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.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Chapter 20

Friends, this is it. After twenty chapters and 264,000 words, we reach the end of Volume One and the end of 1914.

Thank you for reading this as I write it. I'd very much appreciate any thoughts or feedback. In a day or two I'll post a google form with a few specific question on things I'd like to know as I prepare to revise this volume to submit it for publication. I'll also post a bit of teaser information about Volume 2.

But for now, thank you. I hope that you've enjoyed it.



Chateau Ducloux, France. December 30st, 1914. Christmas had passed in Chateau Ducloux, and that was as much good as could be said of that holiday spent under occupation. Food had been short. Fuel had been short. The occupying troops had staged a massive celebration, the more galling because the barrels of wine they tapped had come from the cellars of the town’s citizens and the geese they roasted had come from their farmyards. There were five more days until the feast of the three kings, and in search of a way to lift spirits, Grandpere had sent enquiries as far as Sedan and Charleville to see if in return for the various streams of black market produce now making their way from the farms around Chateau Ducloux into the cities, he could acquire enough candy for town’s children to celebrate Epiphany as they had in the past. Sugar, however, was very dear. The local candy factories had shut down, and imports were not arriving because of the British blockade.

There was one obvious solution to this, a dangerous one. For several days he had hesitated. Then he had asked the contacts that he normally avoided. The network which Grandpere and Andre Guyot ran, using Andre’s position as postmaster to pick up food which the farmers had hidden from German inventories and requisitions, storing the goods in the back room of the Mertens shop, and selling the goods to townspeople as well as middlemen who carted the foods into the nearby cities where fresh produce was even more dear, was the most common sort of black market activity, and in one sense the least dangerous. It was nearly impossible for the civilians to get by without occasionally buying food that had been hidden from German requisition, and even for the occupying soldiers it was useful to know where to buy butter or eggs or bacon that wasn’t under the control of the supply sergeants. But there was another black market, one which touched the common one at points but which dealt in stolen goods, petrol, weapons, military information, and people. Some its sellers became very rich. Others were shot.

Grandpere’s contact had given him the name of a German supply sergeant in a nearby village who was willing to sell provisions.

“Candy?” The sergeant had laughed in his face. “My friend, it’s a week after Christmas. I’ve already sold all the candy I could get my hands on.” He sniffed at the cigar that Grandpere had given him as an introductory offering, then lit it. “I tell you what I could do, though. White flour. And white sugar. How long since you’ve seen that in your village shop? It’s not candy, but get some good woman to make it up for you and the children can all have cookies for Epiphany. How’s that?”

White flour. For the last two months there had been nothing but brown flour to be had in the village, and even that was often stretched with feed grains, sometimes even with dried potatoes. As for sugar, the best that could be had was a dark syrup made by boiling down sugar beets hidden from the German harvest collection.

The supply sergeant stepped away and returned with a ten kilogram bag of flour, the fabric printed in German and stamped “Army Use Only”. Next to it he set down two paper wrapped blocks labeled “Pure Cane Sugar, 1kg”.

“How much?” Grandpere asked.

The sum was high, and the sergeant would accept gold coin only. It was an amount Grandpere had, however, and since the money came from the profits of his black market sales, it was in some sense town money. They were honest, modest profits, payment for the time and danger incurred. Yet if he gained from the war while so many lost, surely it was right to use some of these to buy the town’s children something they would not otherwise get.

He laid the coins out on the table.

“Now remember, if you’re caught, I’ll tell anyone who comes asking me about these supplies that you stole them,” the sergeant said as he pocketed the money.

Of course.

And so here they were, German flour and sugar in his kitchen. Butter and eggs they could get easily enough. There would be cookies for the children come Epiphany.

Philomene entered with a heavy step and a long sigh.

“Were the children difficult to get to sleep?”

“No more than usual, I suppose. Lucie-Marie wanted to know what Henri was doing and whether he was safe.” His daughter shrugged. “What can one say? I told her that God knows and we could pray that He is watching over Daddy.”

She stopped, seeing the flour and sugar with its German army labels.

