This concludes Chapter 15. The next installment will be up within a week (this time for sure!). We'll be returning to Jozef for Chapter 16.
Chateau Ducloux, France. October 28th, 1914. The Perreau house on the Rue des Ragons was unchanged by the three months of occupation. Behind the wrought iron vines and flowers of the decorative fence, the gardens rose as pristine and manicured as when Philomene had come in July to seek permission to host her fete there.
With war had come a near paralysis of the town’s economy. Trucks and wagons no longer pulled up in front of the Mertens shop each morning to make deliveries of merchandise to stock the shelves, nor did Louis Mertens’s customers have reliable means of income to pay for his wares. And of course, Henri was no longer earning the fees of his accounting work. Thus Philomene had no longer been able to pay Madame Ragot and Emilie for the hours they spent cooking, cleaning, and watching the children, and for the first time in her married life she was confronted with the full weight of her household’s labor.
As in so many things, the Perreaus inhabited another level of society. They did not employ help by the hour. On the household register posted on the grey stone wall of the house, above the ornamented brass plate which held the button for the electric doorbell, were listed not just Madame Perreau and her son Justin, now the German-appointed mayor, but also the gardener, the cook, and two maids, all residents of the house. If the invasion had reduced the Perreau household income by cutting them off from the Paris stock exchange and the interest payments on government bonds, the house remained the home of its workers as well as its masters and all had, so far, dealt with the deprivations of occupation together.
“Madame Perreau is still in the breakfast room, but she will see you there,” the elderly maid told Philomene, after leaving her for some time to contemplate the entry hall.
The breakfast room was a sunny, east-facing room opening onto the careful order of the rose garden. The roses bushes were bare of blooms and leaves now. Among the geometric order of the gravel paths, the twisted fingers of bare canes already pruned back for the winter pointed at the grey autumn sky, the barren order a fitting vision of the town as it waited to weather a cold season whose length was not yet known.
Madame Perreau was wearing her usual black silk dress, a pair of gold-rimmed pince nez perched upon her nose, sitting at the table with a portable writing desk before her. A silver coffee pot sat next to her, and it was not until Philomene inhaled its fragrant scent that she realized how much she had missed the pot of morning coffee.
She took the seat towards which Madame Perreau waved her and waited until the older woman signed her letter with a flourish and blotted it carefully.
“So, Madame Fournier, to what do I owe this honor?”
It was with a slight effort that Philomene turned her eyes from the coffee pot, where she had rested her jealous gaze while waiting for Madame Perreau to speak, and focused them instead on the face of her host. Putting aside hopes that she would be offered a cup, she organized her thoughts.
“I wanted to consult you about the requisition order which has been published. Firstly, is there any chance that the Germans could be persuaded to rescind their order? Surely, when so many of the men are without work or away in the army, and now with winter coming on, we are in no position--”
Madame Perreau raised her hand to cut her off. “If you’ve cometo ask me to influence city administration then you are wasting both of our time. I have no power over my son’s official duties, and even if I did the military commandant takes no direction from the civil government. Our civil administration is allowed to exist only to carry out the wishes of the military one.”
Philomene lowered her head in submission. “To be sure. I quite understand. In that case, my other errand is simply to you as a leader among the town’s women.”
The question was asked coldly, and Philomene felt sure that her errand was in vain, but having got this far she would not give up without asking. If Madame Perreau did not care to help, let her say so.
“Surely if we must meet this unreasonable demand from the invaders, we should band together as Frenchwomen to assure that the most vulnerable among us do not bear the brunt of the hardship. We could organize a collection to meet these demands without the poorest families having to give up their blankets or cooking pots right before winter. I’m sure some families could spare three wool blankets more easily than others could give even one.”
To her surprise the widow was nodding slowly. “It is a very good idea, Madame Fournier. A very Christian idea. The Lord tells us to look out for the very least among us, does he not?”
Relief flooded into Philomene, but Madame Perreau continued speaking.
