Now that things are rolling, I hope to have the next installment up within a week or two.
Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. February 16th, 1915 Through some administrative oversight no one was on the platform to meet the new German commandant as he stepped off the 9:18 train from Sedan, the ample stomach under his military overcoat giving him the look of a field gray ninepin. There was something ridiculous, something trivial, about this event in comparison to what had come before: the men called up into the army, the refugees streaming south, the Germans who had occupied the town and set up their headquarters in the town hall. There was no hint that his tenure would end under a cloud of accusations that his corruption and incompetence had led to the unnecessary execution of two of the town’s prominent citizens -- accusations of sufficient volume and gravity that the occupation authorities were forced to make a rare gesture to public opinion and move him to another assignment.
A freezing drizzle was falling. The new commandant’s orderly shouted and gestured at the station master while Major Spellmeyer himself stood with his umbrella, sheltering his luggage from the rain. It was new luggage, covered in tan leather and fastened with polished brass buckles. He had purchased them to celebrate his promotion to the temporary reserve officer rank of Major. The suitcases were of the same design and finish as the ones that he had seen the bank’s vice president use when he had arrived from Königsberg to visit their branch. And here, through the slackness of this first assignment, their pristine finish was being spotted with rain. He would bring some order to this posting, that he resolved.
When at last the station master secured some transportation for them it was not a car or a taxi, such as the Major had expected, but an open farm cart. By the time they reached the town hall Spellmeyer was furious, and his new luggage was mottled all over from the rain.
He tried to make this displeasure clear to Major Dressler as the two men met to hand over the command of the town, but the regular army officer who had been the town’s commandant since August and who far surpassed Spellmeyer in both experience and seniority, being a professional officer with the permanent rank of major (even if an old one recalled from retirement) raised a hand to silence the new officer. For a moment the silence drew out between them, and Spellmeyer had time to reflect on how imprudent it would be to offend this man who was doubtless destined for promotion and a frontline command.
“It was an oversight,” said Dressler, shrugging the matter away. “There is a motor car in town and we have requisitioned it for army use. You will have it at your disposal in the future.”
Major Spellmeyer gave a nod combined with a slight bow and tucked away the lesson for future use: An officer does not apologize to his inferiors.
He must remember that. At the bank even the branch manager had not been so secure. The eddies of politics within the bank hierarchy were unpredictable. The man who was under you today might be promoted to some higher place tomorrow. In Dressler’s calm reserve Spellmeyer saw something nearly regal. He must learn to cultivate this himself. He was in command of a bataillon now -- a depleted, picked over, reserve bataillon with well under a thousand men, but a bataillon nonetheless, and the responsibility for governing a town and its environs as well. There was far more scope here than deciding which merchant’s line of credit should be extended and which should be forced to pay up or provide more collateral.
Major Dressler was talking, offering those thoughts he had not thought it appropriate to put in writing: about who among the French administration could be trusted, about the tactics for successfully conducting requisitions, about the necessity of maintaining some degree of goodwill among the population to ease the difficulties of governing.
“Perhaps this will all come more naturally to you. I hear you’re a man of business, and no doubt that’s what’s required here.”
Spellmeyer nodded gravely and let the words flow over him. No, this would be nothing like business. This would be his kingdom.
Nine days later, by contrast, a small crowd was on the platform when the 9:18 from Sedan arrived at the station with a squeal of brakes and a long sigh of released steam. Philomene Fournier, along with Madame Serre, stood just behind Pere Lebas, representatives of the parish. Madame Perreau, who in peaceful times would have stood with them, now took a more prominent place at the front of the crowd next to her son Justin, who had been appointed mayor by the Germans since the elected mayor, Monsieur Binet, had taken the town archives (and his young secretary) to the safety of Reims as the Germans approached.
Philomene shifted from foot to foot, trying to bring some feeling back without losing her balance on the ice-slick paving stones. The weather had turned bitterly cold, but after long hesitation she had left at home her fur-lined coat. There were too many stories of luxuries being requisitioned on sight. The thought of a German officer taking away the coat which Henri had settled on her shoulders with a kiss and a “Merry Christmas, Ma Cher” two years before was unendurable, and so she was wearing her autumn coat instead, her shoulders tensed by the icy wind.
Next to her, Eva Serre coughed, a rough, rattling sound which made Philomene forget her own self pity. The older woman’s coat looked old as well as thin. Was she getting enough food? Had the soldiers quartered in the Serre house displaced her from her room to some drafty attic? Most of the affluent families in town had thus far escaped quartering, a token of solidarity from Mayor Perreau, but when Monsieur Serre had burnt down his cement factory rather than turn it over to the authorities for German war work, he himself had been arrested sent to Germany while their house had been turned into a virtual barracks.
