"They've taken Paris," Laura said.
Everyone stared at her. She was interpreting for the family the excited German issuing from the radio in staccato bursts.
"Are you sure?" Alain demanded.
"He says the troops are marching down the Champs Elysees," Laura answered.
"Oh, my God," Brigitte moaned, turning away and putting her hands to her face. Henri, white and shaken, gazed into space. Alain cursed and stood abruptly, pacing the small front room.
"It will be just like Belgium and Holland," Brigitte whispered. "I saw it in the newsreels at the cinema. Rationing, labor camps, curfews, forcing Jews to register..."
"We have to get out," Alain said decisively.
"And go where?" Laura asked incredulously. "You know what's happened before: the Germans block the roads; there's no escape."
"So we just sit here and do nothing?" Alain demanded angrily.
He fell silent as the announcer changed and the new voice, panicked and breathless, began to speak in French. They all looked at the radio, a mahogany console, as if its dusty mesh screen and glowing semicircular dial contained the answers they sought. The news was all bad, and they listened fearfully until Alain cut off the flow of information by giving the dial a violent twist.
"They're hanging the Nazi flag in the Place de la Concorde," he sneered, referring to the report they'd just heard. "Do you really think we're going to stick around for more of this? Let's pack."
His sister and his father stood immediately, glad of direction. Laura stared at her brother-in-law, shaking her head.
"Are you coming with us?" he demanded impatiently.
Laura sighed and rose also, because she didn't know what else to do.
* * * *
Laura glanced up at the cloudless sky. They had been on the road for two days now, camping out at night and eating what they'd brought along, huddling together in the face of impending disaster. Her father-in-law Henri trudged at her side, head down, leading his horse piled with personal effects. His daughter Brigitte, still wearing her student nurse's uniform, marched dutifully, patient and obedient as always. And young Alain, headstrong, defiant, so like Laura's husband, his brother, kept his hand on the knife secreted in the waistband of his pants, alert to any sign of the boche.
Laura sighed and looked away, shifting the pack in her arms to a more comfortable position. She knew it was futile to run away, there was no place where the invaders could be escaped. But she didn't want to be separated from her husband's family. Ever since Thierry had been killed in the nine months of fighting which ended with France's surrender, his people had become hers, the only remaining connection to the man she had loved and married. And just as she'd adopted his country, she adopted his relatives, feeling closer to them at this moment than she felt to the Randalls back in Boston.
The sun was hot, and she wiped her brow with the back of her arm, wondering where they were going, if any of them knew. The urge was simply to MOVE, to be gone, evacuate the area as the Germans spread like a stain, inching closer from all sides to overtake them. When Laura had seen that reason would not prevail, she'd packed up like the rest, acceding, with atypical resignation, to the herding instinct which drove the terrified villagers out of their homes and onto the road.
She heard a distant drone, and glanced over her shoulder in alarm, catching a glimpse of sunstruck wings and the dark bulk of aircraft moving overhead.
"Get down!" she screamed, pulling Brigitte by the arm and tumbling them both into the ditch that bordered the dusty, unpaved lane. The Italian planes plunged lower, strafing the roadway, pelting the open field with a hail of bullets. Parents flung themselves on top of their children, men and women dove for what cover they could find as, prone and cowering, deafened by the crescendo of noise, they waited an eternity for the planes to pass. When it was finally over they straightened slowly and looked around dazedly, grateful to find themselves still alive.
"Are you all right?" Laura asked Brigitte, who was pale and trembling, but seemingly unhurt.
Brigitte nodded, struggling to her feet and moving through the crowd, remembering her training. Alain helped his father to stand and then shook a fist at the sky.
"Bastards!" he spat, tears of rage standing in his eyes. "Cowards!
I wish they'd come down out of those planes and fight me like men."
"You'll get your chance, Alain," Laura said sadly. "There are more than enough enemies to go around. This is only the beginning." She followed Brigitte looking for the wounded, and discovered with relief that this time the injuries were only minor. The day before they had buried a two year old girl by the side of the road. The child's little dog now trotted beside the numb and uncomprehending mother, looking for its mistress where she would never be found again.
