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.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Chapter 6-3

This installment concludes Chapter 6. Next week we'll return to Natalie with Chapter 7.

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. August 7th, 1915. “Dearest Henri,” the orphan words looked up at Philomene from the page. In her days in the lycee they had completed composition exercises by rote. “Write a letter to your aunt thanking her for the gift that she sent you. The letter must be at least three paragraphs, and the gift may not be mentioned until the second paragraph.” “Write a letter to your grandfather telling him about a recent occurrence in your family.” Never, however, had she seen a model composition for, “Inform your husband serving in the army that during his year-long absence you have decided to adopt another child.”

Nor had the occasional separations of courtship and married life, with their letters filled with equal parts small household news and expressions of longing, provided training for this need. Even the other letters that she had managed to send to him since the war began had carried as their implicit message: here we wait, staying as much the same as we are able, until your return.

She put the cap back onto her drying pen and looked at little Marianne, lying in the small cradle which had held each of her children in turn, and once upon a time had held her as a baby. The baby’s face was pink against the white sheets and her expression was all quiet repose. Even without the natural lassitude that came from having nursed the baby herself there was something in those tiny features. The pointed chin, the softly closed eyelids with their little wisps of eyelash, the tiny white pores against the reddish skin of the nose -- every detail was something that could be contemplated without end. Not only were they small and peaceful, but each feature held the promise of many years unfolding before it. This small bundle of potential which as yet did nothing on her own had bursting forth within her so many possible futures, if only she could be given the time and peace to realize them.

And that was what it was so hard to find the words to tell Henri. Each of their children till now they had made between them, formed within, the product of their love. That she had chosen to add this child, whom he had never seen, to their family without being able to consult him seemed an admission that the family was growing and changing without him. There was no doubt in her mind that Henri would have supported her choice had he been there. It was the necessity of changing the family without his knowledge which made all the more clear that he was gone and that when he returned -- she would not allow the word ‘if’ -- it would be to a different family. And yet that was precisely why it seemed like a betrayal to end this day without writing to him, however long the letter might take to actually reach his hands.

She uncapped her pen again and hesitated with the nib just above the paper. Perhaps in the end the best way was the least artful. She would simply narrate from the beginning.

“This morning I was in the kitchen when there was a knock at the door….”

The letter ran to three sheets, written closely on both sides, as Philomene described not only what had happened, but why she had felt it her duty to make this little girl a member of the family, and also the infant beauty which made her happy to perform that duty. And then in closing, she returned to her love for Henri, to how much she and all the children missed him, to the glimpses of Henri she saw in his son who was becoming a man so quickly. She hoped that soon they would all see him again, that soon the war would be over and they could all live together in peace.

And with such wishes -- and a dash of her favorite perfume, which she hoped might cling to the paper over the weeks it would take to each Henri and give him a waft of memory that would remind him of the times they had spent in close embrace -- she sealed the letter and addressed the envelope to Henri.

This envelope, in turn, she placed in a larger envelope, and this she addressed to the convent in Munich which was of the same order as their convent in Chateau Ducloux. From there it could be forwarded to another convent in Switzerland, and from there to one in Paris, and from there to Henri. It was a slow process that took nearly a month to complete, but it made it possible to exchange letters with Henri even across the battle lines. Already, by this means, they had managed to exchange several letters.

But it was not a sure means. It depended on the tolerance or ignorance of the warring powers, both of whom officially disallowed communication with enemy territory. And in this case, at last, luck ran out. The convent’s packet was opened by an overly diligent German postal official. Among the letters that he found inside was one addressed to “Captain Henri Fournier, 304th Reserve Infantry Regiment”. That, to him, was clear enough proof of the duplicity of these Rome-ish nuns. He threw the small, scented envelope into the fire and for good measure followed it with the rest of the convent’s packet.

Henri, thus, never received the letter. And the disappearance of the packet alarmed the sisters, who held back some months before attempting again to send messages from the Munich convent to France via Switzerland. And this, in turn, would have results for Henri and Philomene that neither the postal official nor the sisters could have imagined.

***

Pere Lebas answered the door of the rectory himself. Here too, as in so many ordinary homes, the war had brought changes. Young Pere Benoit had been called up for service along with the other men in the village who were under thirty, leaving the pastor to carry the full work of the parish of Saint Thibault, with what little help the retired pastor, Pere Durot, could provide. And now, even their housekeeper had left to help her daughter who was struggling with three young children and a husband off with the army -- and truth be told to make a much better wage taking in washing from the German officers than the church had ever been able to give her.

“Why Madame Fournier! It’s good to see you. Come in. To what do I owe this visit?”

Philomene hefted the basket in which Marianne was once again nestled and stepped inside. It was a convenient enough way to carry a baby, and far less conspicuous than the perambulator in which she had taken her own babies for strolls.

“I’ve come for a baptism, Father.”

“A baptism,” the priest repeated back, surprised.

Philomene drew back the blanket which covered the basket, and its occupant obligingly gave a little murmur in her sleep.

“Yes, Father. I’ve brought you my baby daughter to be baptized.”