“But we must ask ourselves: Who are really the least among us, and how can we best help them? I tell you: If the Germans see that we have organized in order to meet their demands, they will simply see it as an opportunity to ask for more. We will have put a tool into their hands to plunder the town further. And really, it is so hard to say who is most needy in such difficult times. I’m sure that everyone thinks of my own household as the most fortunate, but you know, we have two officers quartered on us and are responsible for giving them rooms and food and fuel. And despite having lost access to our investments, I am committed to supporting all of our staff. You dismissed your maid and cook, and the maid now does laundry for the Germans. But I could not leave those who have worked for me so long to fend for themselves by serving the serving the occupiers in that fashion.”
Philomene felt her hands clenching into fists to stop from trembling with anger. “I did not dismiss Emilie and Madame Ragot. I did not have the money to continue paying them at the old rates, and naturally they did not wish to accept a reduction.”
“Don’t think that I’m attacking you,” Madame Perreau assured with a smile which Philomene could only see as mocking. “We must each make our own decisions in these times, and I would never condemn yours. But of course, in our family, I knew that I could never abandon our staff, no matter how hard the times. So I assured them that so long as they remained willing to work for us, they would always have a place to live here. Let’s not bring out household circumstances into this, however. I think the best thing for all involved is clearly to have each household contribute equally to meet the German demands. I’ve already directed that Odette find an old wool blanket and a small copper saucepan for our contribution.”
Though she tried several more arguments, Philomene found Madame Perreau impossible to budge, and it was with a heart seething in frustration that she left the large grey house on the hill and walked back down the Rue de Ragons.
Her next stop was the Serre house. Hugo Serre had built his new house on the northern outskirts of the town, where there was room for the gracious structure that his new-built wealth deserved, and where it was an easy drive in his automobile to the cement factory, lime pits, and kilns which had built that wealth.
The house, made in the style of a stone-built chateau but using instead as its principal material the highest grade of cement produced by the Serre Cement Works, had been built on a huge expanse of grassy lawns, with a double line of new trees lining the long driveway leading up to the house from the road. If the location and size of the estate had been chosen to showcase Monsieur Serre’s wealth, however, it also had the unforeseen result of isolating his family. Though only a twenty minute walk from the center of town, the distance of the house from others served to assure that it received few casual visitors, and Madame Serre’s diligently paid calls in town were not returned with nearly the same frequency.
Philomene herself had not visited in six weeks, though she had seen Madame Serre frequently at church and had told herself each week that this time she really must be sure to visit. She was shocked to see the extent of the changes which that time had wrought. The once smooth grass was torn and rutted by wagon tracks, and several wooden wagons were parked at odd angles around the house. Military supply tents stood near the house, and near them were scattered bottles, tins and broken crates.
Taking in these sights with a feeling of growing fear, Philomene’s pace slowed as she advanced up the driveway. When a call, an obscene suggestion in German she could only half understand, came from one of the tents, she nearly fled. But then, with the next house half a kilometer away, what safety would there be in running away toward the road? Surely the house itself was where safety lay, and she hurried her steps.
Madame Serre herself answered the door, and when she saw Philomene standing on the threshold her expression for a moment, wavering between smiling and crying. “Philomene! You came. Thank you. You can’t know how much this means.” She seemed about to say more but choked, and all that came forth was a sob. She threw her arms around Philomene and hugged her tight.
For a moment Philomene was too surprised to respond in any way, her hands hanging awkwardly as her sides as the other woman held her tight. Then she returned the embrace, feeling Madame Serre’s ragged breathing.
“It’s all right, Eva. I’m here. I’m glad I came.”
Slowly the other woman’s crying subsided and they stood leaning into each other’s arms. It was a strange feeling which reminded Philomene of her own loneliness. She often had reason to hold one of the little girls close, occasionally even Pascal when his self-conscious young masculinity would allow it, but she had not been held by another adult since Henri left. Feeling that warmth and closeness, even in this very different circumstance, was a throat-tightening reminder of the loneliness which had haunted her days and nights: the times when she had turned to speak to someone who wasn’t there and the times when she had yearned for a comfort that there was no one to give.