The door of the first class carriage opened and the crowd stirred as a porter stepped down carrying two large suitcases. Then a tall woman appeared in the doorway, nodded to the crowd assembled to meet her, turned up the fur-lined collar of her coat against the wind, and stepped down to the platform.
Mayor Perreau stepped forward and bowed. “Madame Hawthorne, it is my pleasure to welcome you on behalf of Chateau Ducloux.”
The visitor returned the greeting and expressed her thanks in French that was fluent, though slow and strangely accented.
Introductions were made, and Verna Hawthorne insisted upon giving a firm handshake to each one, man or woman. Justin had secured the town’s remaining motor car to take Mrs. Hawthorne to the Perreau house. Once it pulled away in a growl of steam and petrol fumes, the rest of the crowd dispersed, some to return home, those who had been invited to the ladies’ tea in honor of the visitor to make fifteen minute journey on foot.
“If I’d known how close this place was, and that all of you were walking, I would have got my exercise too!” Mrs. Hawthorne declared once the company was reassembled in the Perreau sitting room.
Philomene did not doubt it. The tall visitor was not young. There were lines and folds forming around her eyes and a slight looseness of the skin over her strong cheekbones, yet there was no tiredness or sickness in her at all, and the sense of energy and freshness about her was magnified by the obvious newness of her clothes. The war had come in summer, and there had been no new shipments of clothing or materials. Instead of poring over catalogs from Paris, even the town’s best families had sat up nights mending and cleaning last winter’s clothes. Watching the visitor from America served as a reminder of how quickly peace and comfort had come to look alien.
Madame Perreau poured tea and coffee, encouraging the ladies to help themselves to the little cakes which were piled on a silver tray. Philomene took and and savored each small bite. The cakes were clearly made with white flour and white sugar. Those, along with the generously poured servings of coffee and tea, were a clear sign of both the Perreaus’ wealth and Justin’s connections with the occupation authorities.
“I’m sure this is a poor spread compared to what you are used to in Boston,” Madame Perreau said to their visitor.
Mrs. Hawthorne waved the comment away. “These are delicious. I just can’t thank you enough for your hospitality. I know how hard each little luxury must come these days. I’ve been touring with the CRB for six weeks now, seeing what needs to be done, and do you know, there are towns where they do not even have tea or coffee? It is that bad. I have seen it.”
Philomene saw looks exchanged by the women seated around the room. Few enough of them had any tea or coffee at home. The shelves of the Mertens store had been bare of such things for several months. They could only hope that Madame Perreau’s determination to show off her hospitality (and ability to procure scare supplies) would not keep them for receiving the supplies which rumor had it the Americans where shipping by the boatload to those in need.
“All the official meetings and inspections are later, but I believe that this gathering is the most important that I will have here,” Mrs. Hawthorne said, shifting from a conversational tone to one with a touch of authority which brought all other discussions in the room to a halt. She set her cup and saucer to one side and looked around to make sure that she had the attention of all assembled. “As you know, our mission at the Committee for Relief in Belgium is to help the ordinary people who are deprived of everyday necessities by this cruel war. My country is neutral, but I think here among friends I may say what I believe: that it is a war of aggression, and that we owe those of you suffering under occupation every help that we can provide.
“That’s the Committee’s mission,” she said, her tone going back from lecture to conversation. “Now I’ll tell you my own mission. If there’s one thing that I’ve seen it’s that while the men do the fighting, we women are the ones who suffer most in war. You are the ones trying to feed your families while lacking basic necessities. Now there will be a committee established for this town to oversee the distribution of aid. It will be made of up of leaders from the town, and that invariably means it is mostly men. But there is also an administrator who will be appointed by the committee to lead the daily work of helping those in need. And my little hint to the committee will be that the administrator should be a woman.” She looked significantly around the room. “A respectable and responsible woman who can make sure that our aid goes to help those who are suffering, not to line the pockets of profiteers or help the German war effort. A woman such as one of you.”
“Looking around the room, I could see that everyone thought it even before she said it. One of us,” Philomene said in her kitchen that night. “And Madame Perreau’s thoughts were even more clear. She was thinking that she will be the administrator.”
