We return to Philomene, Pascal and Grandpere, living under German occupation. I'm striving mightily to pick up the pace, so expect the next installment within a week or less.
Chateau Ducloux, France. September 26th, 1914. The stench was terrible.
“How many do you have down here?” Philomene asked.
In the darkness she could hear the soft clucking of many birds, and their smell was overpowering. As her eyes began to adjust to the dim light, she could see birds moving in the shadows and occasional glimmers of birds’ eyes from the darkness.
“Four dozen,” said Hortense Chartier. “It was the most I thought I could hide when the Germans came to take their inventory. As it was, they asked why I had so few birds for such a large poultry barn, but I said that there’d been pestilence and I’d had to destroy several dozen sick birds.”
“How do they do without sunlight?”
Surely a root cellar was a terrible place to try to keep poultry. It seemed certain they would sicken. But perhaps if Madame Chartier were diligent with the cleaning they would be all right. Certainly, they would not be cold. The ground provided insulation, and the body heat of nearly fifty birds made the cellar almost uncomfortably warm.
“They do well enough,” the farmer’s wife assured. “I bring a lantern down for several hours each day at the same time in the afternoon, so that they will know how the days are passing and when to lay. Don’t mind the smell, it’s only because it’s close and warm down here. I clean the floor out every day.”
“I believe you, but it is rather close.”
Hortense led the way back up the ladder, into the shed beneath which the root cellar was dug. They closed the trapdoor and pushed the untidy pile of grain sacks, ropes and horse blankets which concealed the entrance back into place.
The farmwife wiped her hands on her apron, then exclaimed as she looked at Philomene. “Oh, your dress and your hat. I am sorry.”
She was able to help Philomene pick the stray feathers and bits of straw off the hat, but trying to brush at the dust and grime which had got on the skirts of her dress as they climbed in and out of the cellar only seemed to grind the stains further into the wool.
“Don’t let it worry you,” Philomene said, waving her away. “You told me that you needed help. What can I do?”
Hortense glanced around as if guilt inspired the fear she would be overheard. “I get three or four dozen eggs each day from them, and since the Germans don’t know about them I’m free to sell them. But I need feed for them. And--” She hesitated, lips pressed together, eyes down, ashamed of what came next. “I’ve been selling the eggs to other farms, but they have their own hidden livestock. I don’t get very much. I thought, if I could find a way to sell them in town, I could get a lot more for them. With Mathieu gone, and the Germans requisitioning my milk and the eggs from the chickens they know about, I have so little to live on. And surely people in town must be wanting fresh food.”
The thought of a reliable supply of fresh eggs was indeed a powerful temptation. During the first two weeks after the German occupation of the town, supplies had broken down. Panicked villages bought everything possible off the shelves, stocking up for the emergency of unknown duration, and German soldiers tired of their army rations had bought up the rest. Grandpere had hidden away a few cases of canned goods and other non-perishables, so there had been no danger that the family would starve, not soon at any rate, but the shelves were bare and the only fresh food was what came ripe in the kitchen garden.
Disgusted by this chaotic state of affairs, the German commandant had decided to organize the local economy. Records were taken of how many people lived in each household, and inventories were taken of all livestock and other food sources. Rather than going to market, food brought in from the outlying farms now went to the army post, where it was registered and most of it sent on to feed the occupying army. The rest was then passed on to the shopkeepers, along with instructions for how much per person each household could purchase. According to the new order, no one would starve, but they would be hungry in a very organized fashion.
Yet however appealing fresh eggs might be, how could she arrange something when Madame Chartier, used as she was to bringing goods to market, was unable to?
“I thought that if we could find a way to get the eggs into town, your father could find customers through his shop,” Hortense continued.
There was that, but how to get the eggs to the shop?
This was, apparently, as far as Hortense’s thinking had gone. She stood waiting for a reply.
“I don’t know,” Philomene said. “I don’t have a way to get the eggs into town without the Germans seeing any more than you do. But perhaps we can think of something. As you say, Father would be able to find customers for you.”
