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.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Chapter 6-2

Sorry to miss posting last weekend. Travels continue. I post this section from California, where I'm out helping my mom for a couple days. We're all looking forward to things calming down in March after this eventful February.

But here's the next installment, back with Philomene in occupied France.

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. August 7th, 1915. The next morning was calmer for Philomene. She gave the girls breakfast and turned them out into the garden to play. Pascal slept late, and when at last he came down he was more her quiet son of a year ago than the sullen young man who had returned to her from harvest duty the day before.

She cut him a large piece of bread and spread it generously with butter.

“Would you like coffee?”

Even with Grandpere’s black market activities, coffee was far more a luxury now than it had been before the war. The beans had to come from Africa, South America, or from the Pacific. All those sea lanes were firmly under the control of the British Navy, and it was their policy that no cargo ships, even under the flags of neutral nations, could sail to Germany and its occupied territories. Thus even in the Fournier family coffee remained a treat reserved for the most important occasions and even then only for adults. But Pascal was only just back from nearly two weeks with the labor detail. Surely that was a special occasion.

“They made us pots of ersatz coffee each morning during the harvest,” Pascal explained, after swallowing down the over-large mouthful of bread and butter that had blocked his speech. “The older boys said it was made from scorched grain. It was hot, so we drank it, but it was so bitter.”

“This is real coffee your grandfather bought. I can put cream in it for you if it’s still too bitter.”

“Yes please.”

Pascal sat taking large bites of his bread and watched her fill the coffee pot. He was all hers and all little boy. And then a knock sounded at the door.

For a moment neither moved. A knock no longer had the harmless function that it had before, or rather, the function was the same, but the range of reasons a visitor might come to the door had expanded to include many that were as uncomfortable to think on as they were impossible to ignore. Nor could they simply wait for the maid to answer it.

Philomene went to the door and opened it.

Relief. There was no stranger in a uniform outside. It was Andre the postmaster, Henri’s old friend and now Grandpere’s unlikely co-conspirator in the black market. He had a basket over one arm, its contents covered with a blanket, while his other hand gripped his cane.

“Andre, welcome! My father went out for a few moments, but if you want to come in and wait for him?”

The postmaster looked up and down the street, as if in fear of being seen, and then stepped in. “Actually, I came to see you, Madame Fournier.”

The words and behavior seemed strange, but the training of the last year taught that the less usual an occurrence, the more urgent it should be out of general sight.

“Of course,” she said, closing the door behind him. “Come into the kitchen. I was making some coffee. May I offer you a cup?”

“Coffee? My goodness! Yes, that would be very fine. Thank you.” Andre was carrying the basket held well out from his body so that he would not bump it as he walked with his cane. The effect was awkward, especially as the basket appeared to be heavy. A secret that was both heavy and delicate. Surely he and her father weren’t involved with something as mad as explosives?

In the kitchen he settled the basket carefully on the table. “There. Not disturbed, I think.”

The coffee pot was beginning to bubble and sputter on the stove. Pascal stepped quickly to turn off the burner before Philomene could get around Andre. He took two coffee cups from the shelf and poured them, setting one before the visitor, then the other in front of his mother.

Such a responsible boy. He hovered quietly in the background, out of Andre’s line of sight, and Philomene did not have the heart to send him away. Let him listen quietly. He had given up his promised coffee to the visitor without a murmur, and there should be rewards for such maturity.

The blanket which covered the basket moved slightly.

“When I came to the post office this morning,” Andre said, “I found this basket in front of the door.”

He twitched back the blanket to reveal a baby, tightly wrapped in an old sheet, with only its head exposed. Sensing the light, or the loss of the blanket’s warmth, the baby stretched, reaching upwards with its chin and exposing the pink folds of a small neck.

“I found this letter with it.” Andre held it out. A few lines written in neat block letters, perhaps to avoid the handwriting being recognized.


“She was left at the post office? What are you going to do?” Philomene asked.

“Precisely my question,” replied Andre. “I’ve no idea what to do with a baby. Why was she left for me?”

Marianne, the symbol of the Revolution. “I suppose her mother wanted to leave her to the Republic and not the Church. Otherwise she would have left her at the convent or the church. And the city building is hardly our own anymore, so the post office probably seemed the most obvious place.”

“No doubt But I’ve no experience with children.”

“No. You can’t keep her.”

As if on queue, the baby’s face crumpled and darkened. She pulled up her legs, gathering her infant strength like a tensing spring, and delivered herself of a hoarse little wail.

Philomene was not a woman who could leave a squalling infant alone in its basket. Immediately she was on her feet, taking up the baby and holding her close, swaying and making little noises of comfort to her. Slowly the baby’s features reordered themselves. The child gave out a long triple snuff and shook her whole tiny frame as she settled back into sleep in the warmth of Philomene’s arms.

