A couple extra days in the making, but tonight's installment brings the novel to 115,000 words. There is one more installment of Chapter 10 to go, and I will be posting it some time during the coming weekend.
Chateau Ducloux, France. August 23rd, 1914. The little church of Saint Thibault was nearly full even before mass began. Surely God would not allow a treasured son or husband to be cut down by a German bullet simply because his loved ones had been lax in their prayers for him, and yet God must somehow hear. Even if prayers could not turn aside bullets, they could at least turn away the self-accusations which might follow: on the day it happened you could not even be bothered to go to mass and pray for him.
Every candle in the votive racks was lit. Many stayed after mass as well, for the rosary which Pere Lebas introduced with the intention, “For the strength and protection of our brave soldiers.”
Once the rosary was over, Philomene gathered up the children to go home. Their behavior had been unusually satisfactory. Charlotte had seemed on the brink of a crying fit when she was told that all of the votive candles were already lit, and so she could not light one for Father. It had seemed the moment to say something inspiring: If you pray to Our Lady and tell her how much you wanted to light a candle for Father, she will light a candle in heaven for you.
But while these little scenes were invariably successful in the columns of devotional magazines, Charlotte was not the type of lisping angel who seemed to inhabit those pages, and so Philomene had instead whispered to her, “Remember that we were going to stop at the patisserie on the way home to get breakfast.”
The thought of her favorite little cake instantly drove thoughts of candles -- and perhaps even of father -- from the seven-year-old’s mind, and she had showed complete decorum as prayer books were collected and the family left the church.
Outside, blinking in the bright morning sunlight after the nearly windowless, candlelit interior of the church, Philomene saw an unusual crowd in the square before the church. A two-wheeled farm cart was stopped in the street, the shaggy pony between the shafts standing with its head down. On the driver’s bench was a woman in a brown dress. The sheen of the fabric and the gathers along the seams made it clear it was a Sunday-best, yet it was also visibly old, and it showed the dust of days on the road. She was flanked by two small children, and the cart was filled with a variety of household valuables: a cedar chest, a mattress, several wooden crates with straw showing through the slats, a treadle sewing machine.
Several people who had just left the church were gathered round the cart asking questions.
“What part of Belgium are you from?” “When did you leave?” “How far have the Germans come?” “Have you seen the French army?” “Has there been a battle?”
“We left Tongeren nine days ago. I don’t know anything,” she said, her French spoken with a heavy Flemish accent.
More questions poured forth but the woman only shook her head. She straightened her back and flexed her shoulders, as if she had been hunched on the seat of the cart for many hours, and as she did so she placed her free hand on her round stomach.
Pregnant. Philomene felt a tightening of her own stomach. This woman was pregnant, her husband gone, trying to bring her children and possessions to safety, driving a farm cart away from the invading armies.
“Is it true that the Germans burn houses and shoot civilians?” “Is the Belgian army still fighting?” “Have you seen the French 212th Regiment? My son is in it.” The crowd continued to press with questions.
Philomene stepped forward. “Let the poor woman alone, she’s said she doesn’t know anything. How could she give us news when she’s been on the road for a week and a half?”
There were some embarrassed murmurs, but the villagers surrounding the cart fell silent and then began to drift away. Philomene stepped closer. “Can I offer you some breakfast? Our house is not far from here. You could have breakfast with us and we could give you food for your journey.”
She reached out and took the woman’s hand in her own. For a moment they looked into each other’s eyes, then the refugee turned away and Philomene saw tears running down her face. “Thank you,” she said. “We will be no trouble. We won’t stay long. Thank you. God bless you.”
It proved an awkward meal. As she stopped at Jeanpetit’s Patisserie and ordered three times her usual number of cakes and pastries, Philomene had entertained visions of the comfort which a little bit of hospitality could bring to this family which had been on the road for ten days. She could give them what they needed while gaining some sense of the plight which faced families in Belgium -- which perhaps awaited families in France as well.
