Part One: Four Days In January
Chapter Two:Wednesday, January 26
A little alarm clock Pereke had given Laura roused her from a deep but disturbing sleep at
midnight. She had had the dream again. Rising and going to her desk, she turned on the lamp
and pulled her diary from its hiding place. She wrote quickly, knowing she had little time before her
rendezvous with the fliers.
26, January, 1916
I'm constantly thinking of my dream: Evelyn and I
are coming home together to our old home, Calixberghe, following the blue walk toward the veranda. We're
laughing and singing. We're happy to be together. The moon
is red and full, high up in the sky. Suddenly I notice it's falling,
falling foward the horizon. The two of us are thrown to the ground
and I feel intense pain. There's a tremendous clamor, screams
of distress and disaster, coming from the direction of the city
where the moon's collapsed. I wake up with a shudder and can't
forget the images. (It's been two months now.)
The moon was only a faint outline through the clouds as Laura quietly let herself out the side doors. She had chosen dark clothing to blend with the night: black shoes, skirt and blouse, dark brown coat and brown leather gloves. She wore no hat, afraid it might come off if she had to flee. It was nearly twelve thirty; she would have to hurry. Old Hans, the fat Landsturmer, would be passing by any minute on his rounds. Her shoes on the gravel seemed unbearably loud in the still night. She relaxed a little after she crossed the yard and reached the beech trees; their thick branches stretched almost horizon-tally in a protective embrace. She followed the road toward the small village of Hoogboom, but kept to the forest, picking her way nimbly through the underbrush and around the tall pine trees. Her rendezvous was just east of Hoogboom. Sneaking through the dark but familiar woods, Laura felt uneasy; her dream was still foremost in her mind. Footsteps coming down the cobbled road made her stop instantly. She crouched, gathering up the bottom of her skirt and coat so they wouldn't rustle against the ground. She breathed shallowly through her nose so her breath wouldn't condense in the cold night air.
Laura's eyes strained to see who was coming. When she saw Hans, waddling down the road picking his teeth from some late night snack, she relaxed. His rifle was carelessly slung over one shoulder and he passed within 20 feet without looking around. As the sound of boots faded away, she continued on, making the rendezvous -- a thick hedgerow outlining the Van der Hagen's small farm -- with a few minutes to spare. As she caught her breath, she thought of the first time she had been in the exact spot. It was three months ago, when she rendezvoused with her first soldiers, guiding them across a portion of Oude Hof to a point near the Dutch frontier. It was her understanding another guide would take the soldiers to the wire and help them through. She knew little of how the underground worked. She met the men at her rendezvous, took them to the next point and never saw the guides at either end. Neither did they see her. This meant if a courier was caught he could not inform on the other couriers. Those being guided were cautioned by every courier not to talk of the other guides, to forget who they were or what they looked like. Laura had been enlisted one night by one of Pereke's business associates, Arture Bracht. After dinner she, Pereke and Arture adjourned to the third floor for a billiards game. That night she was upset about Verheyen's torture and the execution of 20 civilians in retaliation for the death of Captain Mueller's wife and daughter. She talked vehemently of her hatred of the Germans, and Captain Ernst Mueller in particular. She longed to do more than just hospital work. She wanted, she said, to fight for her country.
When Pereke announced he was going to retire, Arture asked her for one more game. The game was never played. He came right to the point. He was looking for guides to ferry men toward the frontier, especially in the area. Laura didn't hesitate, of course she would do it. He said her contact would reach her soon. She and Arture saw each other often after that but never spoke of the underground. The biggest surprise came a month later, when a still battered and bandaged Verheyen stepped hesitantly forward, cap ever present in his hand, and begged her pardon -- he was her contact. After the shock wore off, he explained how he became involved, and made her vow to never use violence as a weapon of revenge. A noise in the distance brought her back to the present. She looked through the hedgerow and spotted the fliers running in a crouch across a fallow field. The fools. Why didn't they use the cover of the forest?
She watched as they came to the hedgerow and began walking along it. They were still in uniform, no doubt because word was out the Germans shot soldiers out of uniform, while only imprisoning those in uniform. She didn't believe it, though; no one could trust the Boche.
One of the fliers was whispering repeatedly in French, "Belgium remains ever free." She could tell by the accent he was the Frenchman, probably Parisian. "Over here," she whispered in French. They found a slight hole in the shrubs and slithered through. Crouching beside her, they were visibly shocked to see a woman. The Englishman was the first to regain his tongue. "I say, you're a --" "I know what I am," Laura answered curtly in English. "I'm your guide to the next rendezvous."
