a people who have been trampled on for hundreds
of years and have not learned to submit.”
On the Belgian people
Hugh Gibson, American Diplomat, 1914
A shadow stretched across the yard before twilight snuffed it out. The distinct spiked helmet could only belong to a German soldier. Twenty-one year old Madeline Thevenet dropped her valise and raised her hands. Under three layers of clothes, her arms shook and her knees trembled. Please, Almighty God, don’t let him shoot me. Give me a chance to speak to Papa. To explain.
She blinked. Pew? Guns didn’t say pew; little boys did. Her knees shook, not a soldier at all. Lamps glowed in her home’s window, cutting a patch of light in the yard and sparking off the liquid in the trough near the water pump.
The blunt tip of a stick emerged from the corner of the house and prodded the dim light. “That’s for King Albert. That’s for Queen Elisabeth.”
Her seven-year old brother, Mathieu, goose-stepped into the glow. The spike-tipped helmet tilted recklessly to the side. He raised the stick and his arms, as he alternated the parts of prisoner and soldier. “Don’t shoot. I’ll go back to Germany.”
A bark of laughter burst past Madeline’s lips. Her knees buckled and she dropped to the ground. Alive. Her brother was alive. Surely that meant her parents were too. Dead grass crunched under her knees and clung to the coarse wool of her skirt.
Her brother dropped the stick to his shoulder. Looking down the crooked ‘barrel’, he pointed the ‘muzzle’ in her direction. “What’s the password?”
“Mathieu.” She opened her arms wide.
“Maddy!” Tossing aside the makeshift carabine, he leapt the two meters separating them.
Her arms wrapped around him. Underneath his thin shirt and overalls, she felt the slide of bone. Her chest constricted. He was so very thin. Had he been sick again? She buried her nose in the crook of his neck and inhaled the scents of little boy, sweat and sunshine.
She was home. As long as her family was together, they could survive this invasion. They could survive anything.
Sniffling, she held him at arm’s length. Despite the dim lighting, she checked him over.
Roses bloomed in his cheeks and vitality crackled in his green eyes. “I’m glad you’re back, Maddy. My soldiers need nursing.”
“They do, do they?” Lifting the helmet by its point, she smoothed his cowlick. “Well, I hope they like needles because wounded soldiers need lots of shots.”
She poked his belly with her finger.
Giggling, he clasped his stomach and twisted away. “I’m not wounded.”
“That’s because you’re getting your injections.” She lunged for him again.
Batting her hands away, he danced toward the door. “I’m serious, Maddy. My soldiers—”
“Mathieu!” Her father trudged around the corner, dragging a vee-shaped wagon half full of wheat.
Madeline stiffened. She had known returning home wouldn’t be easy. But she’d hoped the war would smooth the way. Make her father see the importance of family.
Mathieu spun on his bare heel and bounced across the grass. “Papa! Maddy has come home to nurse my soldiers.”
Papa raised one muscular arm and pointed to the door to the house. Disappointment carved deep grooves in his round cheeks. “Inside, Mathieu. Eat your supper.”
Mathieu’s thin shoulders bowed. Without another word, he slogged across the yard and disappeared inside.
Inhaling deeply, Madeline rose to her feet and wiped her damp palms on her skirt. Words of apology and contrition stuck to her tongue. “Hello, Papa.”
Time counted in heartbeats.
He shrugged off the harness lashing him to the cart. Sheaves of wheat half-filled the vee-shaped bed. Stooping, he struck a match against the bottom of his shoe. The yellow light deepened the lines mapping his face until it disappeared into his pipe bowl. His eyes narrowed as smoke swirled around his head. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the match in the trough of water near the water pump. “You should not have returned home, Madeline.”
“I could not stay away.” Swallowing the lump in her throat, she raised her chin.
Papa glanced to the left then right. “You were safe in Brussels.”
“But I didn’t know if you were safe, Papa.” She peered into the darkness, seeing only the familiar shape of the house, stable, trees and scrubs. Of course, the Boches were everywhere. The cabbageheads listened, oversaw and interfered in everything.
And Belgian traitors were only too eager to help the Germans.
She’d learned that at the hospital. Odd how she’d forgotten it, just because home looked the same.
“Now you care about your Papa?”
Her stomach plummeted to her knees. “I’ve always cared, Papa.”
But she’d wanted to have a life of her own. One in the city, without the constant drudge of farm work. One with friends and trips to the moving pictures, luncheon at a cafe.
“You’ve lied. Taken money meant for your dowry to the church.” Removing his pipe stem from his mouth, Papa jabbed it in her direction. “And you’ve had a nun, your own aunt, lie to cover your sinful lifestyle.”
“It wasn’t sinful.” She fisted her skirt in her shaking hands. Why couldn’t he see she deserved the same opportunity for education her older brother received before he’d died of the fever? “I was training to be a nurse.”
And she’d been the most promising in her class. Madame had said so, but then the foul Boches had barged across the frontier and ruined everything. The deep-throated cannonading rumbled in the distance, sowing Bible-black clouds on the blood-soaked sunset.
“I treated our soldiers, Papa. Our Jas.”
“That is the work of nuns.” Father’s jaw thrust forward. “For an unmarried woman to see men in such conditions is wrong.”
Madeline retreated a step. So many thought secular nursing could only be done by whores since they often saw men unclothed. But the school she’d attended was nearly a decade old, founded on the British tradition where secular nursing had been established during the Crimean war. Her school’s students worked at many respected hospitals and cliniques. “I healed men, women and children, Papa. Surely that is God’s work even done by one not of the cloth.”