The farm cart stood outside the Mertens shop, and inside the house Louis had brought Madame Peeters and her two children into the dining room. There the little boy and girl sat, very upright in their chairs, having taken to heart their mother’s stern warnings about behavior, lest they appear to be the wrong sort of refugees.
“Good morning!” said Philomene cheerfully. “I have lots of treats to choose from, and you shall have the first pick.” She spread out Monsieur Jeanpetit’s confections on the table and stepped aside, taking Lucie-Marie by the hand when she attempted to rush the table. “Go on. Take as many as you like.”
The two little Belgian children turned to look at their mother, who nodded and held up two fingers. Each child went and carefully picked out two pastries, placed them on one of the waiting plates, and sat down to eat slowly, surreptitiously licking the crumbs from their fingers between bites.
Once she had taken the edge off her own hunger by rapidly consuming three of the treats, seven-year-old Charlotte tried to ply the oldest Peeters girl -- six years old and seemingly all pale blue eyes and blond braids -- with questions, but she only shrugged. “The children only speak Flemish,” Madame Peeters explained, and Charlotte turned away to see if Lucie-Marie really wanted all of her own little cake.
“Where are you going to stay?” Philomene asked, breaking a lengthy silence.
Madame Peeters shrugged. “I don’t know. Reims? Paris?” She paused and again placed a hand on her pregnant belly as if feeling the baby stirring or drawing some strength from inside. “When he was called up, my husband said, ‘Don’t wait until it is too late.’ Now that we’ve left everything, I must not stop too soon and have the Germans come when I can no longer travel.”
Philomene hesitated over the next question. “Your husband…?” She felt guilty as soon as she saw the other woman’s expression. “Mine is with the army in Paris,” she continued, hoping this would provide some small proof of commonality.
“They say the army is falling back on Antwerp. I have had no word, but surely-- He must be safe.”
Philomene nodded eagerly. “Yes. Yes, he must be safe.” The words served both as an apology for asking the question and a prayer that it was true.
As soon as they had eaten, Madame Peeters made ready to go. She refused most of Philomene’s offered gifts, accepting only a jar of jam, a loaf of bread, and a tin of evaporated milk for the children. Standing by the front door, Philomene watched the Peeters’ cart roll slowly away down the Rue des Remparts and wondered how far the poor woman would go before she felt safe enough to stop and find a place for her family to stay. At least she was well ahead of danger. Surely any threat that might come to Chateau Ducloux was many days away. The whole army was between them and the Germans.
The little farm cart had vanished from sight and yet the sound of iron-rimmed wheels on cobbles still sounded, indeed grew louder. No, it was a different cart, coming down the street towards her. Looking the other way she could see a wagon drawn by two horses: a canvas cover stretched over a heap of possessions and an old man driving while several children peered out from under the tarpaulin. As she stood watching it a man walking a bicycle to which several bundles had been tied appeared around the bend in the road, then an old woman walking beside a large dog harnessed to a two-wheeled cart.
All through the day refugees came, sometimes a group of five or ten families, sometimes a break of half an hour during which no more appeared, but the steady stream of humanity continued to flow throughout the day. For the first several hours, Philomene offered supplies to each family that passed: rice, dried beans, tinned beef, smoked herring, dry biscuits, jam. At last Louis stopped her.
“If you go on, I’ll be out out of food in the storeroom.”
“But Father, many of these people have no food. Surely God expects those of us who are more fortunate to help people in need. You can order more.”
“There are so many of them coming through. I think that may mean that the Germans are closer than we think.”
“But our army--”
“If our army is surrounded like in ‘70 we may not see them before we see the Germans.”
Surrounded. The word fell like a blow.
“They are moving on to other towns where they can look for food,” Louis continued. “If the war is close, we may need all we have to feed the people who stay here.”
She did not take any more food from the storeroom to give away, but as afternoon turned into evening, Philomene could not stop watching the silent procession passing through the town, some walking, others using all manner of wheeled things to carry whatever they could away from the approaching danger. She looked around her own rooms. What would she pack? What would she pack in? There was only the baby carriage and the wheelbarrow. She had seen enough of both go by that day.