They both found their manners at the same time. Removing their caps as if on cue, they began to introduce themselves. "No names," she snapped. "It will take about an hour. Follow exactly in my footsteps. Keep an eye on me always. Don't make a sound. Is that clear?" They both nodded, then followed as she headed toward the Dutch frontier. They were two minutes late reaching the other rendezvous. They had stopped once while a patrol marched by, and Laura had taken them on a circuitous route to avoid the German trenches. Another problem was the moon. It was nearly full and its light periodically shone through gaps in the clouds, making Laura doubly cautious. When they reached the large beech tree that was her stopping place, she directed them to their next rendezvous approximately 200 yards ahead. They should continue in a straight line until the forest broke into a small meadow. On the far side of the meadow they'd find five pine saplings about 15 feet high, clumped together in a little thicket. "That's where you'll find your next guide," she told them. "May God bless you and keep you," she said, once in French and once in English. "And kill some Boche for me," she added fiercely under her breath in Flemish. With words of gratitude they were up and gone, moving from tree to tree, making what Laura thought was much too much noise. Taking a moment for herself, she sat down against the big beech tree, feeling the knots of bark pushing through her clothes. She stared up at the heavens. The cold made her fold her arms for warmth, but she relished the crisp air and dank forest smell.
The night was so peaceful, so devoid of war and killing. It had the deep silence that came with cold weather. The kind that penetrates the body along with the chill, until a person wonders if their heart is still beating. Laura stopped breathing and with some concentration finally felt the slow, steady rhythm of her heart.
Suddenly rifle shots exploded the night, sending Laura scrambling to her feet. She heard one answering pistol shot, followed by a volley of rifle shots. Feeble beams of electric hand lanterns began moving erratically back and forth. She stood frozen to the cold earth, hearing shouts in German and the unmistakable voice of Captain Mueller barking orders.
With a start she realized she was the hunted. Terror swelled in her belly and tightened her chest. She turned and ran, crashing recklessly through the forest. Within 50 yards she stumbled headlong into a puddle of partially frozen water. She rose in a panic and continued running blindly, feeling the weight of mud on her dress. But the slap of cold water snapped her back to her senses. Soon she stopped running and tried to catch her breath. Her lungs ached and she wanted to lie down and never get up. Urgent commands and the crackling of underbrush filled the forest. Beams of light reached out, trying to grab her in their dangerous embrace. Think. Think clearly. One false step and she knew she'd be dead. Oude Hof. Must reach Oude Hof -- safety. But the troops, the sentry, they'll be on alert. Think. She had a chance; it was her forest. But she mustn't run scared, run blind. Don't panic. Silence was her ally, self-control her only defense. What a stupid child she was, she must stay calm. Go fast but silently, carefully. The sound of men smashing down underbrush grew louder. She could hear individual curses as some of them tripped or ran into thickets. The beams swept closer.
With a determined effort she looked around to get her bearings then set out at a brisk pace, walking rather than running so she could be quieter. To keep fear at bay she began thinking she was singing the Belgian national anthem, "La Brabanconne" -- she knew that to even hum it might give her away, and would rob her of precious wind. It seemed to help as her heart swelled with the patriotic verse. Her footsteps fell into rhythmic time. As she strode along, she decided to follow the route she had used with the airmen. It was a gamble, she knew, because it was the long way home. To get home fast was critical to her safety: She was certain Mueller suspected someone in Oude Hof was with the underground and would go there if he didn't find anyone in the forest. But to take the short way home would mean going near the trenches, where she was sure the troops would be on alert. What she counted on was Mueller's thoroughness as a German officer. He would spend a great deal of time meticulously searching the area for any clues. Enough time, she prayed, for her to get home. The noises and lights started fading as she walked on. She allowed herself the luxury of thinking she might make it. Twenty minutes of fast moving had burned up most of her strength. She occasionally stagger-stepped, catching herself before she fell. But, thankfully, the chateau was near. When the moon peeked through the clouds she made out Oude Hof's two spires through the trees. Now all she had to do was get past the fat sentry. She stopped for a moment to gaze at her watch, using some moonlight breaking through the clouds.
She was in luck, it was exactly three a.m. The sentry would be near the dairy now. Clouds covered the moon again, returning the landscape to inky darkness. Taking this as a good sign, she tossed caution aside and began to run, drawing on the last of her strength. She broke through the woods and saw the dark chateau standing like an old friend. The caked and frozen mud on her dress cracked as she ran. "Halt, or I'll shoot," rang through the stillness. Without thinking, Laura ducked and turned, running back toward the safety of the woods. The sound of a shot thundered in her ears and echoed off the lake. Something whizzed past her head. Even in her panic she heard the faint sound of a bolt slamming home. She reached the forest just as the next shot cracked the night. Running on numbed, exhausted legs, she quickly circled the chateau as the sentry approached the spot where she had entered the woods. Within a minute she was up the side terrace and through the French doors. Heaving, gasping for air, she thought she was going to die -- her heart was pounding an unnatural rhythm as if desperate to flee her body. Standing in the darkness of the familiar salon, trying to catch her breath, she heard motorcar engines. A second later lights from their headlights moved across the room as numerous machines swung around the circular drive in front of the house. Over the engines she heard Mueller yelling. Laura began to run for her room but stopped short. Turning, she saw the tracks of mud her dirty shoes had made. Ripping them from her feet, she pulled a doily from one of the chairs and raced back to the door. She hastily wiped up the tracks and darted for the stairs. The sounds of running men on the gravel drive seemed to pursue her up the stairs. No one had arisen yet, or come out into the hall, as she raced to her room and locked the door.