Madame Serre’s grasp loosened and she released Philomene, stepping back and pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve to wipe her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” said Madame Serre. “I didn’t mean to make such an exhibition of myself. Come inside. I have a little bit of tea. Would you like tea?”
Philomene followed as Madame Serre led the way, not to her sitting room but to a butler’s pantry in the serving passage off the kitchen, a small room lined with drawers and shelves into which had been wedged a pair of flower-upholstered chairs.
“It’s not as gracious as the sitting room, I know,” said Eva. “But the officers have the use of the front rooms, and I thought that if I took this room as my sitting room I would be able to protect some of the linens and china from their ravages.”
She took a little spirit burner from the shelf, worked the pump, and lit it, placing a kettle on it to warm.
Watching these preparations from her seat in one of the chairs, Philomene could not help comparing this to her own home. True, she now had to cook and clean herself, and luxuries such as coffee were rare, but to see Madame Serre evicted from her sitting room and making tea in the confines of the butler’s pantry was sobering.
Eva bustled about the tight confines of the room, setting out a pair of delicate china cups and saucers decorated with a design of strawberry vines in soft colors and carefully measuring just enough loose tea leaves into the china tea pot. The kettle whistled and she poured the water into the teapot. Setting it aside to steep, she at last sat down in the other chair.
“The tea is a comfort. One of the officers gave it to me. I didn’t tell Hugo where it came from. He would have made me throw it out.” This had been delivered in a conversational tone which was bright and normal, aside from its subject matter, but after this last she looked down. “Perhaps he’s right.”
Philomene could see the other woman’s jaw tremble and her face work as Madame Serre tried to force back an urge to cry. It seemed unkind to admit that Philomene had not actually visited because she had heard of whatever misfortune loomed over her acquaintance, but there was danger of even greater rudeness if she attempted to conceal her ignorance and then revealed it by accident.
“I’m glad that I came when you needed company,” Philomene said, before the pause could stretch to awkward length. “But I must confess, I had not heard anything. I came on my own errand. But surely,” she added, seeing Madame Serre’s hand go to her mouth. “God sees all things. Perhaps He guided me here today, even though I thought it was my own idea.”
Eva plied her handkerchief again. “Yes. It must be the work of God. I’m so glad you came,” she said. “But I’m thinking only of myself. The tea!” She got up, poured cups, and handed one to Philomene. “What did you come about?”
Philomene allowed herself a small, indulgent sip of the tea -- good, hot, fragrant tea such as she had not tasted in several weeks. “No, no. It can wait. Tell me what has happened here.”
Madame Serre’s eyes fell, and Philomene wondered if she had been wrong to ask. “They’ve taken Hugo away.”
“Taken him away? Why?”
In fits and starts, and moving forward and backward to explain details left out, Eva explained. The trouble had begun with the cement works. When the war had come, and half the workers had been called up into the army, the factory had scaled back its work but not shut down. However, with the German invasion, Huge Serre had suspended operations when the trains stopped running. If there were no orders, and no way to ship cement, there was no reason to pay workers to make more. At the beginning of October, a letter from the commandant had instructed him to resume manufacturing and sell the cement to the German authorities. But rather than have his cement used to build German fortifications which might be used to prevent French troops from liberating his homeland’s soil, Hugo had refused. Then, in seeming retaliation, the soldiers had been quartered with them, not just a few officers, but sixteen enlisted men and their supplies as well. When he still refused to reopen the factory, fines had been imposed, ruinous fines. Still Hugo had remained adamant that he would not provide the invaders with cement which could be used against the French army.
At last, they had told him that if he did not comply the factory would be confiscated. If he would not work it for the German authorities, they would put it in the charge of someone who would. She had begged him to let it go. At last they would be free to live in peace. After the war they could rebuild, but for now what was this money and property but a burden?