“Father--”

“Now don’t worry yourself. I bought them.”

“From someone who stole them. Father, you promised me you would never touch stolen goods.”

“I wanted to get something special for Epiphany. I couldn’t get candy, but he said he could sell me this. You could make those salted butter cookies the children love so much.”

Philomene laughed. “That you love so much. I’ve seen how you eat them.”

“Yes, well. That I love so much too. But we could give some to the other families we know with children. A little treat from the Three Kings.”

“Father.” As she looked up into his face he noticed for the first time stands of gray amidst her reddish hair. Did his own daughter have gray hair? Time and the war left nothing untouched, but that look she gave him, something in her eyes was the same as the little girl he had loved so long. “It’s very thoughtful, but you promised me. What would I do if you were taken away? Henri gone and then you too? I’d rather go hungry than have cookies at that price.”

“Then I shall have to endeavor not to be caught.”

Philomene shook her head. “You’re impossible to argue with when you’re like this. What am I to do with these very incriminating bags?”

“If you pour them into the flour and sugar bins now, we can burn the bags in the fire and there will be nothing to show they ever came from the Germans.”

***

It was still early the next day when Philomene heard someone pounding urgently on the front door. Suddenly flustered she looked for somewhere to hide the mixing bowl in which she had been cutting together butter and sugar. Why had she allowed her father to convince her to let these stolen supplies into the house? The oven; no, it was heating. Under the sink, too dirty. She pulled open a cupboard and thrust the bowl in, shoving cups and dishes aside. One cup teetered and fell, smashing on the floor as she heard Grandpere answering the front door.

However, it was not a German officer who followed Grandpere into the kitchen, as Philomene was hurrying to sweep up the cup’s fragments, but rather Madame Chartier.

Grandpere sat the farmwife down at the kitchen table. “All right. We have privacy here. Calm yourself and tell me from the beginning. Ah, look, there’s a little coffee left. Can I offer you a cup?”

She nodded and he poured the last of the pot into a cup for her. His black market activities had at least assured access to a steady supply of coffee.

“An officer came by first thing this morning and said that they’re going to quarter a dozen men from a work detail at the farm. They’ll be sleeping in the barn, and their officer will be sleeping in the house.”

Grandpere was pacing the kitchen. “For how long?”

“He didn’t say.”

“So you fear they’ll discover the chickens?”

“What? Oh no,” she put down coffee cup she had been cradling in her hands. “No, I’m sure I can keep the chickens quite safe. They’re in the outbuilding cellar, and since I have all of my registered chickens living in the outbuilding above them, even the smell won’t tip them off.”

“Oh.” He stopped his pacing. “Well, then what’s the worry? I mean, Germans are unpleasant to have about, but I can hardly help with that.”

Madame Chartier looked about as if to be sure that there was no one lurking in some corner of the kitchen. “But you see, I also have an unregistered pig.”

Now that she had made her admission, and had an interested audience, the farmwife turned shy and drew her story out. When the Germans had made their inventory of the farm stock, the sow’s litter of piglets had been eight weeks old and just weaned. It had been easy enough to keep one out of sight, and while they were still small they ran about so fast it was more than the supply sergeant’s men could do to notice if there were eight or nine when they made their inspections. Now that the pig was larger, she had made an enclosed pen behind the feed bins where she could hide it when necessary. But with a dozen Germans coming to live in the barn, a hundred and fifty pound pig would impossible to hide for long. When would the men arrive? Tomorrow.

“It would be easy to slaughter the pig,” Grandpere said. “The difficulty is how to get the pork into town and dispose of the carcass without being seen. It’s not as if a seventy kilo pig can be smuggled about in a suitcase, and a wagon with a carcass that big on it would be as obvious as a funeral carriage.”

The phrase seemed to summon up an illustration such as might appear in one of the books that Lucie-Marie liked to have read over and over again: Pigs dressed in black walking solemnly behind a hearse drawn by horses decked in black crepe.

“Then why not use a funeral carriage?” Philomene asked.

Her father paused, trying to discern the joke which he was evidently missing. “How would a funeral carriage bearing a pig not be noticed?”