Laura rushed to her armoire and tore off her clothes, flinging them inside with her shoes, stockings and the doily. She heard Mueller shouting from the entry hall, ordering everyone downstairs immediately. Doors began opening in the hall and she heard Evelyn, Helene and Grutje, calling to each other. She frantically threw on her nightgown and pulled on her robe. Starting for the door, she realized her hair was still up. Reaching up she felt with horror spots of dried mud. She raced to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Three or four spots of mud haloed her face, which was bathed in sweat and grime. Suddenly there was a frantic pounding on her door and the handle rattled. Helene called in a scared voice, "Laura, come quickly. Something's happening." From downstairs Mueller was getting louder and more demanding. "One moment," she called, trying to calm her voice. She splashed her face with water and then dabbed at the muddy spots. She knew she couldn't be seen with wet hair. Drying her face and the portions of hair she had wetted, she replaced the towel and raced for the door. The family was herded into the formal parlor. Mueller stood before them in his field uniform, studying each person in turn. As Laura sat down on the sofa, she tried to calm her body, tried to stop the sweat from breaking out on her forehead and around her temples. Charles sat in a chair strongly protesting the intrusion.
"Quiet!" Captain Mueller declared in French. "Two Allied soldiers were killed tonight trying to meet with an underground guide. I'm sure the one who guided them there is in this house."
"How dare you accuse us!" Charles replied in German, rising from his chair. To Laura he looked regal in his silk robe and tasseled sash.
"Sit down, you old fool." Mueller walked around the room inspecting each person. "The sentry fired at someone approaching this house just a few minutes before we arrived. I'm sure he -- or she -- is in this house." Just then Isidore entered and stood off to one side of the doors. Laura marveled at how he was completely dressed and composed. Mueller walked over to Laura and stared at her. She looked into his eyes, challenging him. "Fraulein, is there any reason why you look so flushed?" he asked. "You even appear to be perspiring." She lowered her eyes for a moment, then looked back. "I was having a bad dream. One that I've had before." "That's right, Captain," Evelyn interjected, not taking her eyes off Laura."She's been having it for quite some--" "Silence!" he ordered. Charles jumped up, full of rage. "I must insist you conduct yourself within the bounds of good manners."
Mueller turned and pointed a finger at him. "Sit down, now! If anyone says another word without my permission I'll have you all shot. Is that clear?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Now," he said, turning back to Laura, "my soldiers will begin searching the chateau."
"What!" cried Charles. "Shut up!" he yelled, rushing over and slapping Charles hard across the face. Mueller stood staring at him for a moment as if daring him to move or say something else.
In a moment Mueller walked back to Laura. He looked her in the eye. "I'll personally begin the search in the fraulein's room." Laura returned his stare. "Why?" "The person was clumsy enough to stumble into a puddle." Laura felt her face flush, but held his stare. "And from that unfortunate mistake I've learned the guide is a woman...or was wearing women's shoes," he said. "So what I look for are muddy women's clothes." Horrified, Laura looked down at the rug, seeing in her mind's eye the dirty shoes and clothes in the armoire. She struggled to maintain control. Mueller insisted that the entire family and Isidore follow him to her room. While they stood there he looked under the bed, behind the draperies and in the desk. He then walked toward the armoire. Laura desperately tried to think of an explanation as he threw open the doors. A few hours later, just as sunrise was breaking, an open limousine pulled out of the quiet streets of Rotterdam and rattled onto the rough cobblestones of country road, heading for occupied Belgium. Although the sun was now up and shining through a light haze, it made little difference against the biting January cold. The two passengers in the back wore thick coats and had blankets wrapped around their legs. Small coal-burning heaters warmed their feet. The chauffeur wore two heavy coats, a wool cap pulled over his ears and fur-lined gloves.
