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.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Chapter 15-2

I hope everyone is having a good Thanksgiving weekend. This installment was a lot of fun to write. Every so often a scene which starts off as a way to cover a plot point takes off on its own and becomes a character piece, and Pascal's scene did there here and became the centerpiece of the installment.

I'll be working to get the next installment (finishing Chapter 15) up as quickly as possible. It'll be up no later than this coming Friday, but hopefully sooner.


Chateau Ducloux, France. October 27th, 1914. Not every return to normality was welcome. During the second week of October, the local newspaper, The Lantern, had returned to publication. The typeface and masthead were the same. Eugene Thorel remained the publisher, setting type for its four sheets each afternoon in the workshop which adjoined his house. But the power of the press was closely supervised and this new Lantern shed only the light of German might. Each edition was read throughout the town, yet hated.

Any scrap of news was desperately desired, but this was news filtered through the German command. There was no news of the French army units, active duty and reserve, in which the town’s men served. There was no list of the honorable fallen for families to read with trepidation.

This day’s lead was typical of the last two weeks: “German Army Solidifies Gains Around Langemarck”

In desperate fighting along the Yser river, fresh German units beat the demoralized British and French troops into a defensive position around the nearly-surrounded city of Ypres. Casualties were heavy among the disorganized and demoralized Entente powers as they tried and failed to halt the valiant soldiers of the Imperial German Army.

The paragraphs stretched on but provided little additional news, other than the presence of the city names which indicated that the fighting now stretched all the way to the Belgian coast in Flanders.

“I shouldn’t read it,” said Grandpere in disgust, crumpling the paper. “If we had defeated them, they wouldn’t tell us. The first we’d know is when the shells started to fall on the town again and the Boche began to pull out.”

Philomene smiled at her father. “But you read it every morning.”

“Yes. Yes, I can’t help it.” He smoothed the paper out and began to read again. “Perhaps they’ll give something away. Perhaps what they don’t talk about will give me some clue as to what’s really going on.” He scanned down the page, muttering commentary at times.

Philomene half listened as she spread butter on a piece of the dark, gritty ration bread. No coffee. Black bread. How long was it since Henri has sat at this table, reading his copy of Le Temps and worrying about the unfolding crisis in the Balkans? Three months. Where was Henri now? Was he safe? Was he ever able to quietly read a paper while sipping a cup of coffee and eating a pastry, as they had done together on so many peaceful mornings?

They had bought pastries everyday then, fresh from Jeanpetit’s Patisserie. Now the patisserie made pastries almost exclusively for the German officers. They provided the white flour from their army stores; they received the small, flakey delicacies in return. For the village there was no white flour to be had.

“Can I have another piece of bread?” Pascal was standing in the doorway, his school satchel over his shoulder. It was still only a quarter after eight, but it was encouraging to see the boy so eager for his lessons.

Philomene looked at the large, dark loaf of bread, drying to estimate slices for each family member during the rest of the day. As other foods had become more scarce, the daily one kilo loaf of ration bread had become an essential part of each meal.

“You already had a thick slice this morning with butter and jam on it,” she said.

“But I’m hungry,” Pascal replied, with the trenchancy of a growing boy.

Philomene hesitated. She could always have less herself at dinner if they ran short.

“Let him have another good slice,” Grandpere said, looking up from his paper. “Don’t worry about dinner, Philomene. I have a surprise to show you later on.”

She cut the slice and Pascal bolted from the house with it as soon as he got it in his hand.

“Well?” Philomene asked.

Her father flashed a smiled but turned back to his reading. “You’ll see. Just a little something.” He turned over the paper to read the final sheet and let out a growled invocation, which was the closest he normally came to swearing.

“What?” Philomene leaned in to see what had raised his ire.

On the back page was the headline, “Notice of Requisition,” and underneath the paragraph:

By order of the town Commandant, the following materials are placed under military requisition:
100 winter thickness wool blankets
5 barrels of apples
100 kilograms of copper (cooking vessels, pipe, roofing, etc. are acceptable)
2000 6cm nails
6 draught horses
Collection will be organized by the civilian authorities. If the requisition is not fully gathered by Friday, October 30th, supply patrols will be sent out to collect directly from the population as needed.