As darkness fell Pere Lebas opened the church to those who needed a place to sleep for the night, and the mayor opened the school. Nonetheless when morning came, huddled forms could be seen sleeping against the walls of buildings. Now, however, there were not only civilians but men in blue coats and red trousers.
Grandpere went out into the street and confronted a man with sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve who was walking down the street with no rifle on his shoulder but carrying a tree branch that he was using as a walking stick in his hand.
“What happened? Was there a battle? Are we defeated?”
The man stared at him, past him, a gaze that didn’t quite seem to focus. “There is no war out there, friend. No war at all. They’re just murdering us.” Without waiting for a reply he resumed walking.
It was at midday that an organized army unit entered the town. A pair of machine guns was set up before the city hall, and men stacked sandbags around them. Non-commissioned officers patrolled the streets, and any wandering soldiers were re-assigned to units. Pascal was confined to the house after Grandpere found him, along with several other boys, playing near the machine guns in the square.
At three o’clock the church bells began to ring insistently, the same rapid tolling which had drawn the town’s citizens to the square for the announcement of mobilization. Philomene could feel her heart beating faster and her throat tightening. Was the town about to be attacked? Had France surrendered? Or perhaps there had been a victory? But where? There were no signs evident of a victory here among the refugees and the straggling soldiers.
She stepped into the shop but her father had already left, the sign on the door turned over to say “Closed”. She called Pascal down from his room. He descended sullenly, his dignity not yet recovered from being ordered away from the machine gun emplacements by Grandpere.
“Why are the bells ringing?” he demanded
“There must be news. I am going to go find out, and you are to stay here and watch your sisters.”
“Why can’t I go and find out?”
Catastrophe might very well be looming over them, and her son chose this time to engage in rebellion. If Henri were here-- She cut off the thought. “You cannot go because it is your responsibility to stay here and watch your sisters. If you do not obey and show proper respect, I will have to tell Grandpere about it and you will answer to him.”
Pascal’s mouth worked, and she knew that he wanted to retort. That desire, however, was balancing against the knowledge of the heavy meterstick which Grandpere resorted to in the punishment of grave crimes. At last he nodded.
“Will you tell me the news when you get back?” he asked.
“Of course.” She turned and hurried out into the street, where the sound of the tolling echoed up and down the cobbled streets. She joined the flow of people into the square, where a crowd had already gathered. Mayor Binet stood on the steps of the town hall and next to him stood an officer. Unlike the many dusty, rumpled men who had been in the streets that day, his dark tunic was spotless and his red kepi bright.
The bell stopped ringing, and a clamor of voices rose to fill the void it left as people asked each other what was going on.
“There has been fierce fighting in the Ardennes, and although our armies have not been beaten, they are forced to fall back,” said the mayor, his voice carrying across the square as those gathered suddenly fell silent. “Commandant Hamel has orders to continue an orderly retreat. When our armies have reorganized, they will turn on the German invaders and crush them. But since this is not the place where that great battle will take place, he has agreed to leave our town before the Germans arrive in hopes that by leaving it undefended, Chateau Ducloux will be spared from the ravages of battle.”
He paused, but instead of the din of conversation which had filled the square before there was now uncertain silence.
“If the Germans occupy our town, be assured that it will not be for long. The army is falling back only until ready to strike the fatal blow. In order to preserve the town archives from any danger, I will personally take them to the safety of Reims. I urge all of you to consider your safety as well. Any men of military age who have not already been called up should especially consider withdrawing, as there are reports of the Germans interning military age men and transporting them to Germany. Commandant Hamel’s men will remain to provide order until sunset. I ask everyone to behave in a calm and lawful fashion. Vive la France!”
No one took up the cry as the mayor turned from the crowd and went back into the town hall, accompanied by the commandant.
Knots of conversation formed, and voices began to rise. The crowd seemed evenly divided between those who considered the mayor’s course wise and those who considered it to be abandoning his post. Philomene could not interest herself in the dispute and turned away. As she walked back down the street towards her home she could taste fear, sour in her mouth, and her stomach cramped with anxiety. She looked around with a new consciousness of the street on which she had lived nearly her whole life, and yet it seemed impossible that enemy soldiers would patrol these streets, that they would look in the windows of these shops. Perhaps they would not actually come here at all. Why should they? What was Chateau Ducloux, with its three thousand souls, to Germany? Was it not enough that their men had been called away to risk their lives?