“It wouldn’t matter if people noticed. You said the pig is seventy kilos, yes?”

Madame Chartier nodded.

“Then the pig is about the same size that I am. Rather than enacting a comedy trying to carry about such a large animal, borrow the funeral carriage and a coffin from the undertaker, go out to the farm, load the slaughtered pig into it, and carry it back into town. There’s no need to hide it. There’s nothing more serious and respectable than a funeral.”

Like the bad joke that it was, the proposed funeral grew more elaborate with every detail they thought of. If the idea was to hide in plain sight, then surely the more visible the escapade, the more hidden it would remain. At last Grandpere went to speak to Felix Jobart, the pork butcher, and then to secure the help of the undertaker.

Philomene put Pascal in charge of the little girls for the morning and went to call on Pere Lebas. “If someone is going to persuade the good father to participate in this charade, it will have to be you,” Grandpere had said. “If I do it, the whole thing will sound like a sin.”

***

If it had been someone other than the devout Madame Fournier who approached him with the idea, the old priest would have been sure that she was asking him to participate in some kind of sacrilege. As it was, he merely looked at Philomene with a sort of shocked confusion.

“Surely you’re not suggesting that we celebrate a funeral for a pig.”

“No, Father. No, of course not. That would be wrong.”

Pere Lebas settled back into his chair, relieved. “I knew I must have misunderstood.”

“But we do need to suggest to the Germans the appearance of a funeral.”

Philomene explained her idea and the circumstances which had made it necessary. “We could give a kilo of pork to each family that attended. Some families have not had that much meat in a month or more.”

“And while Monsieur Jobart is cutting up the pig in my rectory, and wrapping the portions, the people would all wait in the church, letting the Germans think that they are holding a funeral.”

“Yes, Father.”

She waited, trying to read the priest’s expression, to gauge whether he would allow himself to reconcile this with his conscience.

After a moment, a smile began to spread across Pere Lebas’s face. “They would have to wait quite some time. And we cannot allow people to mill about in the church, chatting as if they were not in the presence of the Holy Eucharist. I think that I will lead them all in a rosary. We can pray for our soldiers at the front, and surely a rosary is not too high a price to pay for a kilo of pork.”

***

Major Dressler presented a different sort of problem. The town commandant was conscientious about his duties and understood French well. Any public gathering required notification of the military authorities, yet if the major received a request for permission to hold a funeral, he would immediately ask who had died and wish to convey his sympathy to the bereaved family. Philomene hesitated to lie to him, or anyone, but even had she been willing to make the attempt the ration and registration system made it impossible to claim the existence of some hitherto unknown relative who had died. Rumor held that there were French soldiers, trapped behind enemy lines during the retreat in August who were still in hiding with farm families in the district. If it appeared that a body had appeared from nowhere, there was a good chance that the Germans would demand to see the corpse. Any unreported person, alive or dead, would be an object of suspicion.

After due consideration, there seemed only one time when the request might avoid scrutiny. The major had a daily meeting with Justin Perreau, the appointed mayor, and with Hauptmann Gerhardt, who commanded the company of German reservists who were quartered in the town. He left his office for this meeting at precisely five minutes to eleven every morning. Philomene made sure to arrive at precisely that time, nearly colliding with the officer as he stepped out of his office in the city hall.

“Major!”

He gave a slight bow and tried to step around her, but Philomene stepped the same direction, nearly colliding with him again. Then she stepped back and sideways, as he also tried to dodge to the other side.

“I’m sorry, Major. I know how busy you are, but I so need to speak to you.”

“Madame, if you could only come back this afternoon… I am expected at a meeting immediately.”

“Oh, but then we will all be getting ready. It’s so fortunate that I found you just at this moment; there is no time. I know that you are busy. May I walk with you?”

This took full advantage of the officer’s instincts regarding how a lady was to be treated. He stopped and gave a slight bow. “I am sorry; there is no need for that. Tell me what the trouble is. But please, if you can be quick. I have an engagement shortly.”

