Chateau Ducloux, France. August 26th, 1914. The morning routine was gone. No newspapers were delivered from the station. Madam Ragot and Emilie did not arrive. Philomene considered going out to pick up breakfast things herself, but when she looked out the window she could see only German soldiers in the street, no townspeople. She cut slices of yesterday’s bread and spread them with jam for the children’s breakfast while Grandpere cranked the coffee grinder so that they could make their morning pot of coffee. Pascal stared at this bread and jam without eating and then returned to his room rather than going out into the garden with his sisters as on a usual morning.
It was just as the two adults were sitting down at the table with their pot of coffee that someone pounded on the front door.
They looked at each other.
“Perhaps it’s only someone needing something from the shop,” said Philomene. Naming some harmless explanation seemed to hold more terrible ones at bay.
“Go wait in the kitchen,” said Louis. “The girls are in the back garden. If something bad happens, you can go out through the kitchen door and take them over the garden wall into the next street.”
“But Pascal. He’s in his room.” She was gripping the spoon with which she had been stirring her coffee, holding it like a dagger as if for protection.
“There’s no time. He’ll hear if something happens, and he’s a grown boy now. Look how he came through yesterday.”
“My child, there’s no time.” Louis was moving towards the door as he heard the pounding again, louder this time. Philomene nodded and left the dining room in the other direction, into the kitchen.
He opened the door. Outside in the street was a young man in an officer’s uniform. The shoulder boards and high collar of his field grey tunic were marked with silver braided rank insignia. A buttoned-down holster of polished brown leather hung at his belt, as did a slim, straight sword in a black leather scabbard.
“Good morning. Are you the owner of the Mertens shop?” asked the officer in surprisingly unaccented French.
Louis could read nothing in his face. “Yes. I am Louis Mertens.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Monsieur Mertens. I am Hauptmann Schrader. When does your shop open today?”
“My shop is closed today.”
“Closed? Now why would the shop be closed? You don’t appear ill. It’s not a holiday. You don’t have one of these signs saying ‘Closed While Owner Serves With Army!’”
“Our town has been invaded. Yesterday one of my grandson’s friends what shot while out playing. People are staying home, afraid for their safety. The store is closed.”
“There are always certain difficulties inherent in occupying a hostile town, but I can assure you now that security is well in hand. You may open the store, and if there is any doubt among the townspeople as to the safety, surely seeing my men shopping will demonstrate to them that it is once again safe for business.”
Louis gripped the edge of the door. If only he could slam it in this imperious man’s face. His French might be unaccented, but his attitude was German to the core. “I do not want to open the shop,” he said, his own voice hardening. “It is closed until further notice.”
“This is all very unfortunate,” said the officer, with perhaps the slightest of smiles lodging in the corner of his mouth. “The fact is, Monsieur Mertens, when you chose to open a shop you took on certain responsibilities to the community, responsibilities which go beyond your wishes. I have men who want to buy things. You have a shop which sells things. You will open your shop by ten o’clock this morning and you will allow Germans soldiers to shop there. Otherwise, I shall have to order it broken open, and then we will administer it ourselves, serving all who wish to shop. That is how it will be, Monsieur Mertens. Make your decision.”
That twitch of a smile was on his face again, and then, with a slight bow and a click of his heels, he turned and left. Louis saw him go down a few doors to the Jobart’s house and begin to pound on that door next. Clearly he was working down the street. As Louis watched, he saw Felix Jobart open the door of his house and a similar conversation begin between the German officer and the pork butcher.
Louis closed the door and turned to rest his back against it. Only now that it was over was it clear to him how much fear had flowed through his veins while he spoke to the German officer. And now he had to decide whether to open the shop.
There was movement in the next room. Philomene cautiously peered around the doorway from the dining room.
“What did they want?”
“They want me to open the shop and allow the soldiers to buy things. Otherwise they break it open and take what they want.”
“What will you do?”
“I don’t know.” To whom would he be selling things? Cigars to the men who had shot Baptiste? Tinned peaches to someone who might kill Henri or one of the other men from the village? And yet, how long would the Germans be here? In 1870 the Germans had occupied for the village for nearly a year. If he refused and they looted the shop, how would he support Philomene and the children if the Germans stayed for months or years?
He knew the answer, though he did not admire himself for it. If he were a soldier, he would charge the enemy with rifle in hand when ordered, but he had been too young in 1870 and he was too old now. No, he was a shopkeeper, and his duty was to take care of the family while Henri fought on the battlefield. If that meant that he must serve Germans, he would.
“Keep the children out of the shop while any of these pigs are in it,” he said. Then he went into the storeroom and got out the broom which the day before had sat idle for the first time in many years. He swept the store, making sure the floor was as spotless as usual. He rolled up the shades in the big plate glass windows, and then he unlocked the door, turning over the sign so that it said “Open”.