"How far have we come?" Laura asked Alain, joining him when the group was ready to go on again. He handed her the heel of a baguette, indicating that it was the last of their bread. The food was running out fast; they would be chasing chickens in the fields before sunset.
"About forty kilometers," he answered.
"Is that all?"
He nodded. "And that was the easy part. The road gets rougher after this, it'll slow us down.
"Laura wanted to ask why they were hurrying, but swallowed the question. She could understand that it was a capitulation, an admission of impotence, to sit in a house and wait for what would come. At least this way they could deceive themselves that they were doing something.
A shout went up at the front of the column, and for a moment Laura thought that the planes were returning. Then a more ominous stillness fell, and Alain, who was taller than most, shaded his eyes and looked into the distance, identifying the reason.
"It's the Germans," he said tightly. "They're here."
Then Laura could see them too, in a string of armored cars moving toward the massed villagers at a steady, measured pace. The towns- people, transfixed, watched helplessly as the vehicles advanced, and finally parted in silence to admit the jeep carrying the commander.
Alain's hand went to his middle, and Laura rounded on him.
"Don't be an idiot," she hissed furiously. "This is no time for a show of heroism; accept it now and live to fight another day."
Alain subsided reluctantly, not even turning to look at her, his gaze fixed on the guns mounted at the back of the lead car. They were trained on the crowd, manned by foot soldiers in rounded pith helmets. An officer stood at the rear of the jeep, and all knew that he had only to give the order and the cannon would fire.
But he said nothing for several long moments, scanning the assemblage with dark, hooded eyes. Laura was close enough to observe him critically; his hands were clasped behind his back and he surveyed the rag tag band of villagers with aloof, almost scholarly, interest, as if inspecting his battalion for a dress parade. He was perfectly erect, his peaked officer's cap set at a precise angle, the metal appointments of his immaculate gray tunic glinting in the sun. Despite the heat his uniform greatcoat was thrown over his shoulders, and Laura could see the double bars on his stiff black collar, set against a teal green field. A colonel, then; this was no minor functionary who had stumbled onto their escaping caravan. But Laura would have known him for a ranking officer at a glance; he had an unmistakable air of authority about him which defied definition even as it commanded attention. He was an intimidating sight, for many of the onlookers the first German soldier they had ever seen.
The colonel held out his hand, and a corporal at his side gave him a bullhorn. His gaze still raking the crowd, the colonel raised it to his lips.
"I am Colonel Becker," he announced in accented, but correct, French, "Commandant of the Reich installation for the Meuse. Go back to your homes. You will not be harmed."
The Frenchmen looked around warily. They hadn't known exactly what to expect, but surely this wasn't it. Go back to their homes? They weren't going to be arrested, incarcerated, hauled off to a labor camp?
Seeing their obvious confusion, Becker went on, "My men have food which they will distribute to you. When you have finished eating return in orderly fashion to your town."
Laura and Alain exchanged glances. They sensed a stirring in the crowd; quite a few of the people were hungry, none knew what to do.
Aware of their uncertainty, Becker made a subtle gesture and two soldiers from the third car leapt to the ground. They removed large duffel bags from the back of their transport and began handing loaves of bread and wheels of cheese to the villagers. After a few moments' hesitation the bolder souls among them grabbed the food and began to eat. Alain's mouth tightened, but Laura placed a restraining hand on his arm. The German's eyes flickered over them, then moved on without changing expression. But he had seen; Laura felt the touch of that gaze like an icy finger against the nape of her neck.
Becker lifted his hand again, and three of the soldiers abandoned their posts and began to move through the crowd, searching the men.
Alain surrendered his knife with barely concealed frustration; again the
colonel noticed him, then looked away. The travelers were offered dark beer from casks in one of the trucks, and drank thirstily, lost in the simple pleasure of filling their bellies. Becker waited until all had concluded their repast and then asked mildly, "Is there a leader among you?"
Several heads turned toward Laura's father-in-law Henri, who shrank visibly. Becker stared at him steadily until he was forced to step forward reluctantly, his eyes on the ground.
"And you are?" Becker inquired, inclining his head slightly.
"Henri Duclos," Henri replied, his voice barely audible.
"What is your function?"
Henri seemed incapable of further speech. Panicked, he continued to look at his feet, and the silence lengthened dangerously until Laura interjected, "He is the mayor."
