It was at the end of a long day that Justin was ushered into Major Spellmeyer’s office -- what had in peacetime been the mayor’s office -- and stood before the big mahogany desk. Justin’s own office was small, a room once inhabited by the town clerk. The commandant did not look up as Justin was announced by the orderly, and the mayor had time to wonder if the timing of his visit would prejudice his results. Still, it was too late to flee. He planted his feet firmly, overcoming the nervous urge to shift his weight from foot to foot, and tried to focus his mind on the peace that would return to his home once Madame Perreau’s sense of injustice had been relieved.
The commandant signed the document he had been reading with a satisfied flourish and favored Justin with a smile. “A long week, and it’s just Tuesday! Can I offer you a drink, Mister Mayor?”
He pulled open a desk drawer and brought out a bottle of cognac. It was not a luxury that was easy to come by. Surely it was a good sign as to the level of respect the commandant had for him that he was willing to share something of which there could be no more supply so long as the war lasted. The Cognac region was on the other side of the lines, and so it was necessary to conserve what bottles were left or develop a taste for German Schnapps, or American Rum or Whiskey.
Major Spellmeyer took a pair of tumblers out of the drawer and splashed large portions of the amber liquid into them. Justin was shocked at how generously the major poured.
“Thank you, Major.” He accepted the glass, which must have held twice as much as a proper cognac class would have. Nor was it a cheap vintage. Rather than any harsh taste his first sip offered a refined bloom of well aged flavors.
“I just had three cases of this seized,” said the commandant, knocking his glass back with a casual glug that genuinely shocked his guest. Without a pause the officer refilled his own glass before corking the bottle and putting it back in the drawer. “Smugglers, God bless them. There’ll be a commendation for suppressing illegal activity, no ill will from the local citizens, and a goddamn good deal to drink, eh?”
He knocked back the second glass, unfastened the top brass buttons of his tunic, and leaned back in his chair. “Yes, now that’s nice. All right, Mayor. Tell me what it is you wanted to see me about.”
The thing had seemed so easy when Justin had rehearsed it in his mind earlier in the day, one man of authority asking another for a little favor. Now he came to it, however, the mayorship his mother’s force of will had won for him from the Germans, a position that he had at for years dreamed of as a fitting proof that he was a worthy holder of the family name, long before the war put it suddenly into his hands, did nothing to increase his sense of dignity and confidence and he stood before this foreigner. He felt more like a schoolboy, standing before the headmaster to ask for some undeserved privilege.
“It’s about this relief committee, sir,” he said. He found himself shifting from one foot to the other, exactly the boyish habit he had been seeking to avoid. “I’d had my doubts about the Serre woman as an administrator, but the other committee members overruled me. Now as she begins her work I am more than ever convinced she was a poor choice.”
“Is she dishonest?”
Justin spread his hands. “No, not dishonest. She’s all too zealous in the execution of her duties. To read the reports she has compiled, we’re a town of paupers. It’s embarrassing to the town’s reputation.” On consideration, this attack on Madame Serre’s conduct as administrator had seemed the best way to suggest a replacement, far more dignified than to baldly assert his mother wished she had received the post instead. And now for the subtle bait, “I think that if someone else,” he gave these words a little extra emphasis to make his meaning clear, “had been given the post it would have been administered in a more responsible fashion.”
The lids of the commandant’s eyes had become heavy, and he sat with steepled fingers, not responding. Justin wondered if the quickly slugged cognac had made of the officer sleepy, but in fact Major Spellmeyer was very much aware. The wordless regard focused on Mayor Perreau was the same attention which many a businessman had faced when trying to renew a loan, and in Spellmeyer’s experience, if such a man had a guilty conscience, the silent gaze would soon make him give himself away by explaining more than he had to.
The silence became unbearable. “She has almost a quarter of the town listed as requiring relief,” Justin said. “What will the Americans think? That we are all poor? That under your administration we are being starved? Surely for the honor of the town--”
Major Spellmeyer waved the concern away. “The honor of the town can take care of itself, I think. What is it Christ said? Let the dead bury their dead?”
The phrase was jarring. “The dead?”