“I told them that I’d accept German coins but not bank notes,” Louis said that night, sitting at the bar in Leroy’s. “Gold and silver hold their value, even if they have eagles stamped on them.”
“I sold out of sausages,” Felix Jobart added. “They don’t call them ‘sausage eaters’ for nothing. I think they must have been keeping the soldiers on short rations. They bought everything in sight.”
“For you shopkeepers, the invasion is probably good for business,” growled a landowner. “I’ve got fields of sugar beets that will rot if my laborers aren’t back from the army by fall, and you’re making money selling to the enemy.”
The words were the more offensive because they were not so far from Louis’s own feelings. “My stock was going to the Germans one way or another,” he rationalized. “The officer who came to the door this morning said I had to open up for they’d break the shop open and let the men loot it. It’s a temporary enough windfall. With no trains coming in, there will be nothing to restock the shelves with. We’ll all be wondering where the next thing comes from soon enough.”
The landowner was about to retort when all fell silent at the sight of a German officer standing just inside the door.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said, in French that was formal and heavily accented, the French of the school room. “I am informed that this is one of the town’s primary drinking establishments?”
All eyes were fixed on him, but no one replied. The officer looked around the room, taking in the paneled walls, the hunting trophies. “A very congenial place you have here. I would not object to visiting on my own some time.” He advanced to the bar and pulled a folded paper from his pocket. “Monsieur Leroy?”
The proprietor nodded.
“I have here a requisition for the officer’s mess.” He smoothed the paper out on the bar. “You are requested to provide: twelve bottles of brandy, six bottles of rum, six bottles of gin and six bottles of Scottish whisky.”
Monsieur Leroy quoted him the price.
“This is a requisition, Monsieur,” the officer replied, with what sounded like scorn creeping into his voice. “If individual soldiers or officers wish to visit your establishment, they will pay your price. But this is a need of a the Imperial German Army. It is required of you.”
The men at the bar exchanged silent glances. Monsieur Leroy went into his back room and began to load bottles into a crate.
It was Friday when the posters appeared all over town, large handbills printed in French in Chateau Ducloux’s own print shop, using the clean French typeface which had appeared on the town’s announcements in happier times, not the spidery Gothic capitals which were used on the Germans’ own printing.
Justin Perreau is appointed Mayor of Chateau Ducloux, since the previous incumbent has fled his responsibilities. He will work hand-in-hand with the military commandant Major Dressler
By order of the mayor and commandant:
- All firearms are to be surrendered to the military authorities no later than Sunday, August 30th. Possession of a firearm after that date will be considered proof that the owner is an unlawful combatant.
- The punishment for unlawful combatants is death.
- Communicating with or providing intelligence to the enemies of the German army in any way will be considered spying.
- Possession of any of the following will be considered proof of spying: carrier pigeons, radio communication apparatus, signal lamps, coded messages, encoding equipment
- Any enemy soldiers behind the lines must surrender themselves to the army as prisoners of war or they will be considered spies.
- Any civilians caught sheltering enemy soldiers will be considered spies.
- The punishment for spying is death.
- Civilians are to comply with any requests for quartering made by German officers. Failure to do so will be punished with fines or imprisonment.
Philomene stood among the crowd reading the poster which had been pasted up on the wall of the Mouret orchard. Others adorned the walls of the town hall and of various buildings around the town, but this one had the virtue of being across the street from the grocers and out of sight of the town hall, outside of which two green-clad German military police were on guard duty. This placement allowed freer conversation.
“What does Perreau mean by going in with these Boche?”
“Boche? Cabbage heads? That’s a good one.”
“I heard it wasn’t Justin’s idea. His mother asked the Boche major to make him mayor.”
“Asked him? there was no asking. They just picked the biggest money bags in the village. I don’t envy him. I heard if there’s trouble he’s the first hostage they throw in jail.”
“Don’t be a fool. Those Perreaus want in with the Germans just the way they want in with any kind of money or power.”
Philomene slipped away from the crowd, the gossip only half heard. Death. It was the repetition of that penalty which was left undiscussed while people argued over Justin Perreau’s complicity. Would people be killed for owning pigeons or sheltering French soldiers from capture when they had been trapped behind the lines? What about her father’s own shotgun and hunting rifle?
Worry made her clasp the envelope in her fingers more tightly. If only Henri were here instead of far away. No. No, that would not do. Then he would have to turn himself in as a prisoner of war or risk being declared a spy and killed.
Andre Guyot sat on a stool behind the counter of the post officer, reading a book. He set it down as she entered. Glancing at the title she saw it was the more scandalous kind of novel.
“Pascal told me about how you helped him when Baptiste was killed.” The postmaster looked away. “Thank you.”
“I wish I could have done more.”
“It was enough. Pascal is so very grateful.”
Andre nodded in acknowledgement.
“Does the mail still go?” Philomene asked, holding out the envelope she had brought.