"The mayor of what?" Becker asked archly, glancing at her. His tone seemed to suggest that whatever the answer, it couldn't be much.
Laura met his gaze squarely. "Fain les sources, the village just to the south of here."
"You are all from Fain?" Becker asked. It was clear he'd heard of it.
He looked back at Henri, and bowed slightly, a hint of irony in the courtly gesture.
"Henri Duclos, you will present yourself at 0900 hours Friday at my quarters. I will then detail your instructions. There is a hospital ahead, I am told?"
"Yes," Henri responded hoarsely, finding his voice again. "In Bar le duc."
"How far is that?"
"Four kilometers beyond Fain, on this road."
Becker nodded. "You will find me there."
He said something in German, and the driver inched the jeep forward, the crowd separating to let it pass. Becker looked directly ahead, oblivious to the locals, and the other vehicles followed his. The villagers watched the departing train until it was out of sight.
"Pigs," Alain said, spitting into the dirt. He alone had eaten nothing of the preferred food, and he glared after the Germans fixedly, as if he could still see them.
"What do we do now?" Brigitte asked of her brother.
"We go home," Laura answered for him. "There's nothing else TO do."
"God, I wish Thierry were here," Alain said fiercely, clenching his fingers, then relaxing them, his whole body tensed for action.
"So do I," Laura responded softly, looking at Henri. The older man
turned away, avoiding the reference to his dead son.
Several of the men in the group were already turning around to go back they way they had come, and the rest followed suit wearily. Laura
helped Henri reverse the direction of his horse, and then brought up the rear, wondering how long it would take them to get back to Fain. And what the town would be like when they got there. The Germans would reach Bar le duc that afternoon, and be waiting for them.
The trip home was slowed by the continuing influx of foreign troops; Becker's company had been the first they'd seen, but it was by no means the last. The road was clogged with vehicles as the cars and trucks of the invading forces took precedence over the foot traffic of the French. It was late Wednesday when the Duclos family arrived back at their home, exhausted and apprehensive. The German flag was flying from the post office in Fain, and an armored patrol car cruised the streets at a leisurely pace, alerting the citizens to its presence, but the main contingent of the military had passed on to the hospital at Bar le duc. One could almost pretend that nothing had happened, until surprised by the sudden appearance of a staff jeep on the street, or the sound of a guttural command. But the Germans were only settling in as yet; in a few days their presence would be more keenly felt.
On the morning after their return, Laura was alone in the kitchen. She shoveled coal into the bottom of the stove and pumped water into the black kettle, putting it at the back of the iron cover to heat. Alain had already left for his job at the glass factory. Brigitte was back at the student nurse's dormitory and Henri was still sleeping upstairs. Things had almost a semblance of normalcy, but she had only to look out the window to discern that those appearances were deceiving. A column of soldiers was conducting a drill on the main street; she was to learn that this performance would be repeated at the same time every day, a little demonstration of military might designed to intimidate the populace. Laura drew the curtains and turned away.
She made her tea and sat at the scrubbed deal table, sipping and thinking, trying to ignore the rhythmic thud of booted feet in the street outside the house.
She had arrived in France at twenty, an American exchange student at the university at Nancy. There she met and fell in love with Thierry Duclos, the older son of Henri Duclos, mayor of Fain les sources. Over the strenuous objections of her parents, Laura, always headstrong and now in love, married Thierry as soon as he received his degree. They returned to Fain together, where Thierry took up his position as the manager of the glassworks, the town's only industry. They had lived in his widowed father's house, along with Alain and Brigitte, until the invasion of Poland by Germany in September of 1939. When France declared war on Germany two days later, Thierry had been one of the first to enlist. He didn't last long, and Laura had been devastated by the loss.
She thought now about those initial days without him, a time shrouded in her memory by a dull haze of pain. Her parents, concerned with the worsening situation in Europe, had flooded her with mail pleading for her to return to America. But she wanted to stay where she had been so happy with Thierry, and where she felt needed. So she had continued to bicycle the two miles to work every weekday, passing the hospital where Brigitte was a student nurse. She kept busy with her job, virtually running the school in Bar le duc with most of the men away in the war, until the invasion of Paris had thrown all their lives into chaos.