As the motorcar accelerated to 35 miles per hour, its top speed on the cobbled road, swirling wind dipped into the back seat and grabbed for Matthew Hollins's bowler. He tugged it more securely onto his head. No turning back now, he thought. The seriousness of where he was going and what he would be doing hit Matt as sharply as the cold wind that teared his eyes. Occupied Belgium. He was entering a country where peasants with shovels and flintlocks fought valiantly to stop the German war machine in August 1914. Where German soldiers retaliated by committing unspeakable atrocities. Where the Huns had ruled with an iron will for a year and a half. And now, he would be closer to the war than he ever thought possible, but not as a soldier. His enemies were hunger, starvation, and his battlefield was Belgium. He was finally doing something good with his life, something meaningful. Something to make his father proud. Something to redeem his past. He felt like standing up in the limousine and shouting with joy into the winter wind. Instead a tight smile played across his face. It was a smile that held no warmth. He was here, he knew, because of Randolph Clare Torrey, III – Clare – a friend he had not seen in eight years. In fact, last time they had been together, in his room at Princeton, they had argued nearly to blows. Clare's letter arrived a month ago. It brought an invitation to join the CRB, as well as a flood of childhood memories of a good friend and countless adventures. Clare had been the instigator, the leader, while Matt tagged along for the ride. Trouble never seemed far from one of Clare's schemes, but that made life exciting when Matt was around Clare. Matt's strict father never approved of Clare, and continually said the boy was going to turn out like his no-account, salesman father. While Matt hated his father for saying it, he nonetheless felt there was the ring of truth in the statement. That's why it was such a shock to hear Clare was a member of the CRB, one of the world's finest, noblest organizations.
Somehow, with Clare, though, nothing was ever as it first appeared. Complications were part of Clare's life and seemed to spread to anyone standing nearby. Matt knew all too well how that worked. All the happy childhood memories were colored by one hot summer day long ago. He and Clare were forever bound to each other by what happened in a cow pasture 18 years ago, and nothing could ever change that.
So even though Clare's CRB invitation seemed straightforward enough, Matt knew better. He could read between the lines, he knew what Clare really wanted. Well, Matt was older now. Things would be different. He would be friendly -- Clare deserved that at least -- but lines would have to be drawn. Principles were at stake and lives hung in the balance. This was Matt's chance to set things right and he wouldn't allow Clare to bugger it up.
Matt turned from his thoughts and took a look at his motorcar companion, Rene Jensen. Matt guessed the handsome, dark-haired man was about 10 years old than himself, probably 35 or 36. He wondered what Rene had seen and experienced since the war broke out. It was, after all, his country. Matt couldn't even imagine enemy soldiers on American soil. As if Rene knew he was being observed, he turned to Matt. Over the rush of air and rattling engine noise, he said, "Pardon the uncivilized hour." His tone indicated his statement wasn't really an apology. Matt nodded.
"It's the Germans fault," Rene said, adding with a slight smile, "as most things are."
"How so?" Matt asked. "The border guards will be at the end of their shift. They won't be so alert. Their stomachs will take precedence over their wits. Best to cross now." "Ah," Matt said knowingly, although he still didn't see the point.
"With a fresh group," Rene continued, "they might be more thorough, decide we are spies, or some such nonsense. Then we will spend a great deal of time waylaid at some rundown border station." "But we have nothing to hide," Matt said. "No matter. It's whether or not they think you have something to hide. They're a suspicious lot by nature." Matt nodded, then looked ahead at the empty road. The new morning's sun was dusting the flat countryside with light shades of pinks and yellows. Soon he'd be in occupied Belgium, a once peaceful country now ruled by a foreign invader. "What's it like?" he asked Rene. Rene shrugged. "Like life anywhere else, I suppose, except the Germans rule it. If you get along with them, as I do, you'll have no problem." "How do you manage that?” "I drink with them." "We can do that?" Rene laughed. "They are men, monsieur, just like us. In the lower part of Brussels, the docks area, certain cabarets are open all night. They cater to German soldiers. We drink together, laugh together, then it's easier in the morning. A man who drinks with you won't look upon you so harshly, eh?" "But I thought all Belgians hate the Germans?" "Ah, yes, of course...but I'm only half Belgian. My mother was Belgian, my father a Dane -- so I only half hate them," he said with a cold smile. Matt wondered if Rene took anything seriously. "How did you get into the CRB? I thought only Americans could serve -- because we're neutral." "Bad luck, I can assure you. Someone was needed in the early days to be a courier between Brussels and Rotterdam. Someone who spoke English, Dutch, German, French and Flemish. Now, I'm the only CRB courier, ferrying mail and delegates back and forth." "Important work," Matt said, trying to sound respectful. "A wonderful life," Rene said with a rueful smile. "As long as it's not too cold or wet...which it always is in Belgium." As if to emphasize the point, he rubbed the fur lapels of his coat against his red ears. "But it does afford me," he said with a wink, "time with the girls. Give me a bottle of wine and a pretty face and I'm a contented man." Matt was taken aback. "What of the hungry?" Rene shrugged. "Cared for by better men than me...men like you. What I do, monsieur, is bring a little joy into the lives of some of Belgium's finest young ladies." He raised an eye brow. "Certainly as noble a cause, wouldn't you say?"