“Of course, Sir!” Philomene used as many words as possible to agree, apologize, thank him, and assure him that she needed just a moment of his time, until she could see that the major’s frustration at the delay was about to overwhelm him. Then she came to the point. “We need to hold a funeral procession tonight. Of course it’s terribly short notice, but as the Lord says, ‘You know not the day or the hour.’”

“Tonight?” Dressler interrupted. “Can’t you at least wait until daylight tomorrow? You know that evening public gatherings can only be held with a permit.”

“Oh, but this isn’t a gathering, it will be at the church. And we can’t wait till tomorrow. Tomorrow is the Feast of the Circumcision. There will be holy day mass.”

She could see the major edging to one side, and she took a half step towards him and put a beseeching hand on his shoulder, thus making it impossible for him to get past her.

“The soldiers will be celebrating the New Year,” Dressler said. “It will hardly be a quiet and prayerful time of day.”

“Well, this will keep the civilians out of their way, then.”

The officer glanced at his watch. He was already late.

“I know that it is very last minute,” Philomene said, crowding him to make it clear that there would be no escape until he agreed to her request. “And we do so appreciate your sensitivity to the needs of the town.”

“Fine. Very well. Just make sure that the proper paperwork is filed. Now I must go!”

She stepped aside even before he had finished. Now that he had given permission, the more quickly that he was able to hurry to his meeting the less likely he was to remember to ask some question that would cause difficulty.

Waving and calling her thanks after him, she let the officer hurry away.

***

The funeral carriage left the Chartier farm at four o’clock, with the sun already sinking towards the horizon. During the afternoon, Monsieur Jobart had slaughtered and cleaned the pig, and now it lay peacefully in the pine board coffin which the undertaker had provided.

As the carriage reached the outskirts of the town, it began to pick up a following. People in their somber church clothes came out of houses and followed the coffin as it made its slow way up the main street to the heavy-walled, Romanesque structure of the Church of Saint Thibault. Some were the families who could always be relied upon to attend any event that occurred at the parish church. Others were, to the knowing bystander, less likely attendees. Chief among these was Andre Guyot, the postmaster, normally one of the loudest among the town’s atheists.

Although this might have raised questions in a watcher with a critical eye, there was no such witness that night. It was New Year’s Eve, and even the soldiers on duty for the night had been given permission to enjoy a drink or two, so long as they remained within the military definition of sobriety.

The procession reached the church, and six men hefted the coffin and carried it inside. The fifty families that had followed in the procession filed inside and filled the pews. However, in a move that distinguished this from any real funeral the church had ever seen, the pall bearers did not set the coffin before the altar, nor did Pere Lebas come forward to sprinkle it with holy water. Instead, they carried the coffin out of sight, into the sacristy, from which came the unholy sounds of hammers and crowbars as the lid was levered off.

Earlier in the day, Monsieur Jobart had brought the tools of his trade -- knives, saws, a large stack of butcher’s paper, and a ball of string -- over to the sacristy and there moved several tables into a row which he covered with a large oilcloth to form a temporary meat counter. Now he stepped from his pew, genuflected solemnly, and went quietly back to the sacristy.

“I’m shocked to find that all the worst that’s said of your church is true,” Andre whispered, leaning close to Grandpere. “Whether you call it cannibalism or animal sacrifice, it’s more shocking than any conspiracy tale yet dreamed.”

“Have some respect or take yourself home,” Grandpere said. “No bacon for the impious.”

Other brief interchanges were beginning to fill the church with a hum of conversation. Then Pere Lebas entered from the sacristy, where he had assured that Jobart and his shop boy were doing everything possible to avoid leaving a mess, and stood before the altar.

“Brothers and Sisters, tomorrow begins a new year for our Republic, a year that begins as we are still afflicted by invasion, war, and suffering. Tonight Madame Chartier shares with us something of what Our Lord has given her. But remember that your gain is her loss, and she is a woman trying to support herself by toil while her husband is away in war. I have put the offering box next to the holy water font. If you are able to give her something in return for what you receive, do so.