“Your town is defeated, Perreau.”
The commandant’s tone was sharp now; he leaned forward in his chair. Justin felt the omission of any title before his name.
“It’s a harsh word, defeat, but what more can one say?” The words were coming easily to Major Spellmeyer, indeed he had several times had occasion to deliver a similar oration to businessmen: You are bankrupt, sir. Insolvent. There is no good being afraid of the word. “Industry is at a standstill, many of the working men are away with the French army, and our own army is expending considerable resources to provide order, which in turn makes it necessary for us to requisition supplies. If the Americans and whatever other neutral parties they can muster find it in their hearts to feed a quarter of the town -- even half! -- why should we object?”
It was not at all the response he had expected. “Then you would have the town throw itself at the feet of America for food? They’re allied with Britain in all but name. If the town’s honor is of no account, how about German honor?”
“German honor will be best suited by winning the war.” Major Spellmeyer leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. “I’m no grand strategist, Monsieur Mayor, but I do know a few things about commerce, so allow me to tell you about war as I understand it. At this very moment, the British Navy is doing its very best to starve my country. They are stopping ships that are carrying food to Germany, even civilian ships from neutral countries. And what does that mean? It means that some day soon, if the war is not won yet, we will have to decide who gets the food, my mother back at home or our soldiers on the front line. If Madame Serre and the committee report that the town is in great need to help, and if the Americans are thus inspired to send food which the British do not stop because it is meant for poor starving Frenchmen, do you know what the means? It means I can send off a nice full train full of all the food grown here in Chateau Ducloux to feed Mother back at home. And the food grown back in Prussia can be shipped to the troops. Once all the trains have stopped moving, the Americans will have fed the German army, and the British will have allowed food through their blockade that goes to help the men who will defeat them in the spring.”
Now it was Justin’s turn to sit staring without words.
“But tell me,” Spellmeyer asked, leaning back again in his chair with a supremely satisfied expression. “Is it the honor of the town which is so very much at stake, or is it simply that your esteemed mother has not yet reconciled to another woman being the relief’s administrator?”
“Well,” the commandant went on. “I can’t think that it’s been easy for you. But you’ll have to bear up, and consider it your contribution to the war effort. Tell your mother this honor is not for her. We’re all the better off having this at arm’s length from the town government, and letting Madame Serre do her best for the deserving poor, all the better since she had no idea the service she’s doing us.”
The defeat was total. Justin nodded and turned to go.
“Wait!” Major Spellmeyer said, getting up from his chair and coming around the desk.
Justin stopped but did not reply.
“I can’t imagine it will be very comfortable at home for a bit,” the commandant said. “I’m going to host a little gathering tonight. Mostly officers. A friend or two. Some feminine companionship if you know what I mean.” He smiled and winked in a manner worthy of a comic opera. “How about if you join the throng. There’s this contraband cognac to celebrate, and a few other delicacies we relieved the criminal element of as well. Why not?” He clapped a hand onto Justin’s shoulder.
It would indeed be a dismal evening at home, the more so when he reported his failure to mother. And yet in the commandant’s invitation he saw, for the first time, with utter clarity how this appointed office of his would be seen afterwards should his own country somehow win the war. He was being invited to join the enemy in enjoying the spoils of war, and the invitation was only being offered because he was already considered practically one of the enemies himself.
His fellow citizens would not think kindly of him, indeed already did not.
“No, I’m sorry. I must be at home tonight,” he replied.
The commandant nodded, hearing from the tone that the refusal was for more than this night. Justin was not again invited to join what became known as the commandant’s Round Table. But the revel, which became a weekly institution, was already on its way to becoming a fixture of the week for the occupation forces.
Spring had came, with its lengthening days and dreary rain. It was the time for plowing and planting. Nature’s inherent bounty was unchanged by the war, but nature left to herself does not produce the fields of grain, potatoes, beans, turnips, and sugar beets which feed men and livestock. Too many of the men who in peacetime worked the fields were gone -- either lying under wooden crosses on the fields of the autumn’s battles, or manning the French side of the battle lines which stretched from the Swiss border to the Atlantic. If the farms around Chateau Ducloux were to yield up their harvest for the benefit of Frenchmen and occupiers alike, something had to be done.