“This is nothing but legalized robbery,” said Grandpere. “Not even that. Surely it’s against the law of nations for them to force Frenchmen to give them materials to be used to fight our fellow countrymen.”

Philomene remembered bringing meals to Madame Duval after little Baptiste had been shot by the invading soldiers. Could there be laws of nations when such things happened? Would men who shot on sight hesitate to steal?

“Perhaps in this war there are no laws.”

“Nonsense. We’re not savages. There are treaties. We have rights. And even without treaties, there are human decencies that apply at all times. They can’t steal from us. If Justin Perreau is to be worth anything as mayor, he’ll refuse to carry out these illegal demands.”

Her father showed no sign of calming, and since it was impossible to set town policy at the breakfast table, Philomene changed the subject instead. “You said you had a surprise?”

Grandpere seemed about to respond hotly, then checked himself. For a moment he sat, eyes closed, lips pressed into a line. Then he said, “You’re right of course. What does it accomplish to become angry? I’ll show you something better.”

He pushed aside the paper, got up, and left the room. When he returned a moment later he was carrying a canvas bag, which he opened to reveal potatoes, carrots and onions still dusted with the soft soil they had been grown in.

“I’d added another farmer to the back room market. He’ll send up produce once a week, and I’ll sell it out of the back room to trustworthy villagers. This is our commission for the first week. It should be plenty to give us a good dinner tonight.”

Philomene reached out to touch the smooth yellow skin of one of the potatoes. Yes, this could be simmered into a thick vegetable stew. No one would be hungry tonight.

***

As soon as Pascal reached the cobblestones of the street he set off at a run, the extra slice of bread clutched in one hand, and kept the pace up until he reached the next street, where Lucien Vazart stepped out from the shelter of a doorway to meet him.

“Here.” Pascal broke the piece of bread in half and handed the second piece to the other boy. “I brought this for us to split.” When he had first learned that Lucien came to school hungry, so that he could be seen to eat a lunch the same size as the other boys, Pascal had tried bringing a thick slice of bread entirely for Lucien. This, however, Lucien had rejected with all the pride of his twelve years. He wasn’t hungry, and he was proud that his family wasn’t one of those that got extra food by sucking up to the Boche. Splitting a piece of bread, however, was acceptable to his conscience.

Lucien took the piece and downed it in a few quick bites, chewing massively so that even around the food he was unable to speak for a moment.

“Were you able to get out on reconnaissance last night?” Pascal asked, having swallowed his own last bite.

“Yes, but I didn’t see anything. My father said it was more than my hide was worth to stay out after dark. I watched till seven, but she still wasn’t home by then.”

“So we still don’t know.”

“No, but it’s evidence. What good reason would a loyal Frenchwoman have to be out after dark? There’s nowhere to go now unless you’re with the Boche.”

“She’s a Protestant, so she can’t have many friends,” Pascal offered, recalling Grandpere’s dark warnings about the young Jews and Protestants who were among those who had come from the state teaching schools to instruct in the new secular school.

“The Boche are Protestant,” said Lucien darkly. “Maybe they’re her friends now. Here we are.” In between the locksmith’s and a laundry were two doors leading to upstairs apartments. “Hers is the door on the right.”

The boys found a hiding place between two buildings on the opposite side of the street and settled into the shadows to observe.

Time passed. The plan to keep watch had seemed more exciting than the reality of sitting against a cold brick wall while nothing happened.

“Do you think that Nicolas really saw her with one of the Boche?” Pascal whispered after a few minutes.

“He said he saw her walking with an officer, and that his mother said that her friend heard that there was an officer who spent the night in her flat.”

“Is he quartered with her?”

“Of course not. Even the Boche wouldn’t quarter men with a single woman. It means she’s his mistress. Or maybe she’s not even his mistress, maybe she’s a whore.” Lucien delivered the last worth with emphatic relish.

“But what does that mean? What does a whore do?”

Lucien was one of the oldest boys in the class and spoke on all matters with utter confidence. This seemed an ideal time to clear up what exactly was the ‘fate worse than death’ which he’d heard referred to so darkly.

