I'll be working to get the next installment (finishing Chapter 15) up as quickly as possible. It'll be up no later than this coming Friday, but hopefully sooner.
Chateau Ducloux, France. October 27th, 1914. Not every return to normality was welcome. During the second week of October, the local newspaper, The Lantern, had returned to publication. The typeface and masthead were the same. Eugene Thorel remained the publisher, setting type for its four sheets each afternoon in the workshop which adjoined his house. But the power of the press was closely supervised and this new Lantern shed only the light of German might. Each edition was read throughout the town, yet hated.
Any scrap of news was desperately desired, but this was news filtered through the German command. There was no news of the French army units, active duty and reserve, in which the town’s men served. There was no list of the honorable fallen for families to read with trepidation.
This day’s lead was typical of the last two weeks: “German Army Solidifies Gains Around Langemarck”
In desperate fighting along the Yser river, fresh German units beat the demoralized British and French troops into a defensive position around the nearly-surrounded city of Ypres. Casualties were heavy among the disorganized and demoralized Entente powers as they tried and failed to halt the valiant soldiers of the Imperial German Army.
The paragraphs stretched on but provided little additional news, other than the presence of the city names which indicated that the fighting now stretched all the way to the Belgian coast in Flanders.
“I shouldn’t read it,” said Grandpere in disgust, crumpling the paper. “If we had defeated them, they wouldn’t tell us. The first we’d know is when the shells started to fall on the town again and the Boche began to pull out.”
Philomene smiled at her father. “But you read it every morning.”
“Yes. Yes, I can’t help it.” He smoothed the paper out and began to read again. “Perhaps they’ll give something away. Perhaps what they don’t talk about will give me some clue as to what’s really going on.” He scanned down the page, muttering commentary at times.
Philomene half listened as she spread butter on a piece of the dark, gritty ration bread. No coffee. Black bread. How long was it since Henri has sat at this table, reading his copy of Le Temps and worrying about the unfolding crisis in the Balkans? Three months. Where was Henri now? Was he safe? Was he ever able to quietly read a paper while sipping a cup of coffee and eating a pastry, as they had done together on so many peaceful mornings?
They had bought pastries everyday then, fresh from Jeanpetit’s Patisserie. Now the patisserie made pastries almost exclusively for the German officers. They provided the white flour from their army stores; they received the small, flakey delicacies in return. For the village there was no white flour to be had.
“Can I have another piece of bread?” Pascal was standing in the doorway, his school satchel over his shoulder. It was still only a quarter after eight, but it was encouraging to see the boy so eager for his lessons.
Philomene looked at the large, dark loaf of bread, drying to estimate slices for each family member during the rest of the day. As other foods had become more scarce, the daily one kilo loaf of ration bread had become an essential part of each meal.
“You already had a thick slice this morning with butter and jam on it,” she said.
“But I’m hungry,” Pascal replied, with the trenchancy of a growing boy.
Philomene hesitated. She could always have less herself at dinner if they ran short.
“Let him have another good slice,” Grandpere said, looking up from his paper. “Don’t worry about dinner, Philomene. I have a surprise to show you later on.”
She cut the slice and Pascal bolted from the house with it as soon as he got it in his hand.
“Well?” Philomene asked.
Her father flashed a smiled but turned back to his reading. “You’ll see. Just a little something.” He turned over the paper to read the final sheet and let out a growled invocation, which was the closest he normally came to swearing.
“What?” Philomene leaned in to see what had raised his ire.
On the back page was the headline, “Notice of Requisition,” and underneath the paragraph:
By order of the town Commandant, the following materials are placed under military requisition:
100 winter thickness wool blanketsCollection will be organized by the civilian authorities. If the requisition is not fully gathered by Friday, October 30th, supply patrols will be sent out to collect directly from the population as needed.
5 barrels of apples
100 kilograms of copper (cooking vessels, pipe, roofing, etc. are acceptable)
2000 6cm nails
6 draught horses
“This is nothing but legalized robbery,” said Grandpere. “Not even that. Surely it’s against the law of nations for them to force Frenchmen to give them materials to be used to fight our fellow countrymen.”
Philomene remembered bringing meals to Madame Duval after little Baptiste had been shot by the invading soldiers. Could there be laws of nations when such things happened? Would men who shot on sight hesitate to steal?
“Perhaps in this war there are no laws.”
“Nonsense. We’re not savages. There are treaties. We have rights. And even without treaties, there are human decencies that apply at all times. They can’t steal from us. If Justin Perreau is to be worth anything as mayor, he’ll refuse to carry out these illegal demands.”
Her father showed no sign of calming, and since it was impossible to set town policy at the breakfast table, Philomene changed the subject instead. “You said you had a surprise?”
Grandpere seemed about to respond hotly, then checked himself. For a moment he sat, eyes closed, lips pressed into a line. Then he said, “You’re right of course. What does it accomplish to become angry? I’ll show you something better.”
He pushed aside the paper, got up, and left the room. When he returned a moment later he was carrying a canvas bag, which he opened to reveal potatoes, carrots and onions still dusted with the soft soil they had been grown in.
“I’d added another farmer to the back room market. He’ll send up produce once a week, and I’ll sell it out of the back room to trustworthy villagers. This is our commission for the first week. It should be plenty to give us a good dinner tonight.”
Philomene reached out to touch the smooth yellow skin of one of the potatoes. Yes, this could be simmered into a thick vegetable stew. No one would be hungry tonight.
As soon as Pascal reached the cobblestones of the street he set off at a run, the extra slice of bread clutched in one hand, and kept the pace up until he reached the next street, where Lucien Vazart stepped out from the shelter of a doorway to meet him.