Matt couldn't help but smile, and he couldn't help but like the man and his irreverent sense of humor. But another side of Matt thought a strong retort was more in order. He held his tongue, though -- he'd have to get the lay of the land first before speaking his mind. But how could the man countenance such behavior while a war was going on -- and in his own country? Rene's cavalier attitude reminded Matt of men he had known at Princeton. Men from the best Boston and Philadelphia families who affected airs of nonchalance, as if they weren't like the rest of the world. Matt could see it in Rene's impeccably tailored clothes and bearing, especially in the way he tilted his head when listening, a cocky lean that implied indifference. Men like Rene didn't care a wit for social conventions or family upbringing, they merely lived their lives as they pleased, as if in a moral vacuum, laughing at the struggles of others. The difference between Rene and the Princeton men was that Rene seemed to laugh at himself as well as the rest of the world. Matt sensed he was a man who had once felt a part of life, whose morality had once been intact. Now, it seemed, something had forced him into nonchalance. No doubt the war. As Matt was entering Belgium, Laura was walking along the familiar road leading to the farm, thinking how unfamiliar everything looked. The trees and brushes, the statues beside the road, the thatched roofs above the tree-tops were all recognizable, but only after a moment of frightening disorientation. It was similar to times she'd wake up from a bad dream and for a split second not know where she was; all the familiar objects in her room taking on forms she couldn't identify or recognize. Now, walking on numb legs along the cobbled road, she knew her confusion came from exhaustion. All she wanted was to sleep, but she knew she couldn't afford that luxury. She must maintain her routines, keep up appearances in case that German bastard was having her watched. As she struggled to stay awake and keep walking toward the farm, she still couldn't believe what had happened. Her dirty clothes hadn't been in the armoire! Laura had stared at the inside of the wardrobe with disbelief as the German searched her bathroom. Turning around, still puzzled, she was startled to find Isidore standing near her. His dour expression never changed, but his head nodded slightly.
Mueller and his men kept up the search for more than an hour, looking through every room in the chateau, even searching the fourth-floor servant's quarters, basement kitchen and dumbwaiter. As the Germans moved through the house, Laura's relief turned to curiosity. Where did Isidore hide her clothes? Finally, a sullen Captain Mueller left, threatening to return when he had evidence of the underground guide at Oude Hof. Pereke, Grutje and the servants went back to their rooms, with Evelyn and Helene following shortly after. Although she longed for her bed, Laura lingered behind, wanting a moment with Isidore. She found him standing stoically in the empty grand salon. "Isidore," she said, approaching the tall figure, "was it really you?" "Mademoiselle?" "My clothes...the armoire." She was afraid to say more until she was sure of what he knew. "Ah, your clothes, Mademoiselle. I took the liberty of removing them from your armoire. They were wet and would have hurt the wood." She couldn't find a trace of a smile or acknowledging glance. Did he know? "Mademoiselle approves?" he said, staring straight ahead, never making eye contact. It was all too much -- the Allied fliers, her flight through the woods, Mueller's accusations, and now Isidore's placid remarks. If he took her things then he knew, didn't he? Why didn't he say something? She was so tired she could barely hold a thought for more than a moment. "Yes...yes, of course. You did the right thing," she said. What was the question she wanted to ask him? "Is Mademoiselle all right?" He looked at her for the first time.
"Just tired." "You've had an exhausting day." "What do you mean?" she said, surprised at such a personal comment. He returned to staring straight ahead. "Only that Mademoiselle's work at the farm and the hospital must be tiring." "Oh," she said, trying to concentrate. What was it she wanted to ask him? "Will there be anything else, Mademoiselle?" She was sure there was, she just couldn't remember. Suddenly it came to her. "How did you know?" she asked. "Mademoiselle?" "That my clothes needed attending?" "I heard you come in from your late-night walk." "My what?" "Your walk, Mademoiselle. Where you must have tripped in the dark -- soiled your clothes." She was so tired she could barely follow what he was saying. But there was something important she had to ask him. Something he hadn't told her. She suddenly remembered. "Where did you hi-- put my clothes?" "I knew no one would attend to them this evening, so I put them where no one would disturb them until morning." Another evasive answer; she had never seen him act this way. "Where did you put them?" "Your secret place, Mademoiselle." Laura physically recoiled from the shock of his words. How did he know about the "petite cachette" -- Evelyn and Laura's childhood hideaway? She hadn't thought of it in years. When she and Evelyn were young they discovered a little camouflaged door behind the tapestry in the girls' second-floor playroom. A short passage led to a very low-ceilinged room between floors. Light came in from the tops of the first-floor bathroom windows. The two girls played games there, feeling so far away and hidden. They were sure that Isidore, Pereke, Grutje and even Miss Lance didn't know of the place. "How did you know?" she asked. Isidore continued to stare straight ahead. "Little girls," he said simply, "make a great deal of noise, Mademoiselle." Laura laughed for the first time that night, imagining the stiff-backed Isidore leaning over the couch listening to their little-girl conversations and games. "I'll go get them tomorrow," she said, then corrected herself, "I mean later today." "Very good, Mademoiselle." Silence filled the grand salon. She wanted to thank him for her life, thank him for the risk he had taken, but something held her back, stopped her from moving. She knew it was many things -- upbringing, traditions, social structures. They all seemed insurmountable when placed next to this towering giant. She hated herself for not moving to him. "Thank you, Isidore," was all she could manage. "It was nothing, Mademoiselle." "I think I'll retire." She began to walk out of the room, then turned. "Aren't you going to your quarters?"