“See? This is why I came to see you,” said Andre. “I knew you’d have the womanly instincts to know what to do.”

“To hold her, yes. But what are we to do with her? Who is to take care of her?”

Andre spread his hands. “I could ask the mayor, but that’s no different from asking the Germans. Perhaps by rights it’s their problem, as it was doubtless a German soldier who fathered her.”

“But what would the Germans do with her?”

“I don’t imagine they would see it as their problem. The nearest state orphanage is in Reims, but that’s across the lines. There’s one in Sedan. But who knows if they’re taking babies fathered by German soldiers. What would the Church do with a case like this?”

There had been women in trouble before, of course. A good family would simply make sure a marriage took place, or if that was impossible, send the girl off on an extended visit to family in some other town and see that the child was settled with an appropriate relative. Down in the workers’ shanties by the mine and the cement factory, there were women enough who simply raised children on their own. At times the sisters sent a troubled girl off to stay at a house for single mothers until she delivered her child, and then… Well, a place was found for the child. It had not come to Philomene’s attention before how those situations were resolved, but they were, and often with the help of institutions in larger towns. She could not recall that the sisters had ever had to deal with a baby abandoned in a basket. And yet now, the Germans had been here for more than a year. Perhaps the surprise was that it had not happened before. She must find an answer, for this would surely not be the last time such a thing would happen.

The baby shook itself in her arms, stretched its chin out again and drew up its legs, then gave a long sigh and settled herself down into Philomene’s arms with a gentle shake of its head. The child was so tiny, surely not more than a week or two old. How cruel the world had become to cast such a small baby out on its own.

“I’ll ask the sisters what can be done. And in the meantime, I’ll take care of her.”

“Thank you!” Andre pushed himself up from his chair with the vigor of gratitude. “If there’s anything I can do to help?” He left the question hanging in the air as he moved towards the door.

“There is.” Philomene caught him before he could escape, and he halted. So long as he was not asked to take the baby into his bachelor existence, he was ready enough to perform any other service. “I shall need to feed the baby. That will mean fresh milk, and something to feed the baby with. I’ve heard in the cities they have for sale glass bottles fitted with a rubber nipple that the baby can drink from. Can you see if such a thing can be found?”

Andre had cringed slightly at the word ‘nipple’. The mechanics of feeding babies was clearly not something that he had confronted before, nor did he wish to. But if this absolved him of responsibility for the child, he would attempt it. “I will see what can be done,” he promised, and with that commitment, gained his exit.

Pascal saw him out, then returned to look over his mother’s shoulder.

The baby had opened her eyes. Dark blue pupils regarded the world with the slightly cross-eyed gaze of a newborn. Philomene was feeling a familiar delight at just how small the warm bundle was. With her head nestled in Philomene’s elbow, the end of the swaddled bundle rested comfortably in her hand, a perfect, wriggling. hold-able package.

“Why did the baby’s mother leave it outside the post office?” asked Pascal.

Philomene was on the point of brushing the question away with the sort of vague answer with which children are told nothing of what adults find too difficult to put before them. She stopped herself. Having a child on the borders of maturity would require new habits.

“I’m sure it was some unfortunate woman who was not married. And the child’s father wouldn’t marry her. Probably a German soldier. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to take care of the baby, or she didn’t want people to know that she’d had one. So she left her where people would find her and take care of her.”

Pascal took a step back. “So it’s a Boche baby? A bastard?”

The words were harsh coming from a twelve-year-old’s lips. Pascal himself felt anger rising and his fists clenching just by saying such words in front of his mother. But in his mind loomed the image of one of those big, uniformed threats, with his grey uniform and hobnailed boots and a rifle slung over his shoulder -- a man like those who had stood guard over the boys on labor detail as they worked in the fields. One of those men had taken a village girl and done things to her, the things that grownups wouldn’t talk about, but which the bigger boys said were like how stray dogs mounted each other in the street. Had she liked it? Had she kissed him? Or had he forced her? The questions and the images they inspired were fascinating and revolting at the same time, and somehow this baby was the product of it all. Surely it was not right that his mother should be cradling a baby that had come from such filthy and traitorous acts.

Philomene was feeling the tenderness which a baby could inspire in a mother. Not only did this baby have the tiny pointed chin, the toothless mouth, the delicate ears, all the features which made it possible to sit staring in wonder at a baby for an hour at a time, but she could hold this baby close and think about caring for it without the bloating, the tearing, the misery of carrying and then birthing a baby. Pascal’s words disrupted the peace she felt holding the child close.

“She is a baby. And every child is made by God in His image,” she said, trying to let the words do their work and keep any hint of anger from her voice. “However weak or even wicked her father and mother may have been, God wants every child to be happy with him one day in heaven. She needs our love and care, since she was abandoned by her own family.”