Laura rotated the earthenware cup in her hands, studying the paste of leaves at the bottom. Just a week earlier she had received another urgent letter from her father, enclosing passage money and begging her to come home. But she couldn't leave France now. It was unthinkable.
She got up and ran her empty cup under the flow from the pump, glancing at her watch. It was time to go to the school. The children would be assembling, looking to their teachers to make sense out of the current confusion. She had to get things back on an even keel, show them that their education would continue, even in the face of a vanquished and occupied France.
She left by the rear door, taking care to avoid the dispersing band of soldiers on the road.
* * * *
Becker stood in the main lobby of the Hospital Sacre Coeur in Bar le duc and watched as his men hung the Nazi flag. The black swastika, encircled by a white field on a background of red, draped from the overhanging balcony to fall free almost to the first floor. The thing was gigantic, a powerful message to anyone entering the building concerning who was now in charge. He stared at it gravely for several seconds, then turned as his aide Hesse approached him and saluted smartly.
"Everything is in order, Oberst," the boy said.
"You've told the chief of staff that I will require the resident's wing to house my men?" Becker asked.
"Yes, sir. And he'll be cleaning out his office for you shortly. That's it over there." Hesse pointed to a door labeled "Directeur."
"How long before all the workers return to their positions here and the hospital is running efficiently again?"
"They're coming back now, sir," Hesse replied in a low tone, turning so their conversation could not be overheard. "Word is getting around and the chief will be holding a meeting this afternoon to give them your instructions."
"Very good," Becker nodded, looking away. Hesse was very efficient; he would oversee everything and come to his superior only with those problems he could not solve himself. "I'll be inside there if you need me."
"Will you be requiring any lunch, Colonel?"
Becker looked at him, at the silvery blond hair and wide blue eyes, and almost smiled. The kid treated him like a powerful but absent-minded uncle who had to be reminded to eat.
"Nothing, Hesse. Coffee, if you can find any in this place. I believe the kitchen help took off with the rest of the staff," he concluded dryly, "but someone may be back there now."
"I'll try, sir," Hesse said, and saluted again, turning on his heel. Becker watched the activity of his men a little longer after his aide had left, and then went into the director's office.
It was a large, cluttered room, still stacked with the doctor's files and papers, but it would serve the purpose once it was cleaned out and organized. Becker took off his cap, smoothing his thick black hair, lightly frosted at the temples, and gazed out the broad leaded window at the open field which backed the hospital. He sighed, wondering what his dead father would have said to find his son in this ignoble, humiliating situation.
Becker turned from the window and removed his coat, thinking, inexplicably, of his wife. He sat on the edge of the desk and tried to pinpoint in his mind when it had all started to go bad: his marriage, his career, his life. Hard to say, exactly. But the final result was this unenviable assignment to the outback of France, overseeing a factory conversion and acting as a babysitter to a beaten people.
Becker rose and loosened his collar, listening to the faint babble of French and German voices audible through the door. He patted his pockets for his cigarettes, and came up with his wallet instead. He opened it and removed the picture of his two sons, examining the pale hair and pale eyes they shared, their inheritance from Elise. Then he stuffed the picture back into its compartment and tossed the wallet on the desk, his expression distant.
He found his packet of cigarettes and lit one of them, inhaling deeply.
There was a knock on the door.
"What is it?" Becker called, crushing his cigarette absently in the director's ashtray.
"Come in."Hesse entered the room, bearing a tray.
"Coffee, sir," he announced, placing his burden on the desk."Hesse, you are a marvel," Becker said.
"I do my best, sir."
Becker poured the coffee and sipped gratefully, then grimaced at its bitterness. He had forgotten that the French always boiled it.
"Well, Kurt, here we are," he said to his aide conversationally.
"Not exactly in line with your boyhood dreams of glorious combat, is it?" Becker commented dryly. "I'm sure this isn't what you were thinking about when you enlisted. No noble foe to be conquered here, eh?"
The young man glanced at him nervously and was silent, unsure how to reply.
Becker sighed and waved him away dismissively. "Go on, boy, don't pay any attention to me. I'm sure you have something to do. Send the director to me as soon as he finishes with his meeting."