"If Mademoiselle doesn't mind, I'll remain here for awhile," he said, "in case we have any more unexpected guests." Not even a smile, she thought in wonder. "No, of course not. Do as you wish." As she walked out of the room she said softly, "Goodnight, Isidore." She thought she heard a quiet "Goodnight, Mademoiselle," but wasn't sure. She hadn't been able to sleep, even after her talk with Isidore. She began feeling drowsy just as the sun was rising, but didn't allow herself to drift off -- routines must be maintained so as not to feed Mueller's suspicions. She could sleep for awhile at the farm, in the warm hay, after she talked with Verheyen. He would know what had gone wrong, who was caught, and if she and her family were in any immediate danger.
As she approached the farm buildings, the lack of noise was the first thing that caught her attention. No rattling of leather harnesses, creaking of wagons, dogs barking or easy joking of men preparing for a day's work. The sound of her shoes on the cobblestones echoed off vacant buildings.
Walking faster, willing her exhausted muscles on, she came to the dairy buildings. No milk wagons, no drivers, no farmers milling around. She heard the insistent lowing of cows with full udders waiting to be milked. Suddenly Laura was aware of someone crying -- wailing more like it. It came from the house of the gamekeeper, Pier. Turning the corner she saw his wife, Lien, sitting on their front steps clothed in only her house dress. Her fat body was rumbling to her crying, which rose and fell in the cold stillness of the day. Laura ran to her. "Lien, what's wrong?"
Looking up, tears coursing down her bulging cheeks, the woman blubbered in Flemish, "Ach, Juffrau, so terrible! Horrible! They've taken them. They're all doomed." Laura squatted in front of the peasant woman, grabbing her shoulders. "Calm down," she demanded. "Tell me what happened. Who's been taken, who's doomed?" "Verheyen and his family. They're all doomed," Lien cried. Panic grabbed Laura. Frantically she shook Lien. "Stop crying!" she screamed. "What happened!" Lien stopped short, startled by the vehemence of her mistress. "The Boche," she said sniffling. "They took Verheyen in the morning's dark. Then, later, they took Jo and Peter." Her eyes began filling again. "Took them where? Where?" Laura demanded. "To Hoogboom," Lien sniffled. "The men went to see what would happen." Laura was up and running before Lien finished her sentence. As her tired legs took her toward the village, she heard the peasant woman crying again. The town square in front of the little city hall was packed with people. Everyone from Hoogboom was there, as well as all of Oude Hof's farmers and the dairy drivers with their wagons. A low mumbling hung in the air as German soldiers stood on the perimeter of the crowd, watching with veiled eyes and fixed bayonets.
Directly in front of the city hall a semi-circle of soldiers held back the crowd. As Laura fought her way through the throng she saw Verheyen, his wife and son standing in the middle of the semi-circle. Captain Mueller stood beside them. When she reached the ring of soldiers, she noticed with horror that a man lay crumpled against the building, his blood spattered across the wall. Five soldiers stood at ease about 20 feet in front of him looking toward the Captain. "What's happened?" she demanded of an old man next to her. "Who the hell are --" The man stopped. "Pardon, Juffrau, I didn't --" "What's happened?" "One is dead, Juffrau." "Who?" "Jorges Barnich." "From Capellen?" "Ya, Juffrau." "Why?" "He was a guide in the underground. He gave the Boche Verheyen's name," he turned and spat in contempt. "He is where he belongs." He paused a moment. "Now it's Verheyen's turn." Laura looked closely at her farm superintendent for the first time. His face seemed unnaturally full and flushed. She realized with horror that it was swollen and discolored by what must have been a tremendous beating. Blood was oozing from one nostril and his only good eye was barely visible from under a puffy lid. He swayed slightly. "They've beaten him." "Ya, Juffrau. But they got nothing. He is a true Belgian. The harder they beat him, the louder his silence."
She noticed that Verheyen's son, Peter, stood untouched beside his father, fear covering his young face. His head came only up to Verheyen's shoulder.