“Now while we await this delicacy, we should turn our hearts to those in want, and to husbands, fathers, and sons who are even now fighting to free us from invasion. Let us turn to our loving mother and the patroness of France by saying the rosary.”

The old priest got out his beads, and knelt on the step, facing the altar. People clattered with the kneelers and shifted in their pews, but in a moment the church settled into the rhythm familiar from so many other occasions, one half of the church answering the other as they alternated the prayers.

Even to Andre, who had no beads and declined to say the words in which he did not believe, for whom the dim sanctuary of the church bore memories of the iron grip and angry whispers of his grandmother rather than any associations of the sacred, there was a hypnotic peace to the voices that rose and fell. The ranks of candles flickered before the statue of the Virgin by the side altar, a testament in flame to the prayers which churchgoers had offered for their loved ones in danger not so far away.

Was there a God who heard the prayers flowing from that church, and somehow connected them with the lonely soldier standing watch on the front lines, fifty miles away? What would such a God make of both French and German prayers for victory, of two men with rifles facing each other while both their families prayed for safety and victory? Or would a God regard it all with the same frustration of the ant collector in whose carefully ordered glass box the colony suddenly divided and went to war against itself, laying waste to the intricate little world which he had so long delighted in watching?

But of course, that was the difficulty. If it was impossible to imagine how God responded to the pleas of both sides, how he could love all of his creatures when they were engaged in massive campaigns to exterminate one another, it was because there was no God. The people here offered up their prayers, as did their loved ones at the front, as did Germans and Russians and Austrians. They all gathered together and sent their prayers into the void because they could not bear the idea that there was no more to the world than the insanity that they had brought upon themselves.

Philomene too found her thoughts wandering towards the front, but they followed a different path than the postmaster’s.

What was Henri doing now? Was he perhaps, even now, reciting these same prayers? She had made sure that his rosary was packed among his things when he left. This was the mystery, the scandal even, of the apostle’s words. If truly all were baptized into the body of Christ, then even as she and Henri remained united in God, despite the miles and dangers between them, so too they were united to the very enemies who had separated them. Her prayers and Henri’s prayers united them with God’s love no less than did those of German wives and German husbands.

Perhaps in some ways their prayers at least were the same. They too wanted their loved ones to come home safe. They wanted fuel to warm their homes and food for their children. Yet they had invaded her town, they might kill her husband. Somehow the body was turned against itself. The war was a metastasizing cancer, one part of the body turning on and trying to choke out another, with all of them damaged in the process.

She was supposed to love her enemies. Was it an impossible command? She could picture, with that sense of moral imagination in which questions of right and wrong were turned to scenes such as might appear in a play or novel, helping a German in basic human need. I was hungry, and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me to drink.

And yet as a group, they must be defeated. Surely God would listen to their prayers: that their land be freed from invasion and that those who had done this to them be punished. That her home would be free and peaceful again, and that Henri would come home safely to her.

***

A gentle snow had begun to fall, turning the frozen browns and grays of the dreary winter landscape to pristine white. At six o’clock, the churchgoers began to leave, one member of each family holding close a paper-wrapped package done up with string.

Philomene was one of the last to leave. Grandpere took the children home, and under his coat carried a package which would make their New Year’s dinner the next day.

Monsieur Jobart did up two particularly large packages, one of meat and a second of bones for making stock, and taking one under each arm Philomene set off for the convent. It was bitingly cold and the flakes of snow stung at her face, but the night had a certain ghostly illumination. The moon was behind the clouds, but it was nonetheless just a day short of full, and the clouds were not thick enough to block it out. Instead, the whole sky glowed with the diffuse moonlight.

She had not told the sisters about the false funeral. In part, she had feared to, lest they think that her idea was irrevent. But they seldom went to the parish church anyway. One of the priests came to say mass in their little chapel each day, and they gathered there morning, noon, and evening to say their divine office together. However, the sisters would be grateful for the meat, not only for themselves but for those sick or homeless women they had taken in for the winter.

The sister who answered Philomene’s knock thanked her and went to deliver the packages of pork to the kitchen. First, however, she took Philomene to the visitor’s parlor.

