A couple extra days in the making, but tonight's installment brings the novel to 115,000 words. There is one more installment of Chapter 10 to go, and I will be posting it some time during the coming weekend.
Chateau Ducloux, France. August 23rd, 1914. The little church of Saint Thibault was nearly full even before mass began. Surely God would not allow a treasured son or husband to be cut down by a German bullet simply because his loved ones had been lax in their prayers for him, and yet God must somehow hear. Even if prayers could not turn aside bullets, they could at least turn away the self-accusations which might follow: on the day it happened you could not even be bothered to go to mass and pray for him.
Every candle in the votive racks was lit. Many stayed after mass as well, for the rosary which Pere Lebas introduced with the intention, “For the strength and protection of our brave soldiers.”
Once the rosary was over, Philomene gathered up the children to go home. Their behavior had been unusually satisfactory. Charlotte had seemed on the brink of a crying fit when she was told that all of the votive candles were already lit, and so she could not light one for Father. It had seemed the moment to say something inspiring: If you pray to Our Lady and tell her how much you wanted to light a candle for Father, she will light a candle in heaven for you.
But while these little scenes were invariably successful in the columns of devotional magazines, Charlotte was not the type of lisping angel who seemed to inhabit those pages, and so Philomene had instead whispered to her, “Remember that we were going to stop at the patisserie on the way home to get breakfast.”
The thought of her favorite little cake instantly drove thoughts of candles -- and perhaps even of father -- from the seven-year-old’s mind, and she had showed complete decorum as prayer books were collected and the family left the church.
Outside, blinking in the bright morning sunlight after the nearly windowless, candlelit interior of the church, Philomene saw an unusual crowd in the square before the church. A two-wheeled farm cart was stopped in the street, the shaggy pony between the shafts standing with its head down. On the driver’s bench was a woman in a brown dress. The sheen of the fabric and the gathers along the seams made it clear it was a Sunday-best, yet it was also visibly old, and it showed the dust of days on the road. She was flanked by two small children, and the cart was filled with a variety of household valuables: a cedar chest, a mattress, several wooden crates with straw showing through the slats, a treadle sewing machine.
Several people who had just left the church were gathered round the cart asking questions.
“What part of Belgium are you from?” “When did you leave?” “How far have the Germans come?” “Have you seen the French army?” “Has there been a battle?”
“We left Tongeren nine days ago. I don’t know anything,” she said, her French spoken with a heavy Flemish accent.
More questions poured forth but the woman only shook her head. She straightened her back and flexed her shoulders, as if she had been hunched on the seat of the cart for many hours, and as she did so she placed her free hand on her round stomach.
Pregnant. Philomene felt a tightening of her own stomach. This woman was pregnant, her husband gone, trying to bring her children and possessions to safety, driving a farm cart away from the invading armies.
“Is it true that the Germans burn houses and shoot civilians?” “Is the Belgian army still fighting?” “Have you seen the French 212th Regiment? My son is in it.” The crowd continued to press with questions.
Philomene stepped forward. “Let the poor woman alone, she’s said she doesn’t know anything. How could she give us news when she’s been on the road for a week and a half?”
There were some embarrassed murmurs, but the villagers surrounding the cart fell silent and then began to drift away. Philomene stepped closer. “Can I offer you some breakfast? Our house is not far from here. You could have breakfast with us and we could give you food for your journey.”
She reached out and took the woman’s hand in her own. For a moment they looked into each other’s eyes, then the refugee turned away and Philomene saw tears running down her face. “Thank you,” she said. “We will be no trouble. We won’t stay long. Thank you. God bless you.”
It proved an awkward meal. As she stopped at Jeanpetit’s Patisserie and ordered three times her usual number of cakes and pastries, Philomene had entertained visions of the comfort which a little bit of hospitality could bring to this family which had been on the road for ten days. She could give them what they needed while gaining some sense of the plight which faced families in Belgium -- which perhaps awaited families in France as well.
The farm cart stood outside the Mertens shop, and inside the house Louis had brought Madame Peeters and her two children into the dining room. There the little boy and girl sat, very upright in their chairs, having taken to heart their mother’s stern warnings about behavior, lest they appear to be the wrong sort of refugees.
“Good morning!” said Philomene cheerfully. “I have lots of treats to choose from, and you shall have the first pick.” She spread out Monsieur Jeanpetit’s confections on the table and stepped aside, taking Lucie-Marie by the hand when she attempted to rush the table. “Go on. Take as many as you like.”
The two little Belgian children turned to look at their mother, who nodded and held up two fingers. Each child went and carefully picked out two pastries, placed them on one of the waiting plates, and sat down to eat slowly, surreptitiously licking the crumbs from their fingers between bites.
Once she had taken the edge off her own hunger by rapidly consuming three of the treats, seven-year-old Charlotte tried to ply the oldest Peeters girl -- six years old and seemingly all pale blue eyes and blond braids -- with questions, but she only shrugged. “The children only speak Flemish,” Madame Peeters explained, and Charlotte turned away to see if Lucie-Marie really wanted all of her own little cake.
“Where are you going to stay?” Philomene asked, breaking a lengthy silence.
Madame Peeters shrugged. “I don’t know. Reims? Paris?” She paused and again placed a hand on her pregnant belly as if feeling the baby stirring or drawing some strength from inside. “When he was called up, my husband said, ‘Don’t wait until it is too late.’ Now that we’ve left everything, I must not stop too soon and have the Germans come when I can no longer travel.”
Philomene hesitated over the next question. “Your husband…?” She felt guilty as soon as she saw the other woman’s expression. “Mine is with the army in Paris,” she continued, hoping this would provide some small proof of commonality.