This took longer than I thought, in part because it ran longer than I thought: a little over seven thousand words, which makes it almost double the average length of an installment. However, I'm pretty proud of how this turned out. I hope you enjoy it.
This concludes Chapter 15. The next installment will be up within a week (this time for sure!). We'll be returning to Jozef for Chapter 16.
Chateau Ducloux, France. October 28th, 1914. The Perreau house on the Rue des Ragons was unchanged by the three months of occupation. Behind the wrought iron vines and flowers of the decorative fence, the gardens rose as pristine and manicured as when Philomene had come in July to seek permission to host her fete there.
With war had come a near paralysis of the town’s economy. Trucks and wagons no longer pulled up in front of the Mertens shop each morning to make deliveries of merchandise to stock the shelves, nor did Louis Mertens’s customers have reliable means of income to pay for his wares. And of course, Henri was no longer earning the fees of his accounting work. Thus Philomene had no longer been able to pay Madame Ragot and Emilie for the hours they spent cooking, cleaning, and watching the children, and for the first time in her married life she was confronted with the full weight of her household’s labor.
As in so many things, the Perreaus inhabited another level of society. They did not employ help by the hour. On the household register posted on the grey stone wall of the house, above the ornamented brass plate which held the button for the electric doorbell, were listed not just Madame Perreau and her son Justin, now the German-appointed mayor, but also the gardener, the cook, and two maids, all residents of the house. If the invasion had reduced the Perreau household income by cutting them off from the Paris stock exchange and the interest payments on government bonds, the house remained the home of its workers as well as its masters and all had, so far, dealt with the deprivations of occupation together.
“Madame Perreau is still in the breakfast room, but she will see you there,” the elderly maid told Philomene, after leaving her for some time to contemplate the entry hall.
The breakfast room was a sunny, east-facing room opening onto the careful order of the rose garden. The roses bushes were bare of blooms and leaves now. Among the geometric order of the gravel paths, the twisted fingers of bare canes already pruned back for the winter pointed at the grey autumn sky, the barren order a fitting vision of the town as it waited to weather a cold season whose length was not yet known.
Madame Perreau was wearing her usual black silk dress, a pair of gold-rimmed pince nez perched upon her nose, sitting at the table with a portable writing desk before her. A silver coffee pot sat next to her, and it was not until Philomene inhaled its fragrant scent that she realized how much she had missed the pot of morning coffee.
She took the seat towards which Madame Perreau waved her and waited until the older woman signed her letter with a flourish and blotted it carefully.
“So, Madame Fournier, to what do I owe this honor?”
It was with a slight effort that Philomene turned her eyes from the coffee pot, where she had rested her jealous gaze while waiting for Madame Perreau to speak, and focused them instead on the face of her host. Putting aside hopes that she would be offered a cup, she organized her thoughts.