Philomene heard the sound of the front door, but not the usual clatter of Pascal running through the hall. She put down the potato and vegetable brush and dried her hands on her apron as she stepped out of the kitchen. From upstairs she could hear the voices of Charlotte and Lucie Marie playing with their dolls. No one else should be coming or going this time of day.
There was a dull thud of Pascal dropping his school satchel on the floor, and her son stepped slowly out of the entry hall, holding a folded piece of paper in his hands.
“I’m home, mother.”
He bent and folded the paper nervously in his hands. Was it a letter from the teacher, or even the principal? Had he got into some kind of trouble? In the fall, when the boys had defaced the door of a teacher they suspected of consorting with the Germans, a German officer had come to the door of every boy in Pascal’s to warn parents of the consequences of further misbehavior. Pascal did not meet her eyes, but looked down at his hands.
“Do you have something for me?”
He nodded and held out the paper. “It’s not just me. It’s not any kind of discipline. All the boys my age and older got one. Orders from the commandant.”
The sheet was printed, a proclamation rather than a letter.
Due to the lack of agricultural workers, all boys aged 10 through 16 are subject to periodic labor requisition effective immediately.
Those within that age range will report for spring planting duties from April 5th through April 16th. Work will be supervised by their teachers, and food and lodging will be provided.
Boys subject to requisition must report to the town hall on the morning of April 5th in clothes suitable for working and bring no more than one small bag. Failure to report for labor requisition is punishable by a fine of 250 francs or by imprisonment of parents or guardians.
Philomene stared at the paper. “They are going to make our children work in the fields? What are we to them? Natives that they can round up and put to work at will?”
Pascal shrugged and looked down at his shoes. His chin had the slight tremble which, a few years before, might have presaged silent tears. Philomene made her own thoughts quiet and put her hands on his shoulders. He was still thin, his frame boyish, and still several inches shorter than she. How could they force a boy so young to leave his home and work in the fields for nearly two weeks? It was wrong and cruel, like everything that came with this war. But she must not frighten or upset him further.
“It’s wrong,” she said, schooling her voice to make it calm and even. “They treat us unjustly. But you will be all right. It says right there your teachers will be there to look after you.”
“Will--” The word came out as a half sob, and she saw her son stop and force his features into order before speaking again. “Will I be betraying Father?”
“Betraying Father? No! How could you do that?”
“By working for the Germans. Will I be helping their army fight father? I’d to anything instead of that. I could run away. I could live in the woods. I could fight. I could--”
“No.” She gave the word firmness, and she could see Pascal’s shoulders relax. “You will not be serving their army or betraying your father or your country. You’ll be helping to grow the food we all need to live. That’s honest work. There is no betrayal in that.”
Pascal nodded and surreptitiously wiped at his eye with the back of his hand. “All right. I couldn’t do it if I was betraying Father. But if it’s just work… I can work to support the town just as well as anything else can. Even for the Boches.”
After a long sniff, and scrubbing at his nose with the back of a hand, Pascal shook off his mother’s hands and dashed off with his customary energy.
There was something reassuring in how easy it was to restore the boy’s spirits, and yet when she looked at the printed notice she still held in her hands, a cold emptiness replaced her stomach.
“There’s nothing we can do,” her father said, late that night in the sitting room.
“I know.” She had not told him because she expected him to offer a solution. They were trapped in the same position, both parents, both unable to shield their children from the effects of war and occupation. It seemed that similarity should draw them closer together, and yet it was irritation she felt with Louis, for stating the obvious and painful fact.
“He’s a big boy, you know. A good boy too. He’ll be all right.”
It was more than Philomene could stand, and as soon as politeness would allow she complained that she was tired and went to bed.
There, in the darkness, the empty place in bed next to her seemed to cry out as never before. Henri would have understood the particular desperation which had hold of her. She did not want to be told what to do; there was nothing to be done. Her son -- this boy, this small person who had been created inside of her, whom she had nursed and held close and seen gradually yet startlingly turn into a creature that showed unexpected flashes of manhood -- he was to be taken from her and sent to do work in the fields under the eyes of German soldiers carrying guns.