A solemn quiet descended on the village. Louis returned not long after Philomene, but he did not reopen the store, and no one came knocking at its door. Mayor Binet pulled his car up in front of the town hall and loaded it full of boxes containing the town’s records. Sharp tongues pointed out that, in addition to the town’s records, he had taken his secretary to the safety of Reims. Others set off southward in carts or on foot. When the evening train for Paris pulled into the station, it was already heavily loaded, but more people climbed aboard, pushing into the passenger cars and even perching on top of the piled fuel of the coal car. Even so, many were left behind when the train slowly chugged out of the station. Some immediately set off on foot, others returned home, but most stayed -- a small crowd sitting, standing or laying on the benches and floor of the train platform, their luggage spread out beside them, holding their places until the arrival of the morning train.
Pascal went to bed early, taking with him a sense of injustice and the well thumbed copy of Rouletabille in the House of the Tsar which his friend Baptiste had lent him. His behavior had been exemplary all afternoon. He had watched over the little girls while Mother and Grandpere talked in hushed voices about the possibility that the town would be occupied and distracted his sisters from their hunger when Mother had to go into the kitchen and make dinner because Madame Ragot had needed to go home and see her own family. However, both Mother and Grandpere had denied him permission to go watch the soldiers march away at sunset. Peering down the street from his window he had been able to make out the distant movement of uniformed figures near the square, but he had been denied the satisfaction of any closer look.
The next morning dawned clear and sunny, a beautiful late summer morning of the sort that afterwards people would remember as “before the war”. Pascal had just finished dressing when he heard a shower of gravel at the window of the children’s room. He looked out and saw Baptiste down in the street, his wooden toy rifle slung over his shoulder. Silently, so as not to attract the attention of anyone who might forbid it, Pascal went downstairs and let himself out the front door to talk to his friend.
“You should have seen the soldiers march away last night,” Baptiste said. “I thought your family had left when I didn’t see you.”
Pascal scowled. “Mother and Grandpere wouldn’t let me go outside. I don’t see why. There wasn’t any danger with the soldiers here.”
“Well, come on; let’s go look around now.”
Pascal considered. On any normal day an early morning ramble with Baptiste would meet with no disapproval. But today… If Mother knew she would almost certainly forbid it. Did Baptiste himself have permission to be out? Still, Mother had not yet told him that he was not allowed to go outside, so he was not really disobeying.
“Come on,” urged Baptiste. For a last moment Pascal hesitated, but the temptation was too great.
“All right. Let’s go.”
They watched the crowd at the train station growing restless as the usual early train for Paris did not arrive. They conducted a series of skirmishes in the Mouret orchard, Pascal using a fallen branch as a gun while Baptiste used his treasured wooden rifle, which his father had given him last Christmas. As the sun rose higher they scouted through the fields and woods around the town. It was as they were moving along a belt of trees between fields to the north of the town that they saw columns of gray-clad men moving towards the town.
All through the morning they had played at seeing Germans, fighting Germans, warning the town of the approach of Germans. Actually seeing large groups of enemy soldiers moving across the fields was a very different thing. The idea of being seen was suddenly terrifying, and rather than running to alert the town or to construct some ingenious booby trap, they remained hidden behind a tree and watched as the soldiers drew closer.
Some columns were moving across the fields, others parallel to the road, while on the road itself rolled supply wagons and guns. The sheer numbers of soldiers seemed far past counting, and there was a mesmerizing power to the view of hundreds of uniformed men all moving together across the otherwise familiar landscape. Now it was possible to make out the details of their uniforms, the red tabs and piping on their field gray uniforms, the strange spiked helmets on their heads.
“We should go before they see us,” Baptiste whispered.
The nearest column of soldiers was now only a hundred yards away, advancing through the field that the treeline bordered.