Pascal seemed no more than half convinced, and held back, eyeing the baby with suspicion. At that moment, however, the baby shifted between its two appetites. With her desire for sleep satisfied for the moment, she required food, and although the world had provided a set of arms that held her close to a warm body, the world was providing no food. Her face crumpled and turned red as she gave out hoarse little screams that made her tiny body shake.

Philomene rocked the baby, put her on her shoulder, and gently patted her, but it was plain enough what the baby wanted, and that created a problem. Although the illustrated papers before the war had offered full page advertisements touting the sanitary and figure preserving virtues of the modern glass baby bottles with their india rubber nipples, Chateau Ducloux was an old fashioned town and from the moment when Philomene had taken the infant Pascal in her arms twelve years before, it had seemed the most natural thing in the world to nurse her babies herself. Yet that meant that now, faced with this unexpected guest, she did not have suitable equipment with which to offer the baby the refreshment which she desired.

With the baby cradled in one arm, she poured a little milk into a saucepan and put it on the stove to warm, then began to look through the cupboards and drawers for something that might serve to feed a baby. At last she selected a small funnel. The mouth was small enough, but the milk would flow through it much too fast. She cut a piece of cloth from the rag bag and pulled it through the funnel until it made a tongue hanging out of the funnel’s mouth. Testing it with water this proved to let through a steady drip which seemed right for baby.

Taking all these back to a chair by the table, she found that two hands was one too few for this jury-rigged solution. The baby was still screaming, her face now dark red, as Philomene tried to juggle baby, funnel, and saucepan of warmed milk. Pascal was still standing around, shifting from one foot to the other as he watched her. She summoned him.

“Pour a little of the milk into the funnel when I tell you.”

He hovered over her as she settled the baby into the crook of her left arm. She dipped the funnel in the warmed milk so the baby would taste it immediately, and then settled the dampened cloth into the baby’s angry, gaping mouth. The little lips closed on the cloth and she could see the cheeks work, sucking at it.

“Now pour a bit of milk.”

Pascal poured. The baby sucked greedily for a moment, then choked and spat milk. She screamed for a moment, then Philomene was able to settle the cloth back into her mouth, and the baby again began to suck.

Milk glistened on the baby’s chin, and some was spattered on Philomene’s blouse as well. This would never have the same close, comforting feeling to holding a child to her own breast. But the baby was eating, and as she watched the little cheeks work the idea of sending this child off to be raised in an orphanage was already being replaced with thoughts of the tiny girl lying warm against her in bed at night.

They fed the baby in this fashion until she drifted into sleep, letting the milky cloth fall from her mouth and send drops of milk into her ear. Philomene set the funnel into the saucepan and dabbed at the baby and herself with a kitchen towel. Caring for this child would make a good deal of awkward work of this kind. And laundry. Philomene had begun to do a little light washing herself in the kitchen sink, something she would never have contemplated before the war, but washing diapers was not something she desired to do herself. The town’s washer women were now much taken up with seeing to the needs of German officers, and as a result getting laundry done for the villagers required more money -- or the offer of black market luxuries such as white sugar and coffee. Well, if that was what it took, she was in a better position than most people to acquire the needed items. That night she would have to discuss the matter with her father. Surely he would understand.

“What do we call the baby?” asked Pascal. “Does it have a name?”

She had not, till that moment, thought about the question, but when asked the answer seemed obvious. “I think we should call her Marianne.”


It was not till afternoon that Louis Martens returned home. Charlotte and Lucie Marie bounced around him shouting. “Grandpere! Grandpere! Have you heard? Have you heard?”

Pascal hushed the girls angrily. The situation was one which should be discussed seriously by adults -- and surely he was nearly an adult himself, Grandpere always spoke to him as if he were more than a child. The shouting of the little girls, who could not possibly understand it all, spoiled the importance of the day’s events.

Grandpere, however, had come with his own news, in the form of a proclamation which had been posted all over town.

“There’s to be a train, going home to France through Switzerland.”

He handed the printed announcement to Philomene.

Home to France. Paris. Henri. All day one set of plans had built themselves in her imagination, plans centered on the baby. Now a wholly different vision built itself in her mind. Together they would take the train through Switzerland, and from Switzerland across the border into France. Free France. They would make their way to Paris. She would send word through the regiment, and Henri would be given leave to come to them. The war might go on, but they would be together. For them it would be over.

“Can we go?” she asked, her voice studiously casual.

“You could go. And the girls. Pascal and I would have to stay. Only women and children too young to work are permitted to leave.”