Who knew what sort of other boys he would be thrown in with. “All boys aged 10 through 16” the notice had said. Surely that meant not only the boys from the school but the boys who lived in workers shanties down by the lime pits and the cement factory. What would they be talking about at night? What would they teach her son?
And yet there was no way to protest, no course of action. The event was as unexpected and as inevitable as a cancer: one day everything normal, the next “Madame, I regret that I have some very serious news to give you,” and from there the creeping inevitability, no cure, no treatment.
Henri would have understood this and held her in his arms and said, “Our son.”
But no. The cancer, the cruel inevitability which possessed the whole world, had him in its grips too. Henri had been taken to serve with the army. Now Pascal had to serve in this labor requisition. What else before it was all over?
It was in the small hours of the morning before she was able to fall asleep that night, and the question, the fear, the helplessness continued to gnaw away like a tumor, with her always, until the following Monday when Pascal left the house early wearing an old set of clothes and a cast off overcoat of Grandpere’s. In his bag were two changes of clothing and also a loaf of bread in case they did not give him enough food.
Philomene kissed him and held him close for a moment, but felt him tensing with embarrassment that his mother was making a scene on the doorstep. And then he was walking away down the grey morning street. Her only son, going to work under the eyes of the enemy.
Louis put a hand on her shoulder and told her that it would be all right, but she shook the touch away and went to the kitchen where she could be alone with the yawning despair of helplessness. She tried to pray, but words did not come. Nor did tears. Before the morning was over she had scoured and polished every pot in the cupboards, and her hands were cracked and bleeding with the unaccustomed work.
There was pushing and words exchanged as the boys moved through the line to get their dinner, a stew seemingly made from all the leavings of a cellar: potatoes, beans, carrots, turnips, and here and there small fragments of the salt pork which gave it flavor. Whatever its failures in taste, there was a great deal of it in the pot, and the farmwife in whose fields the boys had worked the day ladled it into Pascal’s tin bowl until it was full.
His back ached. His shoulders ached. The heat of the tin bowl reached through and seared his hands on the two spots where blisters had popped and left tender raw skin exposed.
Pascal found a spot to sit away from the others and balanced the bowl on his lap. That morning, in the square in front of the town hall, German NCOs had divided the boys into working parties. He had been standing with Lucien and the other boys from his class, with the result that when they were asked to count off they had all been assigned to different groups. There were ten boys in his work party, of which the three he recognized from school were all at least two years older. The boys his own age were poorly dressed: peasants or children of the workers from the cement factory, many of whom went to the smaller school near the worker settlement outside of town and stopped going at all when they reached the age of thirteen and were no longer required to by law.
These boys had seemed much more in their element during the day. One had coaxed a handful of cigarettes out of one of the Germans and shared them with the other boys over lunch. Pascal had tried one and immediately fallen into a coughing fit, which he tried to excuse with, “I’m not used to these. Grandpere and father only smoke cigars and pipes.”
“Don’t lie. I bet a nice town boy like you has never smoked before.”
“I’m not lying. They don’t smoke cigarettes. I’m not used to them.”
“Have you ever smoked at all?”
He had wanted to retort, but the thought of Pere Lebas and the wooden box of a confessional held him back from directly saying what was not true. Saying that his father didn’t smoke cigarettes and letting them think this meant Pascal was used to a pipe or cigar was something he could excuse to himself, but there was too much training against untruth for him to lie so directly over a matter of mere prestige. Instead he had turned away and throughout the rest of the day he had kept mostly to himself, as he did now over his dinner.
A commotion drew Pascal’s attention back to the other boys.
“Take it back!” shouted a short and wiry, dark-haired boy named Denis. He shoved an older boy, half a head taller than himself, and shouted again. “You’re a liar. Take it back!”
The bigger boy, who significantly outweighed his opponent, absorbed another shove, then drew back suddenly as Denis was trying to shove him again. Off balance, Denis lurched forward, and the bigger boy gave him a shove which sent him to the ground.