“It’s late and I should be getting home."

“No, no. On such a cold night you must warm yourself first. Let me bring you some of our tea. And Sister Genevieve spoke of needing someone to go to your house tonight and bring you something. I must tell her that you are here.”

Philomene kept her coat on in the parlor and pulled a chair close to the radiator so that she could warm her feet on it. The convent was a large old house, and with the difficulty of getting fuel the sisters were clearly forced to keep heating to a minimum.

The same sister who had let her in returned several minutes later with a teapot, and poured Philomene a cup which she nestled in her hands for warmth. Real tea had become too expensive for the sisters’ means, even to serve to guests. This was an herbal blend, very fragrant to smell but still slightly weak in taste, made from herbs which the sisters had gathered and dried in large quantities during the fall.

Sister Genevieve arrived after Philomene had been sitting for several minutes, sipping the hot drink and feeling the warmth gradually creep from the radiator into her boots.

“I’m so glad that you came,” the sister said, pulling a chair up close to Philomene’s and sitting down. “I received this today, in a letter from our house in Munich, who in turn received it from Switzerland and originally from Paris.”

Paris. With that word Philomene felt her pulse began to speed even in the moment before Sister Genevieve held out the folded sheet of paper covered in Henri’s handwriting.

December 9th
Paris

My dearest Philomene,

She blinked away the fog which was suddenly troubling her eyes.

“Sister, thank you. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I--”

“No. Certainly you aren’t rude. I will leave you to your letter, and I hope that it is all good news. Stay here as long as you like. If you want me, ring the bell. And if you want simply to go home in quiet and privacy, please do. I would never think it rude tonight.”

The older woman leaned forward and placed a kiss on Philomene’s forehead. Then she left the room, while Philomene was still blinking to regain control of her vision so that she could read.

I hope this letter finds you safe and well. I am both. Through good fortune I’ve been sent to Paris for a few days on regimental business, and so with the help of the Sisters I am able to send you to this letter.

Our section of the line has been fairly quiet. You may tell Lucie-Marie that when we are in the front line I live in a hole in the ground, just like the old badger in her story book.

But more than any danger or discomfort, the hardest thing is to be without you and not to know if you are safe….

She read every word, turning the sheet over and reading right down to the “Your Loving Husband, Henri” Then she turned back to the beginning and read it again, and a third time.

***

The snow had stopped. A wind was now blowing, making it far colder than before, but it had served to break up the clouds, opening rifts through which the stars shone down as Philomene walked home. Henri’s letter she had tucked into her dress. It was not the most practical way to carry it, but as she felt the paper against her skin she imagined it was still warm not just from the touch her own hands, but from his. The letter was a caress from far away. She heard the words again as she walked, and she wanted to share them with everyone and yet keep them tenderly to herself.

The moon appeared in a gap in the clouds, casting its cool bluish light on the snow dusted landscape. Philomene looked up at it, the bright face of it dazzling her vision. That same moon was looking down on Henri. Perhaps he too was looking up at it, thinking of the way its light had edged through the curtains of their room at night. He had always said he loved to see her in the moonlight.

It was cold and bleak, and they were separated by occupation and war. But even though the letter had been written three weeks before, as she looked up at the sky of that new year, she was sure that whatever the year might bring, at this moment Henri was alive and safe. And he loved her.


--End Volume One--

To Be Continued in The Great War: Volume Two, The Blood-Dimmed Tide

Help me revise the novel and prepare it for publication by taking a brief reader survey.

4 comments:

  1. Beautiful! certainly my favourites have been Natalie and Philomene, and their stories. So many simple daily details warped by war, yet evoking such clarity of scenes.

    Enjoyed very much, thank you! :)
    SB.

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  2. Natalie, Philomene, and Henri are the characters I identify with most closely.

    I found this chapter to be the most nail-bitingly suspenseful of any you have written so far. Seriously, my anxiety level was uncomfortably high until the very last word because at any moment things could have (very believably) gone seriously, horribly wrong.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. I'm glad it closed on a strong note.

      Delete