But he was proud, and last night he had gone down to the factory at night with this foremen. They had wrecked or burnt every piece of machinery and building. He had come home, tired and smelling of smoke and cement dust, but proud. And this morning early the Germans come and taken him away. She had gone to the commandant’s office, but all they would tell her was that he had been sent on a train to Germany.
When the story was at last all told, Philomene found herself again holding Madame Serre in her arms as the older woman sobbed against her shoulder. “What will I do? Where are they taking him? When will I see him again?”
She rubbed Eva’s back and told her that it would be all right, all the while wondering if it would. What could they do to Hugo? He was not a criminal. Surely they could not put him in prison, could they? How would Eva know what was happening to him? Who could she appeal to?
Slowly the other woman calmed. At last Eva sat back in her chair, wiping her eyes and sniffing.
“I’m sorry. I’m being all sorts of burden to you today, when you’ve been kind enough to visit. And there, you didn’t even come to hear all this. What is it that brought you here? You’ve been so good to me. Surely there’s something that I can do for you?”
This seemed to be a bad time to ask Madame Serre to provide contributions to ease the burden of the requisition on the less fortunate, and yet she continued to press Philomene to know the reason for her visit.
“You saw the requisition order that the Germans published?” Philomene asked.
Madame Serre nodded.
Philomene explained again her idea for a collection to meet the demands of the German requisition without the poorest families losing supplies they would need in the coming winter. Eva, however, was a far more willing audience than Madame Perreau, and even before Philomene had finished was pledging to help in the collection.
“No, please,” said Philomene, embarrassed by the eagerness of the other woman’s reaction. “I had no idea of all that the Germans had already taken from you. Do not feel you need to give things which you need in order to keep your own family fed and warm.”
“God have mercy! I’m hardly among the town’s poor yet. Besides, I’d rather have my linen cabinet and cupboards emptied to help our own families than see my things stolen by the soldiers quartered here. Here, let’s go see what we can find.”
The clear outward purpose gave Madame Serre new energy, and together the two women sorted through closets and cabinets to make an inventory of the things which the Serre household could provide for the collection. It was, in the end, more than Philomene could have hoped to carry away with her that day. When she left, an hour later, it was with a piece of notepaper in her bag, detailing the items which the Serres would provide as soon as Philomene could arrange for a cart to come out to pick them up.
She walked back into town with a lighter heart and the resolution to visit several more women before going home. After all, Pascal was still at school, and the girls would be playing under Grandpere’s eye. What had happened to Madame Serre was terrible, and even as she continued to seek for donations of blankets and copper, she planned to ask who might be able to write a letter to get news of Hugo and secure his release. Yet while she had left Madame Perreau’s feeling downcast about her project and about her town, crushed under occupation, it was uplifting to see how, even under her day’s misfortunes, Eva had seized upon the chance to help others. W/ith such a spirit, surely France would endure until the invaders left.
It was the middle of the afternoon when Philomene returned home, tired but satisfied with her progress. She had collected pledges which would meet the entire German demand for blankets and most of the demand for copper. Their remaining demands -- for apples, nails and horses -- the Germans would doubtless meet at the expense of a few tradesmen and farmers, but the town’s poorer families were at least safe for now from having their household goods taken.
She found Grandpere in an ebullient frame of mind at home. A man from Sedan had paid a call.
“What did he want?” Philomene asked, sitting down on one the kitchen chairs, to give her tired feet a rest before preparing dinner.
Grandpere looked briefly out the window before answering, and assured that all three children were safe out in the back garden -- out of trouble and out of earshot. “He wants to put together a distribution network. Fresh eggs, produce, and meat are impossible to get in the city, and the nearby villages are already picked clean. He’ll send a wagon once a week to take fresh food from here, and in return he’ll send non-perishables. Look at this.”
With a flourish he drew a tin of sardines from his pocket. “Imagine that on our bread tonight.”
Philomene could indeed imagine it. Already, she half tasted the salty, oily flavor of the fish. It would be so good.
From outside she heard, muffled by the window’s glass, a bellow followed by a splintering smash. She looked out the window to see Pascal wielding a hatchet to smash wooden crates, yelling his defiance at them as he did so.