Her father, Louis Mertens, was fingering the unlit butt of a cigar as he sat and watched her work -- putting it between his lips, then taking it out to roll between his fingers again. He was trying to make each cigar last three days, and so he would spend the evening handling the stub before finally smoking it just before he went to bed. “And?” he asked. “Will she be?”
The exchange gave Philomene a sudden pang. She was walking to him as she would have to Henri. Before the war, Grandpere would have gone off in the evening to sit in his threadbare old armchair in the sitting room, taken a pipe or cigar from his tobacco cabinet, and sat there quietly reading while she and Henri talked. Where was Henri now?
She put the thought away. “I want to stop her. She already has her son as mayor. That’s influence enough for someone who like getting her way a good deal too much.”
“Don’t we all like that?”
“Oh, I do too, I suppose. But you should have seen the way she looked around the room and said it would be important to make sure the supplies went only to those who really needed them.”
“But I tell her real meaning was, those she thought were deserving. She would use that post as a way to treat all the needy families in the town like one of her tenants. And as for respectable families who are having trouble with their men gone, women like Eva Serre. Can’t you just see the eyebrow going up? ‘But my dear,’ she’d say, ‘You know these are for the poor.’”
Her father’s somber tone stopped her.
“You can’t be the administrator for this committee.”
“Why not?” She had not, until that moment, thought of seeking the position herself, only of finding some way to deny it to Madame Perreau, but in the moment her father told her she could not do it a vision sprang into her mind of the good that she could do. Why not indeed?
“Think what I do.” He gestured towards the pan she was scouring, in which she had made the an omelette for them that night. An omelette from some of the black market eggs which Andre the postmaster had collected from the outlying farmers while making his rounds and then turned over to Louis to be sold from the backroom of his store. And there was the pan, on which she had baked rolls for the children using flour and sugar which had come from Sedan in return for produce smuggled out to the city. Even here in the safety of her kitchen it seemed dangerous to say the words: black market, smuggling. The feelings of alarm and guilt crowded in a simply at the phrase ‘what I do.’
“We cannot draw attention. And if anything should someday be discovered, would you want people to think that you had been abusing your access to the supplies sent for the needy?”
“No. You’re right, of course.” Her brief vision was already spoilt, replaced by dark images of people accusing her of having stolen and sold the food meant for the poor. How had she let them reach this point? What had they become? It had seemed such a good thing, to find a way for Madame Chartier, a young farmwife whose husband was away with the army, to sell her eggs to support her family rather than turning them over to German requisition. She’d asked her father and Andre to help. And now what were they? Something very near to criminals. People who must hide from the public eye. “But I still have to find some way to stop Madame Perreau.”
When the answer came to Philomene, it seemed such an obvious solution that she could not think why it had not occurred to her before. Had it not been the middle of the night, she would have been tempted to set out at once to put the idea into motion. The delay proved useful, for in the next morning’s copy of The Lantern, there was a brief paragraph in the Announcements section of the front page which caught her eye:
After meeting with Mayor Perreau, Madame Hawthorne of the Committee for Relief in Belgium announced the formation of a three member Relief Committee to consist of: Mayor Perreau, Pere Lebas, and Monsieur Thierion. The Relief Committee will be responsible for assessing need in Chateau Ducloux and for distributing any relief supplies sent by the CRB.
So, the head of the Masonic Lodge was to be the third committee member. Mrs. Hawthorne must know well enough what she was about. She had the town government and the church already, the lodge drew its members primarily from the secular half of the town’s great cultural divide and politically from the supporters of the Republic.
If only Henri were there. Despite having at last begun, after several years of marriage, to go church with her, he had always gone to the coffee house and the bar frequented by the masons and the radicals rather than the rival conservative establishments at which her father was a patron. He and Monsieur Thierion had not been close, but Henri would have known how to approach him and convince him. Instead, this was yet another reminder that Henri was far away, if he was still alive at all.
The thought left her blinking at the paper through eyes that suddenly found it difficult to focus, but she fought back the choking feeling and the tears which seemed to come so unexpectedly these days, and addressed herself instead to the problem at hand. Justin Perreau would support his mother for the administrator post, that was certain. That meant that she would need both Pere Lebas and Monsieur Thierion, but before she could make either of those approaches, there was something she must do first.
“This should really be a question for Reverend Mother,” said Sister Genevieve.
Philomene looked down at the teacup on the table before her. It was the same fine bone china, with its pink roses and gilded rims. The same dark, rich tea. The same wood paneled visitors parlor. The war’s only incursion into this sanctum of hospitality was that the old sister had not poured herself a cup of tea when she poured one for Philomene, as if it were already lent. Was the convent rationing its tea, or had the sisters decided to offer up such comforts as a sacrifice while they prayed for peace?