Andre read the address but did not take it from her hand. “I have been instructed to accept all letters.”
For a moment Philomene continued to hold it out, but Andre made no move to accept it. At last she drew her hand back, unconsciously clasping the letter to Henri close to her chest as she spoke. “It won’t reach him, will it?”
Andre’s eyes flicked around the small room. There was no one else in evidence, but he nonetheless chose his words carefully. “There are so many countries that someone could write to. Switzerland. Or the Netherlands. Norway, Sweden, Italy, America. Even China.”
Neutral countries. It had been a forlorn hope. She could write to someone on the other side of the globe, in far away America, but Paris, just a hundred miles away, was unreachable.
“There won’t be any mail coming from Paris either, will there?”
Andre shook his head silently.
How long? Not until the war was over, won or lost. And what would happen to Henri during that time? In 1870 the war had not been truly over until Paris was conquered. And Henri was in Paris.
“Thank you. I know you must miss Henri too. If you ever want to come and enjoy a family meal, you are always welcome at our house.”
Andre and her father had always clashed, even though they both respected Henri’s opinions. But even such clashes would be a welcome reminder of ordinary times.
He inclined his head. “Thank you. Perhaps I will.”
She took the sealed letter home and placed it behind the painted plaster statue of the Virgin in her room, offering a silent prayer as she did so: Bring him back to me.
Pascal sat with his back to the sitting room wall reading and expecting that at any moment Grandpere would come in and tell him that he must go to bed. The long summer twilight had finally ended and it was fully dark outside. His sisters had long ago been put to bed. He heard footsteps approaching and hunched his head down, as if to hide behind the book. It was not the book itself which made him want to stay up later. He was having difficulty focusing upon Professor Aronnax and his adventures on the submersible. But when he was alone in the dark was when he found it impossible not to think of Baptiste and of the German soldiers shooting at them. It was better to stay downstairs where it was light.
“It’s late, Pascal,” said Grandpere, standing in the doorway.
“I’m not tired. I don’t need to go to bed.”
“No,” said his grandfather. “You don’t. I need your help.”
This instantly got the boy’s attention, and the book was forgotten. “What for?”
Grandpere led the way to the kitchen door which opened out into the back garden. With his hand on the door knob, the old man paused. “There is to be no talking while we work outside. You’ll have to move as quietly as you can. If there are soldiers passing in the street, they mustn’t hear anything suspicious.”
“But what are we doing, Grandpere?” Pascal kept his voice quiet, but the curiosity was almost physically overwhelming.
Grandpere reached into the kitchen broom closet and took out a long, narrow bundle of dark cloth: an oiled canvas groundsheet which had been wrapped around something. He set it on the floor and, knelt over it, unwrapped the cloth part way to reveal his shotgun and hunting rifle. “We are digging,” he said. “And you are helping me, because you are the only other person who will know where these are. You are never to tell anyone that we have buried these: not your friends, not your sisters, not the police, not even your mother. No matter what happens to me or to you, this is our secret.”
He paused, and Pascal considered the solemn responsibility which was being entrusted to him. This was like being a spy or a soldier, certainly a hero: a hero for France. With a silent prayer for strength and protection, he promised God that he would never, ever tell.
“We must bury it deep -- three feet down under the kitchen garden bed -- so that even if someone tries to search the garden it will not be found. And we must be very quiet.”
Pascal nodded, his eyes large.
“All right then.”
Grandpere wrapped the bundle back up tightly, tucking the ends in. Then he took a spool of string and a pair of scissors from the drawer and tied the bundle tightly. “I’ve oiled them heavily, and this should keep the water out. Now we dig. This stays in here until the hole is ready.”
The bundle was returned to the broom closet and the two men -- the one old, the other very young, but sensing that by his participating in the night’s duties he had entered a new world of responsibility -- went out into the darkness of the garden. Grandpere took a spade and a hand shovel from the garden shed and led the way to the vegetable bed.
As their eyes adjusted to the dim light, Grandpere pointed to the leafy row of carrot tops. Using the hand shovel, Pascal carefully dug out the carrots, each still only as thick as one of his fingers, while Grandpere, using the spade, dug a three foot deep trench where they had been. After nearly an hour of quiet, careful work, they went back into the kitchen, which now seemed dazzlingly bright, and brought out the bundle. Grandpere placed the oil-cloth-wrapped weapons at the bottom of the trench, and they filled it back in, replanting the carrots as they did so.
It was nearly midnight when Pascal went tiredly up the stairs, having scrubbed the dirt from under his fingernails under Grandpere’s critical eye. He slept late the next morning. When at last he came down to the kitchen to get bread and jam for his breakfast, he could not resist looking out the window. Grandpere stood out by the kitchen garden bed, a cup of coffee in one hand and a watering can in the other, sprinkling water on the vegetables before the heat of the day was overhead.
Read the next installment.