“The boy has been sullen ever since he came home from school,” her father said. “I told him to make himself useful by breaking those crates into firewood. It seems to be giving him a vent for his feelings, whatever they are.”
As Philomene watched, Pascal raised the hatchet again. She could faintly hear him yell, “Is that the kind you are? Take that!” He swung the hatchet and smashed the thin, dry slats of wood. Charlotte and Lucie-Marie, standing well back as they watched, cheered at the exhibition.
“If it gets the sulks out of him, it will be an improvement,” Grandpere went on. “And we need to start using less coal, so the firewood will come in handy.”
The labor did seem to clear Pascal’s mood, and he was cheerful over dinner, especially as each of them was able to lay three little sardines on their first slices of bread, then soak up the juices with their second.
The next day, however, he was again angry and uncommunicative. He rushed off to school early with hardly a word, and when he returned he growled one word answers to his mother’s questions until, in frustration, she ordered him to his room to read.
Friday he gave her a greater fright. It was the deadline for the German requisition, and Philomene had been out much of the day assuring that all the goods were collected and turned in to the authorities as she had planned. When at last she was home, tired but satisfied, she found Charlotte and Lucie-Marie playing with their dolls in the shop’s back room, but Pascal seemed to be nowhere, even as the sun set and evening shadows lengthened.
She searched and called repeatedly. Grandpere went out and searched the streets nearby. No sign of him.
Her prayers were panicked. Mary, you must have felt this way when you realized that Our Lord was not with you on the return from Jerusalem. Help me to share likewise in the joy you felt on finding him in the temple. Please. Let me find him.
She remembered going to visit Madame Duval, and seeing that woman’s frantic sorrow over the loss of Baptiste. Surely Pascal would not have… No, she would not allow herself even to imagine the sorts of activities which might put him in the way of a German bullet. Pascal was fine. He had slipped out with his friends on some silly lark. She was furious with him, and yet eager to throw her arms around him and hold him tight.
The kitchen door opened and closed and Pascal’s steps sounded on the kitchen floor. Now that he was here and safe, anger was more possible. “Where have you been?” Philomene demanded, folding her arms before her chest as a way to fight off a sudden urge to fly and him and either slap him for his lack of consideration or embrace him because he was back and whole.
“Just playing in the kitchen garden.”
Philomene hesitated to accuse him directly of lying, if only because she did not want to believe that he would do such a thing as to tell her a bald an untruth. But she had searched the kitchen garden repeatedly, calling his name -- and gritting her teeth as the girls followed her calling his name as well in a clamor which grated on her tight-stretched nerves.
Yet here he was, safe and whole, glowering at her with his chin thrust out defiantly.
“I’ve been searching and calling for you. Grandpere is still out searching for you now.”
Pascal shrugged. “I don’t know why I didn’t hear you.”
He was lying. Lying to her after leaving her in such fear.
“Go to your room,” she ordered. “Grandpere will deal with you when he gets home.”
Pascal went upstairs without another word, still defiant. When Grandpere came home, after due consultation with Philomene, he went upstairs to get his heavy leather shaving strop.
“I told him that he could come down when he was ready to apologize,” Grandpere said, when he returned to the kitchen, with the grave, angry look which having to punish his grandson usually left on him.
Evidently an apology was slow in coming, because Pascal did not appear again that night. The absence worked at Philomene’s heart, suggesting possible reasons for her son’s behavior and telling her that she would rather have him close to her than see him draw away. How much would she give to take this night back if years from now she looked on this as the first night of her son’s estrangement from her?
When it was time for bed she cut a slice of bread, spread butter on it, and brought it up stairs with her. She knocked on Pascal’s door and heard a sniff from inside.
“Are you ready to come out?” she asked.
The voice that replied had a quaver in it, but the answer was still, “No.”
She set the plate with the bread down on the floor. “There’s something out here for you when you’re ready.”