Hesse watched him uncertainly.
"Go on," Becker repeated. "I'm fine."
Reassured, Hesse removed the rest of the tray's contents and took the empty with him when he departed.
Becker finished his coffee and lit another cigarette, noticing that
Hesse had left a wrapped sandwich on the desk. He picked it up and sniffed it. Pate. Impressed with the boy's diligence, he pulled off the paper and took a bite. He might as well finish it; there was no doubt it would be a very long day.
* * * *
The following morning, Laura accompanied Henri to the hospital for his interview with the German commandant. They walked up the steps to the main entrance, and Laura stopped short when she caught sight of the flag dominating the lobby.
The first floor was a flurry of activity. The Germans were nothing if not productive; almost overnight the place had been transformed into a barracks cum infirmary that combined both functions with Teutonic thoroughness. The sight of the gray uniforms and the sound of the harsh language, so different from the mellifluous French of the natives, assaulted Laura's senses. Her throat closed abruptly, and she had to look away. It was finally, really true. La belle France had tumbled into the ungentle hands of these grim, competent barbarians, and the fate of her adopted country was at their mercy.
Henri started as a soldier approached them, and Laura recognized the blond corporal who had given Becker the bullhorn the day the Germans arrived.
"Henri Duclos?" he said, looking at the older man.
Henri nodded, swallowing. The soldier, who appeared to be in his early twenties, turned to Laura.
"Who are you?" he said in German.
"I am Laura Duclos, his daughter-in-law," Laura responded, in the same language. On the last word a door to their left opened and another uniformed man emerged, nodding to the corporal that they could go in.
The boy looked concerned. He had not expected Henri to have company. But he evidently decided to let his commander handle the matter, and said briskly, "Colonel Becker will see you now." He walked ahead of them to the director's office and knocked. The door already bore a metal plaque with Becker's name on it.
"Enter," came from within.
The corporal ushered them inside, bowing slightly as he gestured with one hand and said, "Colonel, Mayor Duclos to see you."
Becker looked up from his papers, and Laura studied him, noticing the contrast between the two Germans. The boy was the perfect Aryan prototype, muscular and solidly built, with fair skin and eyes the color of an alpine spring. Becker was his opposite, dark, with an olive complexion and brown eyes with a slight Mongolian slant. In him she could see the brooding aspect of the Vandals and Goths who overran the Rhine basin in the middle ages. Tall and imperially slim, he probably derived his heritage from the Black Forest region, but she was sure he was no less a true son of the fatherland than the golden god at her side.
"Thank you, Hesse, that will be all," the colonel said.
The corporal saluted and left the room. Becker's eyes moved over the old man and fixed on the girl. He was surprised to see her; he remembered the attractive redhead he'd noticed in the crowd on his way in to Fain. He also remembered the volatile teenager who'd been with her, not in evidence today.
"You are?" he said to the woman.
"Laura Duclos, Henri's daughter-in-law," she recited again, getting tired of identifying herself.
"I did not request your presence. Why are you here?"
Laura took a calming breath. Bluntness seemed to be a specialty with these people; the French regard for "politesse", which Laura had come to take for granted during her years in Fain, was entirely missing."My father-in-law's German is poor," Laura answered. "I thought I could help translating if there were a communications problem."
"My French should be adequate to the task. You will be notified if your assistance is required in that regard," Becker stated flatly. Then, "You are a linguistics expert?"
"I have a degree from the University of Nancy in European Languages," Laura replied patiently, wondering wildly if this suspicious autocrat would require her to produce it.
"Your accent is not French," he observed curtly, alert to every nuance.
Laura stepped forward and placed on his desk the papers she'd been holding. "Ich bin eine Amerikanische," she said proudly, her eyes never leaving his. "I am an American."
Becker picked up her passport and identity papers thoughtfully, accepting this for the challenge it was. This woman was not a French national, but an American citizen. Considering the tenuous relationship between their two countries, it would be wise for him to treat her carefully; the American consulate was still in full operation. The girl had come, not to assist the old man, but to protect him. Her American citizenship was the only armor she possessed to shield herself and the Duclos family.
Becker arranged the papers on his blotter and folded his hands on top of them, eyeing the girl steadily. She gazed back at him, her green gaze unruffled, very cool. He kept his tone neutral as he said, nodding at Henri, "You are married to his son?