“Thank you! Would you like…” She looked away, half bashful at what had already passed between them. “I could give you a half dozen to take back today. Just for your family.”
She knew that accepting them would mean a promise to do as she was asked, but she could already imagine making an omelette for dinner. There were onions in the garden, and a there were still two tomatoes reddening on the vine.
“You are so kind, Hortense. Thank you.”
She left with the eggs packed carefully in a drawstring bag. She would find a way to get egg deliveries from the farm into town. After all, Hortense was also alone, her husband in the army, and unlike Philomene without a father’s help either. It was practically a matter of charity to help her find a way to support herself, and the eggs would do that. And if she herself got an omelette out of it as well… One had to eat. And the children would like it so.
“It is not the number of ingredients which makes for good cooking,” Madam Ragot had often said. “Most of the best dishes are simple. A few well chosen ingredients, prepared in the right way. That is everything.”
Philomene wished that Madam Ragot were there to assure the best results with these precious eggs. However, then she would have to send half the eggs home with the cook for her family.
She paused to examine her conscience. Was it greed that made her glad she did not have to share the eggs with Madam Ragot’s family? Should she not desire to share her good fortune with others? Six eggs was enough to make an omelette for a whole family. Three eggs was just a teasing hint of what might be. Soon enough there would be a regular supply of eggs and she would make sure that Madame Ragot was among those who benefit from it.
First she had sauteed the onions in butter until they were pliant and golden. Then she had added the diced tomatoes along with salt and thyme. The smell was wonderful, for itself and for what it promised after several weeks during which brown bread and potatoes -- supplemented by occasional offerings from the garden -- had been the mainstay of nearly every dinner.
Someone pounded on the door.
Just from the knock she knew it was not a friend or neighbor. She put a towel over the bowl full of beaten eggs, and took the pan full of onion and tomato off the flame, then went to open the door.
The person standing on the step was, as she had guessed, a German soldier. Already she was familiar enough with such encounters to recognize from the insignia on his collar, combined with the fact he wore no pistol or sword, that this was a non-commissioned officer of some sort. Had he smelt the cooking from outside and guessed that some sort of smuggling had gone on? Had she been seen carrying the eggs through town?
Her heart seemed to be pounding its way up into her throat, making it impossible to speak. What was the punishment for smuggling eggs? Would they impose some bankrupting fine? Would they close Grandpere’s shop? What if she were taken to jail? Would the children be put with some other family? Or sent to German? Why had she accepted the eggs? How could she have been so greedy? No dinner was worth the breakup of the family.
“Good evening,” said the soldier, in passable French.
Philomene forced down her panic as best she could and returned the greeting. Did her voice sound calm? Innocent? Could he smell the dinner from here?
The German was looking at the family register posted on the wall next to the door, and comparing it to something he had in his notebook. The registers had been instituted two weeks before. Every house within the town limits had been required to post next to the door a list of the names and ages of the people living there. These were then used as the basis for rations and to confirm how many people should be present if a house were searched. Rumor held that several French soldiers -- left behind when the army retreated through the town a month before and now in hiding to avoid becoming prisoners of war -- were hidden in houses within the town, and this among other precautions was designed to flush out such forbidden activity.
“You have a son who is eleven and a daughter who is seven?” the soldier asked.
“Yes.” What did they want with the children? If she was to be punished for having accepted the eggs that was one thing, but they must leave the children out of it.
“Has your daughter begun school yet?”
“No.” Charlotte was due to begin this year, but up to this point she had not begun and whatever the occupiers were doing she want to keep her little girl out of it.
“The school is re-opening on Monday. It will begin at eight o’clock. All students must be in attendance or their families will be fined. School age children found elsewhere during school hours will be subject to arrest and their families subject to fines. Do you have any questions?”
Philomene shook her head mutely.