It was late in the night when she woke from a restless sleep. The moon, nearly full, illuminated the room with its pale, bluish light. Laying still, she heard a floorboard creak out in the hall, and then the gentle bump of a door closing softly. She got up and went to her own door, putting her hand on the knob. It should have been Henri looking after noises that came in the night. What would she do if there were an intruder? But the sound had come from the direction of Pascal’s room and the nursery. If some burglar or worse were to go there--
She opened her door, and as she did so saw something flutter in the dim light, down by her feet. There was a folded piece of notepaper on the floor. She picked it up and took it to the window where the light was stronger.
There she read in Pascal’s careful schoolboy hand an equally formal set of phrases:
I am sorry that my actions caused upset to you and to Grandpere. Please understand that everything I did was necessary for the honor of France.
On Sundays, the evening meal was moved up to early afternoon. Philomene began preparing it as soon as they had returned from mass and broken their fast. Despite the difficulties of obtaining supplies, she still made every effort to assure that Sunday was a day of celebration in food as well as prayer. On the way home from church she had purchased the week’s one loaf of white bread, and it was sitting, crusty and inviting, on the kitchen shelf as she sliced vegetables to add to the pot in which a ham bone was stewing.
The knock at the door surprised her. It was not normally a time for calls or business. The person standing on the step was Monsieur Pruvot, the principal of the school, wearing a dark Sunday suit and hat, though as someone whose only faith was Laïcité he was never someone seen at the church. Philomene invited him to come in and talk in the sitting room, but he shook his head.
“This will only take a moment. I don’t want to trouble you any more than necessary, but I am paying a call on all the parents of boys in the fourth year of our ecole primaire.”
Philomene felt the sudden tug of fear, and the principal’s suit took on a funereal aspect in her eyes. Had something happened to one of the boys? Was this the explanation for Pascal’s behavior the night before?
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Yesterday evening, someone defaced the door of Mademoiselle Levart. The vandals were not identified, but the woman who owns the laundry next door said that she saw a group of boys. I believe it was boys from the class, because Mademoiselle Levart has been subject to a campaign of harassment from her students during this last week, with obscene messages written on the blackboard and on slips of paper left in Mademoiselle Levart’s desk and books.”
This was not the sort of trouble which she had expected, yet the idea that Pascal had become involved in such a thing was disturbing in a new and different way.
“You say obscene. May I ask what kind of messages they were?”
Monsieur Pruvot’s lips contracted into a light line. “I will not sully your ears or Mademoiselle Levart’s reputation with the implications which were leveled against her. Suffice it to say that they accused her of impropriety in the most revolting terms.”
Would Pascal do such a thing? Her Pascal? Was this the consequence of Henri being gone? Of the new friends Pascal had made after Baptiste’s death? Of too many boys, angry at the invasion of their homes and without the guidance of their fathers?
She wanted to deny even the possibility of Pascal being involved in harassing his teacher, but then there was his strange behavior the night before.
“About what time did this occur yesterday?” she asked.
“Shortly after sunset. Perhaps six o’clock.”
The time when she had been so frantically searching for Pascal.
“Very well,” said Philomene. “I will talk with my son and deal with him appropriately.”
“Not only must the harassment of Mademoiselle Levart cease,” said the principal. “But recall that the Germans are now responsible for keeping order in the town. If they were to catch boys engaging in vandalism, I do not know what they would do.”
Philomene nodded, fear and anger tangling into a knot in her stomach.
Back in the kitchen, the crusty loaf of bread and the pot of stock simmering on the stove seemed like leftovers from a happily innocent time. Some turnips lay, half chopped, on the cutting board. Mechanically she finished cutting them and dumped them into the stew.
She would talk to him after dinner. She would confront him and find out the truth. No son of hers, no son of Henri’s, would disgrace his family by writing obscene messages about his teacher.
But what would she confront him with? She didn’t even know precisely what the boys had done. They had vandalized Mademoiselle Levart’s door, but how?
She opened the heat box and raked the coals in the stove. They would keep the pot simmering for a while without any danger of boiling over or burning dry. She would find out.