“I know. But I wanted to ask you first. And perhaps you could put it to her. Surely you know the best way.”
Sister Genevieve paused a moment, her lips pressed together. “She will ask me why you think it necessary to engage in politics over this charitable appointment.” Philomene was about to reply, but the sister raised a hand. “Surely you realize that this there are many in our town who would be unhappy to see this post put under what they would see at clerical control. And antagonizing the anti-clerical faction might make it harder for us to do our work helping those who are most in need.”
“I don’t say no. But there is a risk.”
“I do see that.”
“Do you believe that Madame Perreau would be sufficiently ill suited to the task that it is worth incurring any ill will that may come our way? I hope it is not only the desire to frustrate her which is at play here.”
Philomene looked down at her own hands. It was not easy to sort reason from desire, but if it was the right thing to do, it would remain right even if her motives were less than pure. “I would be lying if I said that it would not please me to see Madame Perreau denied this position of power, but I honestly do not think that she would fill the office well. At the tea with Mrs. Hawthorne she talked repeatedly about helping the ‘deserving poor’. I think she does mean to help, but she sees that help as something to be given out as a favor.”
The sister nodded. “I think you are probably right.”
“Then you will help?”
“I will ask.” Philomene hesitated over whether to press for more assurance. Sister Genevieve seemed to waver as well, and it was she who broke the silence first. “Speak to the committee members. If you are able to persuade them, I think that you will find support here.”
Philomene got up to leave, eager to set about talking to the committee members, then hesitated. The one thing that was always lurking at the back of her mind, she was almost afraid to ask out loud lest facts crush hopes.
“I don’t suppose…” She let the question trail off.
Sister Genevieve shook her head. “The letter was sent within a packet to our house in Munich. I know it was received there, because we received a reply on several urgent questions directed to the superior there. I’m sure they forwarded your letter to the house in Bern at the very earliest opportunity. But recall that Henri’s letter took three weeks to reach you. And you must allow time for him to receive your letter and then reply via the house in Paris. It must be another few weeks at the very least.”
Philomene nodded. “I know. It’s just-- Do you know, perhaps it’s wicked of me, but when I pray for him I hear nothing at all in return. I’ve read in books, like the one by Sister Therese of the Child Jesus, about receiving consolations, about feeling God’s love around one. There have been times, such as on retreat, when I’ve felt such peace when praying. But now…” She shrugged. There did not seem to be words that could be spoken here for the cold, taunting silence which answered her, making her almost afraid to pray. The only thing which kept her from giving it up was the fear which she knew to be very close to superstition: If she did not pray for Henri’s safety every night, and something happened to her, would it be because of her omission?
“There is nothing wrong or shocking in hearing silence in response to prayer.” Sister Genevieve put out a hand to Philomene’s cheek, and with the comfort of that warmth she realized how much she has missed the simple caring touch of another person. “Even our Lord felt that emptiness, remember? ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ All we can do is pray, and wait, and hope, and do the work that is before us.”
Julien Thierion owned the town’s clock shop, a small storefront in which a dozen clocks and an impressive array of watches were displayed, as well as a few telescopes, binoculars and cameras. A bell hung from the door chimed as Philomene entered. Monsieur Thierion was seated on a tall stool at the workbench, taking a pocket watch to pieces. He set his work aside and rose when he saw that his visitor was a lady.
“Madame Fournier.” He bowed. “I hope there is nothing wrong with the watch your husband bought you.”
Philomene’s hand went automatically to the little brooch that ticked quietly under her coat where it was pinned to her blouse. “No, certainly not.” She hesitated. As she had walked from the convent she had rehearsed in her mind the arguments she would use, but she had not given thought to how she would begin the conversation. “Has your business been much slowed by the war?”
Monsieur Thierion shrugged. “Well, of course, it’s not the moment for buying a new clock or watch. I do a few repairs. This one,” he waved towards the workbench, “is a German watch. Say what you will of them, their watchmakers know what they are about. If the owner were merely here on holiday, I would say it was a pleasure to get the chance to work on.”
“It was about the… situation that I came.” She could not bring herself to say ‘occupation’. “I read in The Lantern this morning that you are appointed to the relief committee.” There was nothing for it but to plunge in.
“It’s true. Mayor Perreau asked me, and I could hardly claim that I was too busy here.”
“I wanted to speak to you about the position of administrator. Mrs. Hawthorne said she desired it to be a woman.”
