, which was waxed and curled up at the end in a little point. “So this is a business visit of sorts, is it? Well, sit down, sit down.” He pulled a chair out and waved Philomene towards it. “You must forgive me. I am not used yet to being called upon for business other than clocks.”

He said nothing of the Lodge, but although it was the reason for his prominence in the town, it was technically a secret.

Philomene sat down and smoothed her skirts out to occupy her hands.

“I understand from my colleague, our good Mayor, that his mother, if pressed, would be gracious enough to give her time as administrator,” said Monsieur Thierion. “With such a recommendation she must surely be our leading candidate, eh? Or do you have some other suggestion? Yourself perhaps?”

“Oh, not at all.” That had not been the impression she intended to give. “I hope you did not think I came only to seek it for myself.”

“No? Well then. What do you suggest?”

His slightly mocking manner was much like that of Henri’s closest friend, Andre Goyot the Postmaster, who was also a prominent member of the Lodge. Was this a characteristic of their set? Or perhaps little edge of humor at her expense because she and her father were known to be associated with the clerical faction.

“I’m sure that Madame Perreau is a very good woman, but I’m concerned at placing her as the relief administrator when her son is already the appointed Mayor.”

“Indeed, indeed. It does all seem rather too German by half, does it not? And yet if you’re not here to plead on your own account, who among our illustrious matrons do you have in mind?”

Philomene braced herself. “My first thought was that we might turn to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. They do so much good work in our town already, and have experience helping those most in need.”

She could see the struggle it took for Monsieur Thierion to keep his revulsion at this suggestion from showing clearly in his expression.

“I know that sisters are very good,” he said, after a pause had stretched out just a little bit too long. “I have tremendous respect for your husband, Madame Fournier. Even your father, I know we have our disagreements, but he’s a good man. But I think many within the town, whether they are right or not, will feel the church is very well represented already by Pere Lebas. We must remember that we are a Republic. We are not a confessional state. It’s not so long ago that the Church had a stranglehold on schooling, owned large estates, pulled the strings of the government. Remember that fine man, Captain Dreyfus, rotting away on Devil’s Island because of the cowardice and lies of a clericalist cabal. No. It is not possible, Madame.”

“Do you really think that people would find it so offensive for the Sisters to administer the aid?” Philomene asked, trying to load the question with as much innocent surprise as she could. Her host did not seem inclined to see through her motions.

“Yes. I must tell you that it would be too much. Madame Perreau, as the mayor’s mother, is at least a sort of neutral party between the church and the Republic.”

“Well, in that case, could some other woman of responsibility and experience fill the same neutral role?” She paused and then tried to give the next all the brightness of a new idea just had. “Say, perhaps, Madame Serre? Surely few have have suffered for the Republic as she has, with her husband taken to Germany for destroying his cement works rather than letting the Germans use it.”

“Madame Serre? I had not thought. As you say, she certainly has suffered much for France. Do you think that she would take on job?”

“I haven’t spoken to her about it, but now you ask I feel sure that if the committee were ready to offer, she would consent to do it. And surely, as a woman who has had her husband taken from her, whose son is with the army, who has had Germans quartered in her house, she of all people would understand the conditions under which so many people who need relief are living.”

“Yes, yes. Madame Fournier, I really think you have found it. Madame Serre is exactly the person we need as administrator. Will you ask her? Please? Tell her that if she is willing to serve she may be assured of my support. And you, perhaps, could convince Pere Lebas to do the same.”

To shout, to jump up from her chair, would be to give all away, and so with an effort Philomene maintained a calm and sober tone. “If you think that she would be the right person, I think I can persuade Pere Lebas.”

Monsieur Thierion saw her out the door with continued expressions of thanks for her help in what now seemed very nearly his own idea, and Philomene set off with a spring in her step towards the rectory to speak to Pere Lebas.

In the end, all was done as she had envisioned. Monsieur Thierion and Pere Lebas carried the selection Madame Serre for the administrator position, to the secret relief of Mayor Perreau and the confusion of his mother. In order that she might be near her work, Madame Serre left the house in which she had been surrounded by reminders of her absent husband and the all too present Germans, and took up quarters in the guest room of the convent. From there she went about her work on behalf of the CRB, but even as the need seemed all too desperate, politics and logistics and paperwork drew out, and it was not until May that the first shipments of wheat, rice, beans, and salted pork arrived from the lands of peace and plenty across the sea.


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