The soldier gave something between a bow and a nod. “Good evening then, Madame.” Then he turned and continued on down the street. Philomene shut the door and leant against it, feeling limp and drained. She had come to the door not knowing if she would be questioned, fined, arrested. These soldiers occupied the town. They kept Henri away. Perhaps they had wounded or even killed him. There was no way to know because they kept all news from the rest of France away as well.
And now they pounded on her door and threatened her with fines or prison because they wanted the children to go to school. It was ludicrous and terrifying at the same time. For a moment she struggled against the urge to sob until tears washed all of these feelings away.
Then she heard the sounds of the Charlotte and Lucie Marie playing out by the kitchen garden. The smell of sauteed tomatoes and onions wafted in from the kitchen. There was dinner finish. She pushed away from the door and returned to her work.
The curtains of the sitting room were closed against the darkness, but the sound of rain could be faintly heard outside. The children were upstairs in their beds asleep. Philomene was seated in her accustomed chair, next to the fireplace. It could have been any other cozy fall evening, but for the fact that Henri’s chair was empty. And Grandpere was beginning to run out of tobacco.
War and occupation had affected different goods in different ways. With a shopkeeper’s instincts, Grandpere could not help thinking of them in terms of different shelves within the store.
Tinned fish and meat had ceased to be produced, and the supplies had quickly been emptied. Flour, sugar, and other necessities were still available, but they seemed clearly to be adulterated: the bread made with German flour tasted chalky and gritty. Manufactured goods like shoe polish, needles and thread remained available, but their supply was strictly controlled by the Germans. And imported goods like coffee and tobacco were gradually choking off.
He had set aside a few extra pouches of his favorite brand, but as the shelves of the store had emptied he had gradually brought out his reserves. To German soldiers, who he knew received rations of army tobacco anyway, he had let the empty shelves speak for themselves. But when fellow villages had stood staring at the empty shelf and then begun to walk away, he had confessed in low tones, “I have a few more pouches in the storeroom.”
So now he had drawn out his old evening ritual: cleaning his pipe, smelling the old residue of tobacco and smoke which hung about the bowl, at last putting a small pinch of the fragrant shreds into the bowl, laboriously tamping the tobacco down and then at last lighting it to enjoy his few minutes of smoking.
“I paid a call on Hortense Chartier this afternoon,” Philomene said from her chair, her chin resting on her hands as she stared into the fire. “She gave me the eggs that I made for dinner.”
“That was a very good dinner,” Grandpere ventured, sensing from her voice and the set of her shoulders that his daughter wanted to tell him something.
“She has four dozen laying hens hidden away, which the Germans didn’t see when they did their inventory of her farm.”
“They must give her a tidy batch of eggs.”
“They do.” She leaned forward in her chair, and for a moment Grandpere fancied he could see in her eyes the same expression which she had so often worn as a child, when she would sit down on the arm of the very same armchair in which he sat now, look up into his eyes, and with a ‘Please, Papa’ tell him what it was that she wanted. There was almost nothing that he would not do for that little girl, and seeing an echo of that look in the grown woman’s eyes made him wish that it was as easy to wipe her cares away as it had been to grant a child’s wishes.
“Father, there’s something that I’d like to do for her.”
She described Madame Chartier’s hidden chickens and her desire to sell their eggs in town, emphasizing that Hortense was, like her, a woman whose husband was away with the army.
“I’d like to help, but I sell only dry goods at the store. And besides, how would I get the eggs into town without the Germans noticing?”
“It doesn’t matter what you normally sell, people know you and they trust you. As for getting the eggs into town, I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon, and I have an idea that I think will work.”
Andre Guyot answered his door the next morning wearing a rusty old velvet jacket and slippers.
“I thought I would find you here at this time,” Grandpere said, taking off his hat.
Both men took this for what it was an intended: a reference to the fact that Louis Mertens as in his Sunday suit, returning from mass, while Andre never bothered to dress before noon on Sundays.
“How is God this morning?” Andre asked. “Did you put in a good word for France? I’m sure that will let us overcome, since the Germans will never have thought of praying, knowing they are in the wrong, and so God will be on our side.”