“Why should I take it back?” the older boy asked. “Your mother is a whore. A Boche-loving whore.”
With a yell of wordless rage Denis launched himself from the ground and flew at the other boy. This was not like the schoolyard fights Pascal had seen and occasionally joined in, administered by an honor code according to rules gleaned from tales of heroic prize fighters in the boys magazines that were passed around at lunch. Denis attacked with the ferocity of a brawling cat, punching, kicking, hair pulling, biting, his fingers trying to tear at nose and eyes. The older boy was briefly driven back, then doubled the smaller boy over with a punch to the gut, kicked his feet out from under him, and dropped bodily onto him, bringing his weight to bear while raining punches on the boy’s ribs with his free hand.
Even without knowing the origin of the argument, Pascal felt strongly the urge to help Denis. What cause could be more just than defending a mother’s honor? He started to put his bowl aside, but already the two German soldiers who had been their supervisors during the day were rushing in, shouting in their own guttural language and pulling the struggling boys apart.
The NCO gathered all the boys together and delivered a collective scolding, though it fell on even more deaf ears than the instructions of an occupier might anyway because after saying with careful emphasis, “This fighting is forbidden. I will not allow it,” he lapsed into rapid German in order to express himself at more length. Afterwards the boys were given five minutes to finish their dinner in silence before being sent to bed, which in this case meant the hayloft in the barn.
Outside the sun was setting, and little enough light filtered into the barn through the wooden planks of the walls, but no lantern was allowed inside due to the risk of fire. The boys climbed the ladder to the hayloft in semi-darkness and clambered around to find places of relative comfort.
While looking for a place to sleep, Pascal came upon Denis. The small, dark boy had been making a noise very like crying, but he immediately stopped as Pascal rustled through the hay towards him. Denis glared at him. Even in the dim light he could see that he had several cuts on his face and puffy bruises still forming.
“That was brave the way you protected your mother’s honor,” Pascal said.
Denis gave something between a snort and growl and turned away.
Pascal hesitated. He wanted to say that he would have helped if the Germans had not rushed in so quickly, but claiming credit for such a non-action seemed empty. “I’m sure she’d be proud,” he offered instead.
“I hate her.” The words came out in a near sob. Then in a stronger voice, “I wish Father could come back and deal with her.”
What had seemed a simple chance to express solidarity with a boy who had fought for his family’s honor had proved to be more murky waters.
“I’m sorry. My father is away with the army too.”
“My father was killed.”
“I’m sorry.” The words felt hollow. Silence drew out for a moment. Should he leave? It was uncomfortable to stay where another’s pain was so clearly exposed. And yet would leaving itself be cowardly?
He stayed. In the dimness of the hayloft the sounds of movement and talking began to die down. Despite the early hour, exhaustion after the day’s work was taking its toll. Pascal lay on top of the old overcoat of Grandpere’s which provided some protection from the prickles of the hay. The smell which the hay gave off -- half summer field, half dusty room -- was comforting.
“Does your family have Germans quartered with you?” Denis asked from the darkness.
“Lucky. We don’t have any with Grandmere, but she lives in a one room cottage. There’s no room for soldiers. She took us to live with her because she said we shouldn’t have to live with mother’s shame. You can’t escape a thing like that, though. I have to fight those Goddamn bullies all the time because of what they say about mother. I can’t let them say it, even if it’s true. But it’s her fault.”
Pascal could think of nothing to say, and perhaps in the quiet darkness Denis was no so much talking to him as confessing what he could not normally say to anyone.
“The worst was during February. Grandmere ran out of coal and we couldn’t afford more if we were to eat. Mother found out, and she’d meet me once a week and give me a bucket of coal. I told Grandmere I was stealing it from the Germans, and she said as long as I didn’t get caught, stealing from thieves as no crime. But I know mother got it straight from that Goddamn sergeant of hers. And I think Grandmere suspected as much, but we needed it so badly she couldn’t say no.” Another drawn out pause, and then Denis concluded in a whisper. “One of these days I’ll find a way, and I’ll kill one of these Boches.”