“You’ve seen dogs mount each other in the street, right?”

“Yes.”

“People are the same way.”

Pascal recalled watching a stray mongrel mount Monsieur Jobert’s spaniel one day outside the pork butcher shop. Amelie had accepted the stray’s advances calmly enough, though growling the whole time in the back of her throat, but then Monsieur Jobert had rushed out of the shop shouting and beating at the offending male with his walking stick. Amelie had wandered back into the shop to console any outrage to her virtue with a sausage, but the pork butcher had been furious, especially when his beloved Amelie had turned up pregnant. He’d insisted on drowning the whole litter, declaring that the town did not need more wandering mixed-breeds. Pascal and his sisters had begged Grandpere to intercede for at least one of the puppies, but Grandpere told them that Yves was enough dog for the family.

“People really mate just like dogs and horses do?”

Lucien nodded sagely.

The revelation made a certain basic sense. There was no mystery about where puppies and other baby animals came from. Pascal had been seven years old when Lucie Marie was born, and he well remembered Mother’s tiredness and swelling stomach and then the morning he had been allowed to visit his parents’ room and see her in her nightgown, propped up on pillow, and holding the little swaddled bundle that was his new sister. Yet when he’d asked Mother how it happened she had explained that when a husband and wife loved each other very much God sometimes sent them another child as a blessing. Even if it was possible to imagine Charlotte and Lucie Marie – even him – being as natural an occurrence as a litter of puppies, it was impossible to imagine Father climbing up on top of mother like the dogs outside the butcher shop.

Surely Mother, whose sensibilities were such that Father and Grandpere sometimes waited till she was out of the room to discuss certain subjects ‘man to man’, wouldn’t allow herself to be mounted like a dog in heat. And would father, always so rational and correct, really try?

“I don’t see how that can be. People aren’t like dogs. How would they even do that?”

“Well, I suppose it’s not exactly like dogs, but it’s the same kind of thing. I think they do it in bed. Armand was starting to tell me about it once, but when I asked him how he knew he told me I was impertinent and clammed up.”

“But do all women do that?”

“Good women only let their husbands do it. If a man has a mistress, that means a woman who acts like his wife even though she isn’t married to him. And a whore will do it with just any man.”

“But why?” Pascal asked. “When dogs mate they have puppies, but surely a whore doesn’t want to have babies all the time.”

Lucien shrugged. “Father used to have a terrier bitch and when she went into heat she’d howl and cry by the door. We’d have to keep her locked up so she wouldn’t go and get pregnant. Maybe some women get like that at times. Or all the time.”

A ludicrous image came to Pascal’s mind of Mademoiselle Levart suddenly stepping away from the blackboard, setting the chalk down on her desk with a low growl, and dashing from the room in search of a German officer. She certainly didn’t show any signs of such madness, but then perfectly calm dogs and cats could become suddenly unpredictable when the mood took them.

“What’s in it for the men anyway? Surely they don’t all want to have babies.”

“I think they just want it. Armand said that we men needed to be vigilant because all the Boche would want it, and some of the women in the village would want to give it to them.”

Pascal was trying to process whether this vision, a world in which men all wanted to mount women and some women were eager to give in, could possibly have any bearing on the calm streets and people that he knew so well, when Lucien reached over and gripped his shoulder. Startled from his thoughts, Pascal saw that the blue painted door had opened and Mademoiselle Levart was stepping out, holding the little leather briefcase in which she carried her books and papers. The boys shrank further back into the shadows of their hiding place, but the teacher gave so sign of suspecting that she was under surveillance from the opposite side of the street. She shut the door behind her and set off down the street at a steady pace.

The young teacher looked exactly as she always did: long narrow gray skirt, high necked white blouse, and wearing the dark blue broad-brimmed hat with a white band, into which was tucked a single red feather. Some of the girls insisted that this was a subtle patriotic touch, a protest against her predecessor’s ouster. Perhaps they were right. Perhaps the whole reconnaissance was based on unfair and vicious gossip.

“We should go so that we’re not late to class,” Pascal said, still instinctively using a whisper as they crouched in their hiding place between the buildings. The whole expedition now seemed embarrassing, and Lucien’s explanation of relations between men and women ludicrous.