Jo, Verheyen's short and stocky wife, was pulling on his arm. Her gray hair had come undone and hung wildly about her shoulders. Her face was puffy and red. She was crying hysterically. Mueller raised his hands above his head for silence. The crowd quieted. Jo crumpled to the ground at Verheyen's feet. Ernst looked down at the corpse of the dead guide. What a coward. Crying for his life. Giving up Verheyen with nothing more than threats. His men hadn't had to touch the man before he was braying louder than a donkey being dragged back to the front. He didn't even deserve the quick death Ernst gave him.
Turning to Verheyen, Ernst couldn't help but acknowledge the man's inner strength. He might be a franc-tireur, but Verheyen was the toughest man Ernst had ever met -- even corporal Klinderman, the one they had called iron-man, would have buckled under the beating Verheyen got.
It had taken half the night for Ernst to realize that he didn't want to execute Verheyen. He knew he had a job to do, but at times like this, with a man like Verheyen, the job was as distasteful as it was necessary. How could he get himself, and Verheyen, out of it? If only the man would give him a name, any name, he could justify sparing the peasant. While prison wasn't much better, at least there was a chance of life down the road, when this god-forsaken war was over.
He had thought long and hard about it. A glimmer of an idea formed earlier that morning, when he realized Verheyen would not talk. That's when he ordered Verheyen's wife and boy brought to the square. A man could be forgiven his weakness if it was to save his family. Especially if the man was offered a deal in front of the entire town. Then, they would all know that Verheyen had had no choice, that he must give Ernst the names of the other guides. A man could be forgiven everything, anything, to save his loving wife and precious little... No, he must not let his thoughts wander there. That was for later. Now he had a job to do and he was going to do it. If only Verheyen would play his part properly. Ernst faced the crowd. All he could see, all he could feel from the crowd was anger and fear. He would
change that soon enough, if Verheyen followed along. Ernst purposefully addressed the crowd in Flemish, wanting to reach their hearts. "You all know what the penalty is for espionage against the German Empire," he called out. "It is death."
He had their complete attention. Even Verheyen's wife had stopped crying. "But to show you how fair we Germans are," Ernst continued, "I offer you, Verheyen, your life and the lives of your family, if you tell me who the other guides are." "Tell him, for God's sake, tell him," Jo whimpered. "I beg you." Laura couldn’t take her eyes off Verheyen. She wanted to look away, but something kept her eyes riveted to the man’s beaten face. Her stomach began to churn as she watched his face slowly lift up until his one good eye had locked onto her. For a split second, his glaze seemed to be trying to tell her something, but before she could react or understand, the connection was broken. She was sure she was going to lose her breakfast. Mueller saw Verheyen’s glance and quickly walked over. “Fraulein Braegen," he said. "I'd have thought you'd still be sleeping after such a busy night."
She looked down, not able to hold his gaze, not able to speak, ashamed of her overwhelming fear.
Mueller turned back to Verheyen and called out, "Well, Verheyen, what is your answer?"
The square became absolutely still. Every eye was on the beaten man. He looked to the sky, as if in silent prayer, then turned resolutely to the German officer. "Go to the Devil," he said, spitting blood with every word. Laura could feel the silence of the crowd, feel the honor they were bestowing. Jo began weeping again as she clutched her husband's leg. Ernst's stomach lurched and for a moment he thought he might be physically sick. How could Verheyen do it!? How could the man turn his back on his family? He stormed over and grabbed Verheyen by the shirt, yanking him up so their faces were only inches apart. Ernst could smell the man’s sweat and blood and it brought back the smell of his own sweat and blood in the trenches of France. With his back to the crowd, Ernst whispered so only Verheyen could hear. "Don't do this. Give me a name. Any name. I want to spare you, you fool. Think of your wife and child. They'll forgive you. They'll understand." Ernst's eyes welled with tears. "Don't make me do this!" For a moment Ernst thought Verheyen might crumble. He could tell his plea had reached the heart of the man. And he could tell Verheyen had sensed Ernst spoke to him man-to-man, not as German to Belgian. But then a steel curtain fell behind Verheyen's one good eye and Ernst knew they were both lost.
From where Laura stood, she could see the profile of both men, but could not hear what Mueller said to Verheyen. Suddenly Verheyen seemed to stiffen, then he very deliberately spat in Mueller's face. For a moment, Mueller didn't seem to register what happened, but then he screamed and threw Verheyen to the ground. He turned and for a second Laura saw the face of a mad man. He stumbled on his bad leg over to where Jo lay and grabbed her hair with one hand. He yanked her head back with one hand as the other fumbled for his sidearm. "I told you! I told you!" he screamed in German. He pulled the luger out and without a moment's hesitation put the pistol to her head and pulled the trigger. The shot echoed through the silent square of stunned people. Laura could barely breathe. She felt weak in her legs. She heard someone behind her wretch, the sound of liquid splashing onto the cobblestones.
Even Mueller seemed shocked by his action. He slowly stood up and holstered his gun, then pulled at his tunic, straightening it out. He stared for a long time at his right hand. Laura could see it was spotted with Jo's blood.