Grandpere shrugged. Normally he would have risen to this bait. However falling into the usual sparring with Andre -- and without Henri there to make peace -- would not advance the purpose of his visit.
“Certainly. Come in, come in.”
The postmaster waved him in through the door, then shut it behind him. Andre led the way down the hall to his small kitchen, his cane tapping out a steady rhythm on the floorboards as he went.
“So what brings you here?” Andre asked, as they reached the small, sunny room, fragrant with coffee. “Can I offer you anything? Coffee?”
Grandpere hesitated. To accept someone’s offer of coffee was to deprive him of a luxury that could not be easily replaced. And yet… The smell tantalized. And he was, after all, about to open the possibility of other luxuries.
“Thank you, yes. Coffee would be wonderful.”
Andre served a cup to him. “I know that some have become very careful in their coffee drinking. My belief is that we must act as if the war cannot last long. I make a full pot every Saturday and Sunday morning, and on then on other mornings I stop at Carbonnaux’s. When I run out, either we shall have to throw off the oppressor’s yoke, or I will do without.”
Grandpere knew that Andre was not a customer for coffee. Perhaps he had a subscription to some place in Paris or elsewhere and had received his supply of beans by mail. No matter where his source had been, between the German Army on land and the British Navy, no new coffee was coming in.
“This is delicious,” said Grandpere.
Andre gave a sort of half bow and raised his own cup. “Thank you. Are you staying well supplied with it yourself?”
“Truthfully, I’m running low. The shelves are already empty, but if our own people come in, and there is no one around to see, I go into the back room and get out a bag. I don’t want to waste our last cases of coffee on Germans when they’re the reason we have none.”
“Compromises.” Andre gave a brief smile. “I suppose it’s much the same for both of us.”
The remark was delivered without the acidity of their usual sparring.
“It’s been a month,” said Grandpere, “Since a German officer knocked on my door and told me that either I could re-open the store or he’d allow the soldiers to loot it. I could let my shop be destroyed and all the goods go to the Germans. Or I could re-open and allow them to shop. What could I do?”
“I don’t want to work for the Germans,” said Andre. “I don’t think of myself as working for them because I’m still doing what I always did. I deliver the mail, and for the moment they are the government. But my loyalty is to La Poste, not to German occupation.”
Both men nodded.
“Can I offer you a cigar?” Andre asked. “Well, half a cigar.”
Grandpere nodded. Andre took the cigar out and cut it in half, giving one end to Louis. Then they both leaned in to Andre’s lighter and puffed. A long silence followed, as both men filled the air with smoke, all other differences subsumed for a time in their shared affection for tobacco leaf and understanding of the line that they both walked, working with the occupiers without collaborating with them.
“Do you know Madame Chartier?” Grandpere asked after a time.
“She’s one of my more scenic stops outside of town.” Andre smiled.
“My daughter knows her well from the altar flower guild,” Grandpere said, in what he hoped was a severe enough tone to indicate it was not the young woman’s looks he was seeking to discuss.
“Why are so many of the pretty ones devout?” Andre refused to be squenched.
“Madame Chartier has few means to support herself with her husband gone. The harvest was not good, and the Germans requisitioned much of it. However, she has hidden a number of chickens, and she wants to sell the eggs in town to support herself.”
“It’s a more honorable means of employment than the oldest profession, but the occupiers would rather that she sold herself than sold food outside the ration system. How is she to get eggs, of all things, into town without being seen?”
Louis paused a moment, drawing on the stump of his cigar. It was certain that Andre would not turn him in to the authorities. But would he agree to take on the risk that they were asking of him? Had this been the right way to approach him?
“Philomene pointed out that you are in an ideal position to help. Every day you right out to all the outlying farms in the Poste horse cart. You could pick up the eggs every day, packed in a parcel, and then deliver them to me at the shop. I would sell them out of the back room of the shop, and send the money back to Madame Chartier through you.”