The vision shattered as if an artillery shell had hit it. It was all too easy to envision the fate to which she would be leaving Pascal. Pressed into labor details. Running wild with the teenage boys in the town. Living under the threat of the occupiers and their guns. Her little boy would become coarse and hard, embittered by the work he was forced to do for his enemies, led into every kind of vice by the older boys. Her father would still be there at home, but what influence could a grandfather have compared to a boy’s own mother. Surely the knowledge that his mother and sisters were at home, expecting the best from him, would restrain him from following the rough boys from down in the workers’ shanties into whatever forms of perdition the frustrations and opportunities of the war would present.

Oblivious to the images going through his daughter’s mind, Grandpere was still talking. “I’ve made some inquiries. The train will take people only. One small suitcase for each family, and it is to contain no valuables or currency. I expect the Germans think they can requisition all the possessions of those who go. Still, if you went and took the girls you could be well away from all this, and Pascal and I could look after the house and the store.”

“I can’t go.” Philomene’s words cut him off. “How many years might the war go on? I can’t leave Pascal alone all that time. He’s still just a boy.”

Now Pascal spoke up. “I’m old enough to take care of myself. If you have the chance to take the little girls to safety and to be with father, you don’t have to stay on my account. We men will be all right.” He planted his feet and folded his arms across his chest, trying to reflect the stolid sentiments of his words.

“No,” said Philomene. “The family must stay together. That’s what your father would want. I was weak for a moment, thinking of the chance to get away and see him again. But that’s not the right thing. We must stay here together and be strong for him.”

This was a formulation which Pascal was able to accept. In truth, the idea of his mother and sisters leaving him behind had terrified him nearly as much as it had Philomene. But the fact that it scared him had simply increased his determination. He must not let his fear keep the women from going to safety. He would have to be like the men he had read about in the illustrated papers before the war, who when that ocean liner was sinking had stood quietly back and let the women and children take the boats. It was the duty of men to sacrifice themselves, whether on the battlefield or in life’s other dangers. But even as he had thrilled to the accounts of those brave men, he had suffered a terrifying dream in which he had stood with his father and Grandpere on a ship’s deck, watching mother and the girls board a boat, and knowing that very soon the icy water would take him to his death. He had so wanted to be brave, and yet he’d jerked out of that sleep in sweating terror and been unable to sleep the rest of the night for fear of dreaming about going down into the depths, never to return. But if Mother didn’t want to go… It was like a sudden stay of execution. He felt exultation coursing through him. The relief stayed with him even as Philomene asked that he take his younger sisters into the garden to play and watch them so that she could talk privately with Grandpere about other things. Normally this request would have drawn at least a few complaints from him, but at this moment all was right with the world, and so he herded the little girls outside and indulged them in a game of hide-and-seek which at other times he might have considered beneath the dignity of his years.

“Andre came to see me this morning,” Philomene said, once she was alone with her father.

“Yes. He told me about it.”

It took an effort for her to speak the next words. This difficulty was something she had not expected. Louis had always been such a close and gentle father, and after her mother’s death they had leaned upon each other. The only time she had felt this difficulty before had been telling him that she would marry Henri despite his objections. Then the reason for her trepidation had been clear to her. Now, she could not say why she felt her throat tightening as she tried to form her words. “I intend to keep the child myself.”

Her father nodded slowly, not so much agreement as acknowledgement of what she said. “Why?”

She had been prepared for practical objections, or some more mature version of Pascal’s objection to the child’s parentage, but this was a question on which she had not thought. Why? Somehow the need to find an answer made the words flow now as they had not before. “When Andre was here we talked about the sisters or a state orphanage. But then the child cried, and I held her close just like each of my own children. I looked into her eyes. And I felt her tiny fingers wrapping around my own. I learned how to feed her. And now I find it seems impossible to send her off to live with strangers, especially in an orphanage with no mother to keep her close.”

“I understand the feelings of holding a baby who needs everything, especially for a mother like you. But is it right to decide so quickly to make this child a part of our family? We know nothing of her parents, except that her mother could not or would not keep her.”

“Perhaps it is strange to make such a decision so quickly, but is any other child so different? I can’t say that any of my own children were the result of long thought and consideration. The decision of a moment, sometimes hardly a decision at all, can result in the bonds that tie us together for a lifetime.”

“But those are your own children, flesh and blood. You had already put your consideration into choosing the husband with whom you had them. Surely taking on another person’s child is something that requires thought. There are so many in need. You cannot help every one.”

“No. But every child in need does not come into my house and into my arms. This one did. Surely that makes her claim the most powerful one.”

“Perhaps you are right. After all, what was it that set the Samaritan apart from all the other passersby on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho? He saw that it was the man in need lying before him which mattered more than any other set of principles.” He took Philomene by the shoulders and kissed her forehead. “You are a good woman, like your mother was. At the wedding feast, even our Lord had to be told by Our Lady what needed to be done. You’d better bring me the baby so that I can get to know my newest granddaughter.”

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