“They’ll see us,” Pascal said, fear suddenly gripping him in place of curiosity, and making him want nothing more than to press himself against the ground there behind the tree and hope never to be seen by these alien figures in the field beyond.
“If they get any closer they’ll see us anyway. Come on!”
Baptiste got to his feet and began to move quickly, a sort of half run, bent low like a hunter stalking through the forest. The sling of the wooden rifle slipped from his shoulder and the toy fell to the ground with a soft thump. The boy stopped and doubled back to pick it up, gesturing to Pascal as he did so. “Come on! They’ll see us!” he said in a half whisper. Then holding the toy rifle in one hand he hurried off again toward the town. Pascal got up and began to follow him more slowly.
From the other side of the tree line he heard a shout, then several. “Franc-tireur!” Their harsh voices mangling the French words almost beyond recognition.
Pascal dropped to the ground and buried his face in his arms. There was a bang, then a rattling explosion as nearly a dozen rifles fired almost at once. Pascal raised his head a fraction, looking for his friend, his fear and energy both pounding in his ears. He could not see Baptiste. He must have dropped to the ground as well. He turned to look at the Germans. The column had stopped and men were talking and pointing, not at him, but at the point ahead of him where Baptiste must be. Now nine of the Germans were approaching Baptiste, their rifles at the ready. Why didn’t he run? No, perhaps running was the wrong thing. What did you do to surrender to soldiers without being shot? Put your hands in the air?
He wanted to shout or run or do something, anything that might help, but nothing seemed right and fear paralyzed him. Instead he lay still, his fingers nervously clawing at the ground, his face lifted just enough from the soil to allow him to watch.
The Germans stopped and looked down. They were talking to one another. One bent down and picked up Baptiste’s wooden rifle and showed it to the others. All the words of their language sounded harsh and angry, but Pascal felt sure he was scolding the other men. Then he put down the toy gun and led the men away, back towards the rest of the column.
A new sort of terror entered the pit of Pascal’s stomach. He felt he knew what he would see there, yet he was afraid to form the thought, feeling that this would somehow make it real. He stayed, crouched against the ground, and watched as the Germans rejoined their column. Then after a brief conversation between the man who had picked up the toy rifle and one that even at a distance Pascal could recognize as an officer by his sword and holstered pistol, the column began to move towards the town once again.
Pascal watched the column march, until they were between him and the town, their backs to him. Other columns were on the move as well, but none were as close as that had been. He stood up slowly, looking all around. There were no shouts. He could see Germans moving around the countryside, but none were nearby.
Slowly he approach the spot where Baptiste lay. He was terrified to look and felt that by doing so he would make the catastrophe real, but perhaps it was not too late to help his friend. Surely it was not too late.
The wooden rifle lay in the grass, a little to one side of its fallen owner. Baptiste lay face down, unmoving. Hesitantly, Pascal reached out and took him by the shoulder. No response. He pulled at his shoulder, turned him over. Baptiste rolled like a sack of grain, heavy, inert. His arm flopped alarmingly, revealing a dark stain on the side of his coat, under his arm. Laying him on his back, the first thing that struck Pascal’s horrified gaze was the blood that soaked his shirt. His face was uninjured but unmoving. His eyes did not move. There was no sound from his mouth. A few stray bits of dirt and grass were stuck on the skin of his face, which somehow made it look all the more lifeless.
It was too much. Looking away, Pascal ran as fast as he could towards the town. Whether he ran to get help or to get away or simply out of fear he did not know.
There were German soldiers in the streets but they gave him no second glance. The first person that he saw whom he recognized was Andre Guyot, standing outside the post office and watching the enemy pass by in the street.
“Monsieur Guyot! Monsieur Guyot!” He came to a stop before his father’s friend, gasping for breath after his run.
“What is it? Is your family all right?”
“Yes. I think so. But the Germans have shot Baptiste.”
“Shot him?” Andre put a hand on a boy’s shoulder. “Catch your breath. That’s right, now tell me clearly: What happened?”