“You’d get a share of the eggs for your trouble, of course. But more importantly you’d know that instead of just serving the occupiers by delivering the mail, you were working against them and serving France right under their noses.”
For a moment Andre’s expression was unreadable. Then he broke into a wide smile. “As I finish delivering mail in town and head out to the farms, I always seem to pass the city hall as Major Dressler is taking a stroll and a cigarette. Each day he waves to me. I shall return his greeting all the more cheerfully from now on.”
Pascal shrugged off his mother’s goodbye kiss and set off for school with a mixture of feelings hidden beneath his eleven-year-old bravado.
It was good to be out of the house, striding along with his satchel over his shoulder. His mother had restricted him to the house and garden as much as possible during the last few weeks and made him promise never to leave the town streets on his forays out. It was boring and unfair, yet at the same time a relief not to be forced to test his own courage.
His steps slowed as he passed the Duval house. The curtains were drawn. When he had last gone to school, before the war, Baptiste had come running out to meet him and they had walked to school together.
At some times it seemed as if the last few months had been some suspension of reality, a book or dream into which he had been drawn, and from which he would awake when everything returned to usual. His father would be back. The Germans would be gone. He and Baptiste would go back to playing in the Mouret orchard.
But now he was going to school again. His father was not sitting over his coffee in the kitchen at home. A pair of German soldiers were walking down the street. And Baptiste was buried in the churchyard, his grave marked only by a wooden cross because Monsieur Prevot, the stonecutter, was away with the army.
The school building was the same as ever. The children milled about in the yard and played games until called to their rooms. Pascal took a seat in the last room on the first floor, the final year of ecole primaire. Next year, he would ascend to the second floor with the older students. Monsieur Cohn called for quiet and took roll. He had just ordered them to take out their arithmetic books when there was a knock at the door and Major Dressler entered.
The German officer waved Monsieur Cohn over to the desk, and the teacher obediently sat down. Major Dressler stood at the front of the room, his posture stiff and military. The leather of his boots and belt were polished to an almost mirror finish, and although he wore a uniform of the same dull grey as all the other Germans, there were a set of bright red stripes up the side of his trousers and ornate tabs of red and gold on the high color of his uniform tunic.
“As the town’s commandant, I greet you on your return to school,” the major said, in French that showed only the slightest trace of an accent. “You should welcome the chance to continue your studies, and with it a sign of a return to peaceful life. Perhaps you think of me as your enemy, but be assured that I do not see France as such. We Germans admire France. We admire your history, your science, your culture. We desire peace with France. And soon, when the government in Paris no longer makes alliance with the despots of Russia and the mercantilists of Britain to encircle and strangle Germany, I am convinced that we shall grow together side by side to form a greater Europe. We here have the good fortune to begin that vision immediately. That is why I insisted that school begin again as soon as possible. You should have the opportunity to spend your days in study rather than being left to idleness in the streets. You will be learning from your own teachers, in your own language. All I insist is that you remain in good order, attend your classes, and stay out of mischief.” He turned to Monsieur Cohn and said, “Carry on.”
Monsieur Cohn rose as the officer left the room. He looked around at his students, then at the closed door, and then back to the class.
“Never believe the lies you just heard,” he said. “This war is the result of nothing but Prussian militarism. They invaded our land, illegally and unprovoked. Their culture is hardly a culture at all; it is brutal and barbaric. We may be for a time occupied by their army, but never believe that France will give up or will fail to drive the Germans from French soil. Unlike them, we are a republic. Their soldiers serve an emperor, but every one of our soldiers is a citizen, fighting for the government which he holds a stake in, and citizens will always prevail over slaves. Always remember that and hold your heads high. Now, open your arithmetic books to page eight.”
The day went on, and during their history lesson Monsieur Cohn provided a passionate outline of Napoleon’s triumphs against the Prussians and Austrians.
It was two weeks later that the class was abruptly given a new teacher, and Monsieur Cohn was sent to Germany as part of a labor battalion.
Read the next installment.