"I was. My husband is dead. He was killed during the fighting last autumn, while trying to aid a fallen comrade."
Henri shot Laura a terrified glance, silently begging her not to antagonize this steely automaton. But Becker merely leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette, commenting, "Very commendable. He died a hero, then."
"A lot of heroes died that day."
Henri closed his eyes.
Becker exhaled deliberately.
"On both sides, I presume you mean, Madame Duclos," he said evenly. He held Laura's gaze, his dark eyes direct and cold.
Laura bit her tongue to stifle a tart reply, and Henri relaxed visibly. Becker waited a few beats, to drive home his victory, and then said, "I have drawn up a list of regulations regarding curfew, the curtailment of social gatherings, and other concerns of that nature. I will read them to you now, so that I am assured of your cooperation. I advise you to pay close attention and avoid confusion. Ask for an explanation if anything is unclear. Failure to comply with these rules will be severely punished. Copies of this list are to be posted on all street corners and in all public places. It will be your duty, Duclos, to see that this is done."
When both Henri and Laura remained silent, Becker put out his cigarette and proceeded to read the list. It decreed that all citizens must be indoors by 10:00 p.m., that any gathering of five or more townspeople would be presumed anti-Reich and the participants arrested, and so on. He talked for several minutes in his precise, Leipzig University French, and then glanced up at Laura, who was regarding him impassively, and at Henri, who was staring at the floor.
"V'standen?" he said to Henri, lapsing into his native German."Comprenez-vous, Papa?" Laura asked softly.
Henri raised his head and nodded.
"Good," Becker said briskly. "My aide Hesse, who showed you in here, will provide you with the copies to be distributed. You will have until sundown Sunday to complete this assignment. I will summon you if I have further need of you in the future. Are there any questions?"
Henri looked at Laura, then shook his head.
"I believe these are yours, Madame Duclos," Becker said, handing Laura her papers. "Why is it that you don't return home?" he asked her as she took them. "Surely it would be safer for you there."
Laura studied the commandant's expression, trying to determine if there was a veiled threat implicit in the remark. But his even features remained purposefully bland.
"France is my home now, Colonel," she finally said simply.
He held her gaze for a moment longer, then added, "You may go."
His glance returned to his correspondence as they left, but when the door closed behind them he looked up, his expression thoughtful.
Very interesting. He would be willing to bet that the dead hero was nothing like his timid father. He could well imagine what sort of firebrand had married the self contained redhead with the unwavering gaze. Banked fires smoldered in that little widow, no question of it. And an American too, he thought. Just what he needed. A province full of hate crazed Frenchmen, and a quietly defiant Yankee in their midst, fomenting discord, inciting them to-what? Bake apple pies? Play baseball? He looked at the ceiling wearily, rubbing the bridge of his nose. This assignment got more baroque by the minute.
Then he shrugged, picked up his pen, and went back to work.
* * * *
After leaving Becker's office, Henri returned to Fain, while Laura crossed the street to walk to the Ecole Ste. Pierre where she worked. The German martial presence was everywhere in Bar le duc; outside the head- quarters staff cars came and went, soldiers stood around in groups, watching the locals with stolid, impassive faces, and the general atmosphere of bustle and directed activity indicated that the invaders had plans to stay. Laura aroused some curiosity as she passed a trio of infantrymen huddled on the corner, but, though she could hear them trading comments among themselves, they did not call to her or indicate their interest overtly. Discipline in their army was rigorous, and they had strict orders not to bother the local women. It was a directive that had all the earmarks of breaking down over time, but at the moment it was being observed.
She walked into the turn of the century whitewashed building where Lysette Remy greeted her at the door. Lysette was the librarian, and over the last six months she and Laura had been in charge of the school. With only three weeks left in the academic year, they were both trying to finish the term without incident.
"Did you see him?" Lysette asked worriedly, handing Laura a bowl of a chocolate-flavored breakfast drink. From down the hall came the soft, singsong chant of a class reciting the times tables.
"Yes, I saw him," Laura sighed, accepting the drink gratefully.
"How did he seem?"
"He's a machine, like all of them," Laura replied contemptuously.