“Ah.” Monsieur Thierion smiled and ran a fingertip along his mustache, which was waxed and curled up at the end in a little point. “So this is a business visit of sorts, is it? Well, sit down, sit down.” He pulled a chair out and waved Philomene towards it. “You must forgive me. I am not used yet to being called upon for business other than clocks.”
He said nothing of the Lodge, but although it was the reason for his prominence in the town, it was technically a secret.
Philomene sat down and smoothed her skirts out to occupy her hands.
“I understand from my colleague, our good Mayor, that his mother, if pressed, would be gracious enough to give her time as administrator,” said Monsieur Thierion. “With such a recommendation she must surely be our leading candidate, eh? Or do you have some other suggestion? Yourself perhaps?”
“Oh, not at all.” That had not been the impression she intended to give. “I hope you did not think I came only to seek it for myself.”
“No? Well then. What do you suggest?”
His slightly mocking manner was much like that of Henri’s closest friend, Andre Goyot the Postmaster, who was also a prominent member of the Lodge. Was this a characteristic of their set? Or perhaps little edge of humor at her expense because she and her father were known to be associated with the clerical faction.
“I’m sure that Madame Perreau is a very good woman, but I’m concerned at placing her as the relief administrator when her son is already the appointed Mayor.”
“Indeed, indeed. It does all seem rather too German by half, does it not? And yet if you’re not here to plead on your own account, who among our illustrious matrons do you have in mind?”
Philomene braced herself. “My first thought was that we might turn to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. They do so much good work in our town already, and have experience helping those most in need.”
She could see the struggle it took for Monsieur Thierion to keep his revulsion at this suggestion from showing clearly in his expression.
“I know that sisters are very good,” he said, after a pause had stretched out just a little bit too long. “I have tremendous respect for your husband, Madame Fournier. Even your father, I know we have our disagreements, but he’s a good man. But I think many within the town, whether they are right or not, will feel the church is very well represented already by Pere Lebas. We must remember that we are a Republic. We are not a confessional state. It’s not so long ago that the Church had a stranglehold on schooling, owned large estates, pulled the strings of the government. Remember that fine man, Captain Dreyfus, rotting away on Devil’s Island because of the cowardice and lies of a clericalist cabal. No. It is not possible, Madame.”
“Do you really think that people would find it so offensive for the Sisters to administer the aid?” Philomene asked, trying to load the question with as much innocent surprise as she could. Her host did not seem inclined to see through her motions.
“Yes. I must tell you that it would be too much. Madame Perreau, as the mayor’s mother, is at least a sort of neutral party between the church and the Republic.”
“Well, in that case, could some other woman of responsibility and experience fill the same neutral role?” She paused and then tried to give the next all the brightness of a new idea just had. “Say, perhaps, Madame Serre? Surely few have have suffered for the Republic as she has, with her husband taken to Germany for destroying his cement works rather than letting the Germans use it.”
“Madame Serre? I had not thought. As you say, she certainly has suffered much for France. Do you think that she would take on job?”
“I haven’t spoken to her about it, but now you ask I feel sure that if the committee were ready to offer, she would consent to do it. And surely, as a woman who has had her husband taken from her, whose son is with the army, who has had Germans quartered in her house, she of all people would understand the conditions under which so many people who need relief are living.”
“Yes, yes. Madame Fournier, I really think you have found it. Madame Serre is exactly the person we need as administrator. Will you ask her? Please? Tell her that if she is willing to serve she may be assured of my support. And you, perhaps, could convince Pere Lebas to do the same.”
To shout, to jump up from her chair, would be to give all away, and so with an effort Philomene maintained a calm and sober tone. “If you think that she would be the right person, I think I can persuade Pere Lebas.”
Monsieur Thierion saw her out the door with continued expressions of thanks for her help in what now seemed very nearly his own idea, and Philomene set off with a spring in her step towards the rectory to speak to Pere Lebas.
In the end, all was done as she had envisioned. Monsieur Thierion and Pere Lebas carried the selection Madame Serre for the administrator position, to the secret relief of Mayor Perreau and the confusion of his mother. In order that she might be near her work, Madame Serre left the house in which she had been surrounded by reminders of her absent husband and the all too present Germans, and took up quarters in the guest room of the convent. From there she went about her work on behalf of the CRB, but even as the need seemed all too desperate, politics and logistics and paperwork drew out, and it was not until May that the first shipments of wheat, rice, beans, and salted pork arrived from the lands of peace and plenty across the sea.
Read the next installment.