“You will return to the convent in the morning. If you must do this God’s work, you will do so in the habit as is proper and not bring dishonor to our family.”
Return? Clasping her shaking hands in front of her, she stepped toward her father. “I cannot return to the convent.”
“Then you are not welcome here.” His voice dropped to a soft whisper.
She winced and studied her wooden shoes. She knew he loved her, knew he wanted the best for her. But her aunt had counseled her to follow her true calling. Her aunt had not foreseen this war. Or the yearning Madeline had for her family. In the poor light, she examined the mud caking her sabots. Bits of it flaked off exposing the yellow wood. “Please, Papa…”
“If you will not do this one thing for your family, then you are as dead to me as your older brother.” His calloused hands fisted. His leathery skin had the folds of a winter apple but his bald head shone like fresh picked fruit. A fringe of white hair crowned his head like fine lace.
“Are everywhere.” He cocked one bushy eyebrow. “Their rules apply here as well as Brussels. Return to those like you and do not return again.”
She blinked rapidly. The Boches loved their notices. The avis were posted on every post and spare wall still standing in the villages she’d passed. “The Germans closed our hospitals and sent everyone home. Only German nurses may tend the wounded and our injured soldiers have been sent to camps far away.”
He puffed on his pipe until the tobacco glowed like an angry red eye. “The Belgian Red Cross?”
“Is under the German boot heel.” She spat into the dead grass then shuddered. Her clinique had sent the wounded with the army before the city fell, but other nurses had told such tales of horror as the officers brutally inspected the wounds of the soldiers. “Even the convents and churches are not safe from the Boches. Between the refugees and the displaced sisters and priests, the ones that still stand are full. Please, Papa, let me stay.”
He closed his eyes and swayed on his feet. “We too have been distressed at what they have done to our men and women of the cloth.”
Hope fluttered inside her. She tucked a lock of hair underneath her head scarf. “Papa?”
“If you promise to return to the convent after our Jas chase the Boches back to Germany, you may stay until the enemy leaves.”
Could she make such a promise? Could she keep it? Blinking, she cleared her vision. She had no choice. She couldn’t leave her family now. “I promise.”
He opened his arms.
She fell into them. The sweet, spicy scent of pipe tobacco enveloped her. “Thank you, Papa.”
After kissing her forehead, he released her and picked up her valise. Throwing his free arm over her shoulder, he reeled her against his barrel chest. “We will speak no more of your lies. The village must never know.”
She held him close. Her tongue fused to her palate. She would not tell him about being asked to leave the order, about her unsuitability as a nun.
“We can use a nurse.” He steered her toward the door. “We are helping to provide for the soldiers.”
Madeline’s wooden soles dug into the dirt. She checked over her shoulder, clawed the shawl off her head to see the road. Empty. She could not have heard her father correctly. Her voice dropped. “You have Jas? Here?”
Papa jerked to a stop. The pipe clicked against his teeth. His chest swelled. “Yes. We have two who arrived the night before last. Gaston Cocard brought them before returning to his home. One is English. Calls himself Tommy. Can’t speak a word of French or Flemish. When we asked if he understood Walloon, he thought we spoke of the German sausages. Balloon.”
Freeing her, her father pointed at the star studded sky.
She looked up, searched for a zeppelin. Thankfully, no airship sailed the skies. She shook her head. What was she thinking? The danger was on the ground, hiding in her house. Didn’t her parents know that anyone aiding the Jas would be executed? Hadn’t they heard the stories and seen the proclamations? She swayed on her feet. “You have to make the soldiers go, Papa.”
“They will, once the others arrive.”
Others? More soldiers were coming? Her heart thudded heavily in her breast. The enemy could appear at any moment, could discover the hidden men, and could line up everyone and shoot them dead.
Papa patted her hand. “The two stragglers are wounded.”
A tremor traveled up her spine—symptoms of the war within. She could show her father her skills as a secular nurse, and maybe sway him into releasing her from her promise, or she could protect her family.
The Boches made it so she could no longer do both.
But how could she choose?
Papa drew himself up to his full height. “We will return these men to the King, to Antwerp. They will chase the Boches back to Germany.”
“Antwerp has fallen.” The news tumbled from her numb lips. She’d known when she’d left Brussels, but saying it made it real. Horribly real.
“Who says this?”
“It was in the newspaper this morning.”
“Bah.” Father waved his hand. “The Boches control the papers. The Boches lie.”
“The guns were silent in the west, Papa.” Horribly silent. She’d clapped her hands over her ears once the guns had stopped. There could be only one explanation. According to the papers, the Germans occupied the National Redoubt after leveling many of the outlying forts.
Some said King Albert had been taken prisoner. Others that he had fled to France.
Her heart would not beat if that were so. And she would bite off her lips before telling those tales.
Papa sighed, scratched at his fringe of white hair. “We must restore the soldiers to our king for his return. Then and only then will we have done our duty as Belgians.”
“You must not tell the villagers.” Madeline had seen what happened to those suspected of working against the invaders. From her window in Brussels, she’d seen men, women and children dragged across darkened streets to stand before a table of officers. While the drumhead tribunal proceeded in the cafe, a handful of soldiers marched into the alley. Always, always the Belgian followed them. Then came the volley of bullets and…
“The villagers are helping us.”
Her head began to throb. Every person increased their risk of discovery, of execution. She glanced at the house. Shutters thrown open. Kerosene lamps smoking in the windows. Anyone could see inside, which was why the Boches had ordered it so. Surely she could do something to reduce the risk of discovery. “I shall tend their injuries.”
“I’m very happy to hear that.” A man’s voice died in time for her to hear the distinctive click of a revolver.