It was a short walk to the street where Mademoiselle Levart lived. The blue-painted door next to the laundry glistened with a new coat of paint, but it would take several more coats to fully conceal the lettering which had been painted on the door in broad black strokes. For now the words showed through dimly, a shadow that had not yet been fully driven away: “Pute Boche”
With those two, short, ugly words, several pieces fell neatly into place to produce a coherent picture: Pascal’s sullen and angry behavior the last few days, the reference in his note of apology to the ‘Honor of France’, and various whisperings among some of the other ladies at church -- Did you hear about that Protestant teacher? Yes, that’s right, walking down by the Mouret orchard with a German. Do these young women have no shame? -- the sort of whispers that Philomene normally made very effort to forget as soon as she heard them.
Poor Mademoiselle Levart. How must she feel? No matter how groundless, no matter how refuted, the blotch would lurk in people’s minds like those letter showing through the paint.
Pascal must be taught a sharp lesson so that he would never participate in this kind of cruelty again.
It was after the girls had been put to bed that Philomene summoned Pascal, who had been reading in the sitting room while Grandpere cleaned and filled his pipe. After careful thought she had decided that she would hold the discussion in her room.
If voices were raised in the kitchen Grandpere might come in and begin to lay down his own rougher law, doubtless beginning with the phrase, “Young man, is that any way to speak to your mother?” By taking the step of bringing Pascal to her room, however, she would make clear that this was something she was dealing with in the privacy of her own family. Since he had turned over the main bedroom to Philomene and Henri when they came to live with him, Louis Mertens had only entered it on two occasions, each time to visit a newborn grandchild. By such scrupulosity was peace maintained between the generations in the Mertens and Fournier household.
Philomene seated herself at her dressing table, and positioned the framed picture of Henri where she could look to him for support. Pascal stood nervously with his hands folded behind his back.
“I know what you boys painted on Mademoiselle Levart’s door.”
Her son’s face went stony, as she had seen it do so many times over the years when he was confronted with something he had done, yet was not ready to back down. She waited a moment to see if he would reply, but he remained silent, looking at the floor in front of her rather than meeting her gaze.
“Monsieur Pruvot tells me that the students have been harassing her as school as well.”
“He said that a group of boys were seen when the door was vandalized. He doesn’t know which boys are responsible. Is that where you were last night, Pascal?”
Slowly he raised his eyes to look at her. She waited for him to speak, knowing that the silence would become intolerable to him.
“Yes,” he said at last.
“That was wrong, Pascal. Even if the other boys were bent on doing such a thing, you must never allow yourself to go along with something you know is ungentlemanly and wrong. What have you done to that poor woman’s reputation? How must she feel seeing those ugly words painted on her door, and on the basis of nothing more than gossip?”
“It’s not gossip!” Pascal replied, angry at the accusation. “It’s nothing but the truth. We would never insult a woman’s honor based on hearsay. But she has no honor. She is dragging France’s honor through the mud. She’s nothing but--”
The rush of words stopped abruptly and Pascal pressed his lips together rather than say the word before his mother and in her own room.
This hesitance itself made Philomene angrier. Was he afraid to name now the thing which he had painted on an unmarried woman’s door? Would he not use the word before his mother that he had written before all the world?
“Nothing but what, young man?”
He looked down and remained silent.
“I have heard the word before, Pascal. And I know what it means better than you do. But if you’re hesitant to use it in front of me you should have been hesitant to write it on a your teacher’s door.”
It was a moment before Pascal replied, and Philomene could see a slight tremble in his jaw, as if he was fighting for control before he spoke. Poor boy, he was so young. Why did he insist on grappling with these things? If only he would admit that he’d been wrong, he could rush to her arms and she would hold him close. He could again be her little boy, her dear little boy who would never want to hurt anyone.