Pere Lebas had led the way to his little parlor. Now he sat down heavily in one of the stiff wingback chairs and repeated back, “Your daughter?”

Philomene nodded. She sat down in the other wingback chair and set the basket carefully in front of her, but she did not elaborate.

“But how can she be your daughter?”

“Why Father, surely you aren’t tempting me to sin against modesty? I’m certain you know how daughters come about.”

“But-- But, Henri… It’s more than a year that he’s been gone, and you’ve given no sign of being…”

He did not complete the sentence, and when Philomene’s raised eyebrows challenged him to do so, he merely blushed.

“It is important, Father, that we all be able to speak truthfully,” explained Philomene. “If someone asks you about this child, you must be able to say that I came to you and said that she was my daughter and I had bought her to you in order to have her baptized. You could then say, quite truthfully, that you expressed surprise and pointed out that my husband has been gone for over a year. And you may then say that I asked you to hear my confession. Will you hear my confession, Father?”

“Of course.”

Philomene listed her sins of the last few weeks, and then launched into an explanation of Marianne’s origins. “So I came to you with two purposes, Father. One was holy. She is to be my daughter and I want her received into the graces of the Church immediately. But the other was expedient. In order to be sure that she isn’t taken from me and sent off to an orphanage or even on the train to France through Switzerland with the other people they are calling ‘useless mouths’, I have to make sure she is legally my daughter. Then my ability to work, and my father’s, and my son’s will make her as safe a member of the village as any. So as soon as I am done having her baptized, I will go to the city hall and ask for a birth certificate showing that she is my daughter. And I will tell them, if they doubt me, they can come to you and ask about our visit. And what you must be able to tell them is that I came to you saying that she was my daughter, and then I asked you to hear my confession and you of course cannot reveal what I told you in confession.” She paused, watching for the priest’s reaction. “Is that wrong, Father? Have I used you and the sacrament to deceive?”

There was a long pause, and Philomene, at first confident of his answer, began to fear she had misjudged.

“It is certainly true that your motivations are mixed,” the priest said at last. “Still, I must warn you. You have thought out a good plan, but one which uses others and even the sacrament of baptism to your own ends. I know that in this case you want baptism for its own sake, and we are not required to have perfect intentions when we do what is right. But you must be cautious and not allow yourself to fall into using others. And of course, you must not allow yourself to lie no matter what the reason.”

“Yes, Father.” It was true. Once she had set her mind to it there had been a relish in thinking through how she could construct a situation which would deceive the village officials and their German masters without actually having to lie to them. She had enjoyed it.

“Then for your penance, pray the first Joyful Mystery for the intention of this little girl’s mother,” said Pere Lebas. “Now an act of contrition and I will give you absolution.”

The familiar Latin words of absolution were comforting after the self-accusation that had come before.

“What name will you give the child?” Pere Lebas asked her, when he had made the final sign of the cross over her.

It was with that question that the priest’s warning about using the sacrament for other end fully came home to her. She had not considered what name to give the baby, other than Marianne. Surely she must have some saint’s name. With each of her earlier children she had given much thought to the names of favorite saints and relatives. And yet this time she had given it no thought at all.

In that moment an idea came, and she hoped that its occurrence was a sign of providence rather than desperation.

“She is not yet a saint, but I would like to name her Marianne Thérèse, in honor of Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus.”

“Of course! She will be a wonderful patron for your little Marianne.”

***

In the frantic last days before the Germans arrived the previous summer, Mayor Binet had determined that his duty to the town and to the Republic was to take the civic records and remove them to a place of safety using his automobile. This duty had no doubt been more pleasant for him because he chose to fulfill it in the company not of Madame Binet, a woman of formidable opinions and girth, but rather his dutiful city secretary, with whom, for some years, he had enjoyed a discreet relationship. Thus it was that after Justin Perreau was appointed mayor by the occupation authorities, he had to find a new city secretary as well.

Whatever objections townsfolk might have to Mayor Perreau and the manner of his selection, Germaine Diot was precisely the sort of person that one would wish a city secretary to be. She had, ten years before, been one of the top students in the lycee, but she had neither left Chateau Ducloux to study further nor settled down to marriage. She had, rather, supported herself through a series of exemplary though unremarkable jobs and lived in quiet harmony with her elderly maiden great aunt. There was no whisper of impropriety when Mayor Perreau selected her as city secretary, and her perfect, swooping pen strokes were a credit to city documents. And yet, she was a person who expected, as the saying went, two and two to make four, and so when Philomene arrived in front of her desk with Marianne in her basket and asked that her daughter’s birth be recorded, Mademoiselle Diot questioned what seemed to her a clear untruth -- and things that were not true were not to be entered on the neat lines of town registries.

“You say that this is your daughter, Madame Fournier?” Germaine repeated.

“Yes,” replied Philomene, whose trim figure and easy movement both belied the idea that she had delivered a child a few days before.

“And who then is her father?”

“My husband, of course. Henri Fournier.”

“Your husband who has been gone with the army for more than a year?”