“Baptiste -- you know, Baptiste Duval -- we were playing in the fields and we saw the Germans coming. We hid from them, but when they were getting closer Baptiste said we should run before they saw us. They shot him, and I think he might be… I think he might be dead.”
Andre’s face turned grave. “Show me.”
They set off, at a slower pace now because of Andre’s limp and the cane he walked with to help him overcome the injury from a childhood illness which had left him partly paralyzed in his left leg. At last they reached the place where Baptiste lay. Andre bent over the boy’s body, leaning heavily on his cane. He wiped the debris from his face and felt the side of his neck for a pulse. Then he shook his head.
The two stood there, the boy and the older man, looking down at the young body laid out before them.
“Come on. We must bring him back to the Duval house.” He began to shift the body from where it lay.
Pascal reach under his friend’s body and tried to lift, but he staggered under the weight. “I don’t think I can carry him. He’s bigger than me. And you--” He stopped, hesitant to name Andre’s disability.
“I can’t walk without my cane, my leg will give out, and I can’t carry someone with only one free hand, but I’m strong enough. Here: I’ll get down low and you help to raise him onto my shoulders. Then I can can walk with him.”
Andre crouched down, bracing the cane against the ground, and Pascal struggled to lift his friend. At last, Baptiste was draped over Andre’s shoulders like a heavy fur mantle.
“Help me up,” directed Andre, and leaning half on his cane, half on Pascal’s shoulder, he struggled upright.
Looking down, Pascal could see blood smeared over his hand and front, where he’d hugged the body against himself as he’d struggle to lift it onto Andre’s shoulders.
Pascal bent to pick up the wooden rifle which his friend had so treasured.
“Put that down,” said Andre.
“But it was his. I should bring it with him.”
“Do you want to be shot?” Andre’s voice had an edge of anger in it. “Do you understand what happened here? If the Germans think they see you carrying a gun, they’ll shoot both of us.”
Pascal dropped the toy rifle. It lay in the grass as the two walked slowly away, Andre leaning one hand on his cane, the other on Pascal’s shoulder and stooping slightly under the weight of Baptiste’s body. The group reenacted all too closely the scenes on real battlefields not far away.
As they entered the town a German officer approached them. “What is this?” he asked, speaking in accented but clear French. “What happened?”
“This?” asked Andre. “Some of your soldiers have shot a boy from the village.”
“How did it happen?” The officer looked at Pascal. “Were you there? Tell me.”
Pascal described what had happened as briefly as possible.
The officer rounded on Andre, his anger all the stronger because of the sense that his men were, in part, at fault. “Do you French care nothing for your children? You let a young boy run around the countryside with a toy rifle on the day that troops who have just been in battle march into your town? My God, what do you expect? If my men see boys running through the fields with a gun they will shoot.”
For a moment the two men glared at one another. Then Andre shrugged. “Good day, officer. I must take this boy’s body home to his mother.”
They reached the Duval house and Andre turned to Pascal.
“Go home, Pascal. I will talk to Madame Duval. Let your mother know that you are safe.”
Pascal nodded. He felt that he should say something but no words came. He turned and walked down the street to his own house. Andre watched him disappear around the bend in the street before turning and knocking at the Duval door. Throughout the village there were women who had been living in fear for three weeks of a knock that the door that would bring them news of their sons, but Madame Duval had not known to be afraid.
Reaching his own door, Pascal found it locked. He gave a hesitant knock, knowing that the door must have been locked since he left and unsure what that meant. The door was flung upon and he saw his mother’s face. For a moment it looked as if she were about to yell at him, to fly at him in anger. Then her eyes took in the blood which stained his coat and shirt and hands and terror replaced anger.
“Pascal! What happened?” She flung her arms around him and pulled him close. “Where are you hurt? We’ve been so terrified.” She released him from her embrace and reached out to touch the bloodstains on his shirt, looking for the wound.
“I’m all right,” he managed to say, though he could feel tears beginning to well forth and swell his throat closed. “I’m not hurt.” He flung his arms around her and sobbed into his mother’s shoulder. “They shot Baptiste. Baptiste is dead.”
Read the next installment.