"He had a list of regulations all prepared for Henri to post in the town. Everyone is under house arrest now."
"We got word this morning that we can go on as usual," Lysette whispered, looking around her. "'Customary procedures will not be disturbed', that's what the message said."
Laura snorted. "That sounds like Becker. I guess the flunky who was here yesterday gave him a good report."
"I'll bet there will be some changes by the time we reopen in the fall. Right now they have too much on their minds to be concerned about the elementary school."
"Becker will get to it," Laura said dismally. "I have an idea there isn't much that escapes his notice."
"I've been told that I can keep the library open for the summer,"
Lysette said, pushing back strands of her fine blond hair. "Becker is supposed to come and see it," she added worriedly, clearly appalled at the prospect.
Laura smiled slyly. "He'll be disappointed. He probably thinks that because it serves the whole town it's some kind of cultural center. Wait until he finds out that the latest books were acquired in 1915."
The women exchanged rueful glances. A bell rang, signaling the end of the first session, and both of them moved on to their respective duties.
Over the next several weeks the whole tenor of life in northern France underwent a change. The invaders hovered constantly on the periphery of French existence, restrained but forbidding, never taking action unless they felt it was called for, but leaving no doubt that any form of resistance would be met with swift and fatal retribution.
The children in Laura's school were forbidden to sing their beloved
"Marseillaise," the national anthem, to begin the day, and at the conclusion of the term Laura received a new curriculum to be initiated in the fall, with an emphasis on German culture and history. The pubs were closed at six PM on orders of the new government, and the best hotels and restaurants in Bar le duc and Vitry le francois, another local town, were reserved for German use. Patrol cars with armed guards moved through the streets at regular intervals, lest any of the inhabitants forget that they were living under perpetual military control. And the citizens of the Meuse, overwhelmed, maintained a frightened, angry silence, too patriotic to accept the new order but too intimidated to protest it.
Henri was frequently summoned to Becker's office for rules and procedures to be implemented. And as time passed his attitude toward the unwelcome visitors altered materially. While he was still afraid of the Germans, and especially Becker, who treated him with an exquisite deference bordering on contempt, he grew to see the advantages of their association. Henri began to socialize with some of the lower ranking officers, enjoying the benefits their status conveyed: dining in restaurants, access to fresh fruit and confiscated wine, transportation in military cars. Never a man of compelling moral convictions, always an opportunist, he should have been allowed to live out his days as the paper bureaucrat in an insignificant town. Totally unequipped to deal with the tricky situation fate dealt him, he quickly decided that the Allies could not win and the current regime would continue indefinitely. In fairly short order he became a collaborator.
The rest of his family did not share Henri's malleable standards. They were disgusted by his spineless behavior. Alain especially was infuriated, and avoided his father industriously. While no one required Henri to offer armed resistance, they expected him to conduct himself with dignity and restraint, as most others were doing. And some were doing more. With the gathering impetus of a slowly growing underground, the less docile of them, the more audacious, were organizing to fight back covertly, in the only way they could.
The process was delicate. Those involved had to trust each other
like brothers; a word in the wrong ear could result in immediate arrest and the dissolution of their still amorphous plans. Friends who'd known one another all their lives looked searchingly, listened carefully, and tried to determine who among them was ready to take the ultimate risk. Two joined together, observed the comments and reactions of their neighbors, and found more like them. They weren't even sure what to do, or how to go about it, except that their goal was to disrupt the occupying force in any way possible. It was clear they needed structure, instruction, advice. The only thing they didn't lack was courage.
On a Friday evening in mid-July, Alain returned from his job as a trainee cutter at the glass factory and sat down in the Duclos kitchen, where Laura and Brigitte were preparing the evening meal. Brigitte was home for the weekend from the hospital, and he waited until she went upstairs to change before he said in a low tone to Laura, "The meeting is tonight."
Laura stopped ladling vegetable soup into bowls and turned to look at him, alerted by the suppressed excitement in his tone.
"Why tonight? I thought you were going to wait until you had recruited a few more reliable people."
"Something is up at the factory. Curel wants only a few of us in on it now, but the operation will expand as soon as we get things going."
"What's happening at the factory?"