“Who else but my husband would be my daughter’s father?”

“That’s hardly for me to say.”

“Indeed it is not.”

“And yet, Madame Fournier, we both know that the length of a pregnancy is nine months.” It was Germain’s particular gift that she was able to state this in a tone that somehow was neither insulting nor aggressive. Together we must resolve this difficulty, her look and voice suggested.

Philomene hardened herself. Surely if she insisted, Germaine would eventually have to record the birth in the city register.

“Henri is my husband. Surely he must be considered the father of my child.”

“But Madam Fournier, to falsify the city records is wrong. It would be a crime.”

“I’m not asking you to falsify records. This is my daughter, and so of course, Henri is her father.”

The two women exchanged a look that was very close to a glare, but Germaine almost instantly thought better of the reaction and instead looked demurely down at the birth register that was open before her. This somehow caused Philomene to feel as if she had been rude, and so she tried to move into her planned last resort.

“If you don’t believe me, consult with Pere Lebas. He can tell you that I came to him today to have Marianne baptized and to have him hear my confession.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Germaine replied. “But you know I cannot accept a baptismal record as a legal document. The birth register is a civil record, recording who is born a citizen of the Republic. Surely you can see that I must record the actual parents of a child, because it may affect the child’s citizenship.”

This hinted at the very worst things that Philomene had imagined. Could the child be ruled a German because of her likely paternity? Would she be sent away to Germany to be raised by foreigners? Even after one day and night of feeding and nestling the child, it seemed cruel to be forced to give her up. Perhaps that was strange. But then, she had felt with each of her children a deep attachment from the moment of first laying eyes upon them. Why should this be different? And even the child’s mother, that poor, wretched woman who had been able to do no more for her daughter than to leave her where she might easily be found by loving hands, surely she deserved that her child at least be brought up in France, no matter who the baby’s father was.

“Let me speak with Mayor Perreau,” Philomene said.

“Come, Madame Fournier. It is not the mayor’s duty to fill out the birth register, and he will tell you the same as I.”

“Let me speak with him,” Philomene insisted.

“Very well. I will ask him.” Germaine rose. “I’m sorry, Madame. I wish that you would believe that I am not trying to be difficult. But we have a duty to France, even now.” She did not wait for a reply but left Philomene sitting before the records desk and went in search of the mayor.

Philomene sat and contemplated her situation. It was not as if she had some great store of goodwill built up with the Perreaus. But Justin Perreau was a decent man, if weak. Perhaps he would feel it his duty as a gentleman to listen to her.

Time passed, and Marianne began to fuss in her basket. Philomene took her out and held her. She tried all an experienced mother’s store of tricks: gently rocking her, draping her over one shoulder and patting her back, giving her a knuckle to suck on. All these could at best reduce the child from a full wait to occasional little squacks of frustration, because the one thing which Philomene could not do was feed the child without the milk and rag and funnel that she had rigged together the day before. If only she could complete all this quickly and get home in order to feed the baby.

Mayor Perreau thus found both mother and child on edge when he came into the city office and sat down at Germaine’s desk across from Philomene. He made a sympathetic clucking sound to the baby in the manner of an practiced parent, but Marianne was not to be mollified and gave him a little shriek with so much effort that her face briefly turned red.

“I’m sorry, Monsieur Mayor,” said Philomene. “The child is hungry.”

“Of course,” said the Mayor. “If you would like me to step away for a short time so that you can feed her in private…?”

He left the question hanging in the air, and Philomene took the question in precisely the way he meant it. He knew that the child was not hers, and thus that she could not nurse it.

“No need,” she replied. “Let us get the necessary formalities done and I will take my daughter home and feed her in peace. That is what she needs.”

“Yes, well…” Mayor Perreau steepled his fingers and pursed his lips. “The city secretary told me that you wish to have this child’s birth recorded in the city register.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, if I’m to do that, I must record the child’s mother and father in the register. The German administration is particularly strict about this for what they consider important health reasons relating to their troops.” He added this last with a knowing look. “So if you could just tell me the child’s mother and father, I will record it properly and we shall all be done with it.”

“Monsieur, my answer is not going to change with repeated requests. This is my daughter. Thus, her father is my husband. If you will put this down in the register now, you will save both of us time.”

Mayor Perreau studied her for several moments. “I’ve warned you that if I do as you ask the Germans may draw their own conclusions and act accordingly. Are you certain that you want me to do this?”

Philomene looked to Marianne’s face for courage and found it in the small features and unfocused eyes. And what could the Germans do? Surely nothing worse than if she allowed Marianne to be identified as an abandoned child and perhaps shipped away to an orphanage somewhere. “Yes. Please do.”

“Very well.” The mayor took up a pen and entered the birth record in the register in his own, less decorative handwriting.

Feeling victorious, Philomene hefted Marianne’s basket and carried the village’s newest citizen home. For his own part, Justin Perreau had sufficient decency that he had no desire to expose a respectable woman to the scrutiny of the German occupation authorities, so he made no mention of the child to the commandant and it was some time before her existence came to their attention.

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