When he turned to his men, Mueller seemed calm and composed. He said something, but Laura couldn't hear it. He cleared his throat, then spoke up. "You have one more chance," he said, not even looking at Verheyen. He motioned to the execution squad and two men came forward. Mueller indicated Peter. The two guards grabbed the young boy and walked him to the wall.
Verheyen looked like a caged animal, frantic in his struggle for freedom. His eye darted from Mueller to his son, to the crowd, then back to his son. Peter stood stoically against the wall, but Laura could see the boy was barely controlling the trembling that shook his entire body.
"Tell me and the boy goes free," Mueller said in a voice that seemed to falter. The crowd moved restlessly, shuffling in collective anguish, but remained silent. Laura could see Verheyen's good eye water but no tears appeared. He said nothing. Mueller barked a command. Laura was watching the boy's face as someone gave the order to ready, aim, fire. She saw, as if in slow motion, the entire right side of Peter's face explode into blood, bone and flesh, then the body slam back against the stone wall, finally falling next to the body of his mother. Laura saw Verheyen sway, but remain standing. The life, the struggle, in the man seemed dead. There were no more wild, frantic looks. For a second Laura was reminded of her old rag doll that sat limply in her armoire, half the stuffing pulled from it. Suddenly she sensed movement behind her. Turning, she saw people starting to walk away. She knew what they were doing, knew of the honor. They, in their peasant wisdom, were giving Verheyen the dignity of a private death. She began to follow them. She turned back to look and saw Verheyen against the wall -- his family at his feet -- the tears finally making their way slowly down his right cheek. The sound of rifle bolts slamming open and closed echoed through the square. Laura looked one more time at Verheyen, locked eyes with him, and saw his soul. She turned and stumbled out of the square with the farmers. The shots exploded throughout a nearly empty square. Laura couldn't remember how she got back to the chateau, but thought someone had led her. Pereke was noticeably shaken and went to his study, promising not to go to the office. Evelyn and Helene left her alone. Grutje simply said, "Go to bed, my dear."
Walking on leaded feet up the stairs, she was sure she would collapse at any moment. Just before reaching her door she remembered her muddy clothes in the petite cachette. Turning, she went to the old playroom, which was now a music studio for the three girls. Pushing the couch to one side, Laura pulled aside the tapestry, activated the secret panel, then crawled into the little passage. When she came to the secret room she saw her things, clean and neatly folded in one corner near the windows. She didn't even bother to stand up, knowing she would bump her head on the ceiling if she did. She dragged herself to the windows, intending to merely pick up the clothes and leave. Movement outside caught her eye.
Below, on the road from Hoogboom to the farm, a procession of farmers carried the covered bodies of Verheyen, Peter and Jo on boards atop their shoulders.
Remembering Verheyen's eyes, she cried for the first time that day. After a few hours restless sleep, Laura wrote in her diary:
26, January, 1916 What to do? Who do I turn to? I must talk with someone. If I had spoken up today Jo and Peter would still be alive. If I only had half of Verheyen's courage. But I don't. I caused their deaths. Their eyes will always haunt me. I'll never be able to repay Verheyen for what he did, but I'll make the Germans pay -- on that I stake my life and heart. I must go see the one who recruited me.
Everyone that evening was subdued, including the servants. Word had spread of the executions and speculation was rampant as to who Verheyen had been protecting. Before dinner Gerandina came up to Laura when no one was around. "It must have been horrible, Mademoiselle." Laura was touched by the concern on her friend's face. "There's no one around, you can call me Laura."
"I still find it hard -- Laura." She seemed embarrassed.
"You shouldn't." "Did he die well?" Gerandina asked abruptly. "Very." "Jo and Peter?" Gerandina asked. "Peter, yes. Jo, not as well." Curiosity, Laura thought, has taken a back seat to taste. "There's talk he was hiding someone," Gerandina said in a conspirator's tone. "Yes, I've heard that too." What would Gerandina say if she knew it was her mistress who Verheyen had been protecting? Laura wanted to talk about it so much, talk away the tremendous guilt. Maybe to Gerandina.
"Do you know who he was hiding?" Gerandina asked shyly.
The maid wouldn't look Laura in the eye -- no doubt embarrassed about such questions. Yes, she thought, maybe she could talk to Gerandina. She had in the past. "If I told you someth--" "There you are," Evelyn said, walking into the room. "Did you sleep at all? Are you all right?"
Laura was surprised by her sister's genuine concern. "I'm fine, just tired." Laura looked around, but Gerandina had slipped out of the room. She turned back to Evelyn. "I think I'll go to Brussels tomorrow...get away for the day." "A good idea," Evelyn said. "Let's talk to Papa about it." Laura rose from her chair, thinking it had been easier than she had thought it would be.
End of Chapter Two