"I can't talk about it yet, it's only a guess. But if we're right, it could be a real chance for us to hurt them."
So it was going to happen. Alain had been involved in forming the anti-German group since the first days of the occupation. He'd been getting together with Curel, a World War I veteran with a lingering score to settle who was as anxious as his younger comrade to oust the invaders.
They both heard Brigitte on the stairs, and Laura asked, "Does she know?"
Alain shook his head. "No. Keep it between us." It wasn't necessary to discuss Henri. He had paid a high price for his new friends and his creature comforts; his family no longer trusted him.
Laura dropped the subject as Brigitte took her seat at the table. They didn't expect Henri, who was out at the Cheval Blanc in Vitry le francois with some of his buddies from the garrison.
Laura served the other two and then sat herself, exchanging a covert smile with Alain before he said a swift grace for them and dug into his food. Her relationship with him was complicated; she knew that he was drawn to her, partly because he wanted what Thierry had, and partly because their complementary natures pulled them together. Laura ignored the infatuation, certain that he would grow out of it and respond to the girls his own age who constantly sought his attention. Alain was handsome, and had about him that aura of reckless abandonment women always found alluring. In ten years he would achieve his ambition and be just like his revered older brother.
"Pass the butter, please," Brigitte said, and Laura looked at her, startled out of her reverie. Brigitte was the fairest of the three Duclos children, and at twenty looked like a Dresden doll: pale skin with the texture of Meissen china, light blue eyes, and fine flaxen hair.
"What?" Laura said.
"The butter," Brigitte repeated, smiling. Laura gave it to her, wondering how the local turmoil would affect this member of the family. Brigitte said so little that it was almost impossible to determine what she was thinking. Her mother had died when she was seven, and as the only woman living in a house with three men, she'd been very protected during her childhood and adolescence. Laura was afraid that her innocence would not survive the occupation intact.
"How did it go at the hospital today?" Laura asked her.
Brigitte shrugged. "All right. The boche are everywhere, but they leave us pretty much alone."
Alain stared at her. "How nice of them, to leave you alone in your own country," he said sarcastically.
Brigitte sighed. "All I'm saying is that they don't bother you if you do your job and mind your own business. You know that if you step out of line there will be trouble, but their commandant doesn't let them interfere." She subsided with finality, indicating that was all she had to say on the subject.
"Yeah, that Becker is a great guy," Alain said savagely, stabbing at a potato floating in his soup.
Laura caught his eye and shook her head. They finished dinner companionably, exchanging gossip and the usual pleasantries. Laura avoided the topic most on her mind until Brigitte had finished helping her with the dishes and gone outside.
"You see what I mean about her?" Alain whispered to Laura, as soon as the younger girl had left. "I'm going to keep her in the dark about this."
"Fine. The fewer people who know at this point the better. But she's no friend of the Germans, Alain, you have to know that."
"If she isn't working against them she is!" he replied fiercely, pounding his fist on the table. "One collaborator in this house is enough!"
Laura bit her lip and looked away. Alain couldn't understand his father's motivation; he saw fear only as a hindering weakness to be dealt with and overcome, like a sprained ankle or an injured hand. Feeling it was unavoidable, but surrendering to it was inconceivable.
"You'd better go," Laura said.
He stood and embraced her. "Anything I can do," Laura said, smoothing his unruly hair, so like his brother's. "Anything."
When Alain held her a little too long, she stepped back, and he released her, his eyes meeting hers, then drifting away.
"Be careful," she added.
Alain slipped out the back door and ran across the open field between his house and his neighbor's barn. He tapped on the door, and it was opened by Curel, the hero of the Somme, who waited for him to step inside before throwing the wooden bolt on the door.
Alain looked around. In the glow of the oil lamps suspended on the oak beams overhead he could see Langtot, the farmer, and the Thibeau boys who worked at the factory with him. A year apart, they were enough alike to be twins, and wore identical expressions: scared, hopeful, determined. They looked the way he felt.
"Welcome, Alain," Curel said quietly at his back. "I think we have some work to do."
Alain turned to him and smiled.
And in this way, all over France that summer, in hamlets like Fain les sources and in big cities, from the chateaux of the Loire valley to the shepherd's huts of the Auvergne, the Resistance was born.