“There’s still time. Let’s watch a little longer.”

“But there’s nothing to see.”

“Maybe the Boche is hiding inside till she’s gone. I still think it’s very suspicious she wasn’t home before dark last night.”

After watching this long, letting up and leaving without Lucien somehow seemed more humiliating than staying, so Pascal remained in place with an uneasy conscience, mentally calculating again and again how long it would take to walk to school and whether they would be late.

The church tower rang a quarter to nine. It would take five minutes to get to school, but even so fifteen seemed far too little. The other children would be playing and talking in the school yard, and they were sitting on a failed stake out of the sort he was sure Rouletabille never stooped to. The gallant young reporter/detective of Leroux’s novels would never put a lady under surveillance, not if his life depended on it. But then if Mademoiselle Levart had been with a German officer, perhaps she was no lady. Or perhaps there was some tragic backstory which he must discover that would explain the suspicions against the pretty young teacher. What if she had been forced into a marriage with a German before the war, and the villain was now in the invading army trying to hold her to it? Perhaps she needed to be rescued!

The blue door opened again, and both boys froze in excitement and guilt. The moment between when the door opened into the dark little entry and when someone appeared on the step seemed to stretch out forever. Pascal was holding his breath and let it out with an explosive gasp when a tall man in German uniform stepped out. The boys, even more so than the town’s other civilians, had become experts in the nuances of German uniforms and rank. This man’s shoulder tabs marked him as a sergeant, and one of the logistics company, not the regular reserve company tasked with formal occupation duties. The sergeant looked up and down the street, stretched, and put his spiked helmet on, then ambled off down the street with a step that more suggested a worker on his day off than a proud soldier of an occupying army.

Lucien and Pascal exchanged a look, then by silent agreement stepped from their hiding place and headed down the street in the opposite direction, taking a circuitous route to the school which would avoid the streets the sergeant might be on while making his own way back to the city buildings in which the Germans had set up offices.

They reached the school yard with just a few minutes to spare before nine o’clock, but in that time Lucien called a conference of the boys in their class and announced the discovery: “Our teacher is a traitor to France. We must take action. Let’s meet behind the building at lunch time and make our plans.”

Normally a devoted student, Pascal found concentration difficult during the morning lessons. Mademoiselle Levart was demonstrating how to calculate the area of a circle, drawing shapes and figures, at times standing on tip-toe in order to write on the upper part of the blackboard despite her short frame. The lines and numbers swam before Pascal’s eyes, and his notebook contained nothing but a stray drawing of a cannon mowing down German soldiers. Each time the teacher turned to write, his gaze fixed instead on the hourglass shape of shoulders, waist and hips. Was it true, what Lucien said? Had the tall German sergeant spent the night climbing onto Mademoiselle Levart’s back like the stray on Monsieur Jobert’s spaniel? Had she let him? The idea was horrifying and yet strangely fascinating, stirring him in ways that were new, disturbing, and all consuming.

He shifted awkwardly in his seat. Mademoiselle Levart turned back to the class and read the demonstration from her book.

“Who would like to work a problem on the board? ‘Example A) A circle has a diameter of six centimeters. Calculate the circle’s area.’” She scanned the room of students and even as he prayed for her eyes to pass over him she said, “Pascal Fournier.”

He felt heat rising in his face. She knew. She could see the vile thoughts about her which had infested his mind, and this was her revenge. But while he had been indulging in – What was the catechism phrase which now seemed suddenly full of meaning? Impure thoughts? -- he had completely missed the lesson. He desperately looked over the drawings on the blackboard. There was a square around a circle, a smaller square encompassing a quarter of a circle, equations which seemed as impenetrable as some heathen language. He sank lower in his chair and shook his head.

Mademoiselle Levart advanced to his desk and picked up his notebook, seeing its guilty blankness except for the martial drawings across the top.

“A boy who cannot even calculate the area of a circle will never be given the chance to command a cannon,” she said. “You may stand in the back of the room, Pascal.”

He went, guiltily, and stood in the back of the room as one of the girls, in the bloom of her innocence, worked the problem correctly on the board.

Read the next installment.

No comments:

Post a Comment