Instead Pascal’s hands formed into fists and she could see his body tense as if he wanted to be bursting into action rather than words. “We saw it all. Nicolas saw her walking with a German, and his mother said the German spent the night in her flat, and Lucien and I did a stake out just like proper detectives, and we saw a German sergeant come out of her flat after her. It’s all true. She gives herself to them like a common animal. It’s disgusting. She shouldn’t be in our school. She shouldn’t be in France. If she loves the Germans so much why doesn’t she go live there? She thinks she can trample the honor of France because the men are all gone but we won’t let her! We’ll drive her out!”
His voice rose as he spoke until it was near a shout. His clenched fists were trembling with barely controlled rage. It took an act of will for Philomene to remain calm and still in her chair. She wanted to draw back. For the first time her son seemed dangerous, not in the way he had been as a little child -- hurling himself on the floor to wail and pound with hands and feet, a danger more to himself than to others -- but as a boy very nearly as tall as she and perhaps already stronger.
What would happen to the little school teacher, who had moved into the town fresh from the teachers’ college two years before and had few local friends, if the full wrath of such almost-men was released against her? And who, in a village that would rightly despise what she had done, would protect her?
“No, Pascal.” Good. Her voice was calm. On no account must she let him hear fear in her voice. “Defacing a defenseless woman’s door is not protecting France’s honor. If what you say is true, she has done wrong and brought shame on herself. But she will suffer enough for that on her own; it’s not your place to try to punish her.”
“Someone has to punish her.”
“Her own life will punish her. Do you think this German will marry her and take care of her? If she has a child, do you think that child will have a father to provide for him? We must have pity for a fallen woman, not try to make ourselves feel more virtuous by delighting in her humiliation.”
“So you think we should just do nothing?”
“When the Germans leave, she will leave too. The school won’t employ a teacher known for having an affair with an occupying soldier. But right now the Germans are in charge. They won’t fire her for that. If you try to drive her away with harassment and cruelty, you’ll only destroy your own soul.”
This time there was a long pause before he spoke, and when he did at last it was in a softer voice. “Isn’t there anything we can do?”
From that tone she knew that he was not yet past reaching. “Pascal.” She stepped over to him and put her hands on his shoulders. “My brave boy. I know you want to do something. I know it’s humiliating to see the occupiers running everything and taking everything. But remember that Father is fighting for France. Our duty is to keep the family safe, and when the Germans are defeated and he comes home, to still be people of whom he can be proud. Henri would never humiliate a woman -- even a fallen one -- and you must not either.”
No reply. She sensed that she had won, but that to say so out loud seemed to difficult for him.
“Thank you, Pascal. I know that I can rely on you to make us proud.”
A fraction of a nod.
“You can go now.”
He turned and left. A moment later she heard the door of his room shut hard.
She sat down on the bed. There was nothing left; she felt drained to the last dregs of her ability. Careless of the door which Pascal had left standing open she allowed herself to lie back on the bed, looking up at the ceiling above.
It was so easy to hate them. The Germans. The politicians. Everyone who had brought about this terrible war. Even this poor, stupid, weak little teacher who unknowingly had introduced Pascal to the world of love affairs and the cruelties visited upon the women caught in them. Couldn’t she have thought of that before she spread her legs for some German soldier?
But there. Perhaps she hadn’t known any better, living alone, no family nearby, perhaps no religion either. She had trained to teach in the secular schools after all. And the Germans had food and coal. How must it be with no father to help provide for the family and no husband to wait for?
Henri. She closed her eyes and called out in her mind to the one person she needed most in all the world. She should call on God. Was it idolatry that she called on Henri instead, across all that separated them? Perhaps, but God was everywhere. She needed Henri right here.
I’m trying. Trying to keep your son safe. Trying to turn him into the kind of man you are. Trying to do what’s right in a world gone mad. But I don’t have the strength. I need you.
A sudden panic struck her. What if Henri were already dead? God, please. Is Henri still there? No answer from the cruel, empty silence. It had never occurred to her until that moment to wonder if God were there, or if her prayers went as unheard as her thoughts aimed at her distant husband. Were Henri and God both dead in this world turned upside down?
Impossible. The world could not be without meaning. God was listening. Henri was alive. If only she could persevere.
Read the next installment.