For travelers, history buffs, readers, writers, and even the health conscious
Honor Bound-- A World War One historical novel that takes place in German-occupied Belgium. The plot revolves around the men of the CRB -- the Commission For Relief in Belgium. Founded by Herbert Hoover (yes, the future president of the U.S.), and run by 170-190 idealistic Americans, the CRB became the largest food and relief effort the world had ever seen. The CRB "delegates" had to give the Germans their sacred word of honor to do nothing to hurt the German war effort while in Belgium. Many of the CRB men fell in love with Belgian women -- some of whom worked in the underground against the Germans. I did two years of research and wrote an 850-page novel that is, as yet, unpublished.
The German staff car rumbled along the dirt road, kicking up a cloud of dust that hung in the still morning air like the tail of some giant slithering beast. All around the countryside was green and flat, like the top of a billiard table. Occasionally a small farm came into view, with its thatched-roof home and tidy looking barn. The summer sun was shinning in a deep blue sky -- a rarity in the little country of Belgium -- and it promised to be another hot day.
Inside the staff car, Captain Ernst Mueller of Kaiser Wilhelm's Imperial German Army, looked out the window at the fertile land and thought how life was finally good again. From the trenches to here. Yes, life certainly was good again. It had been years since he could say that, but now, sitting in the back seat with his beloved wife Katherine and precious little daughter Gerta -- their few possessions stuffed into old steamer trunks lashed to the boot of the car -- he could finally admit his good fortune to himself.
He would never say such a boastful thing publicly, that was tempting the fates unnecessarily, but in his heart he knew he was a very lucky man. Two nights ago, back in Germany before they had embarked on this trip to his new command, he had risked it all and whispered the revelation into Katherine's ear as they lay in bed. He couldn't resist, he was so filled with love and joy that he had to share it with the most important person in his life.
She had smiled a faint, sleepy smile and kissed him lightly on the lips. "My little bear has come home for good."
Short and stocky, with a fleshy round face and dark, unruly hair, Ernst had never seen himself as possessing any kind of physical attraction to the opposite sex. But years ago, when Katherine had given him that nickname, her silly words had transformed the way he saw himself. He was no longer a hulking, dark presence, he was someone's "little bear," and it pleased him more than he would ever say.
She had called him that ever since they had seduced each other at Berlin University in the glorious spring of 1912. He had been her French teacher -- a graduate assistant, actually -- she an unremarkable student. He had noticed her anyway, couldn't help but notice. Blond hair, a generous mouth with a trusting smile, and a lush, full body, with broad hips and large breasts. But it was her eyes that had captured his heart. The first moment he had looked into them he knew she would be in his life forever.
They hadn't cared about getting caught, although that would have meant he would lose his position and she would be branded a woman of no moral character. All they wanted was to be with each other, touch each other, please each other, and talk to each other.
She had told him how difficult it had been growing up in the home of a middle-class businessman who was a slave to his customers and dominated by a spiteful wife. He had told her little of his past, and nothing of the horrible plans he had made before meeting her.
"How much farther, Daddy?"
Ernst turned from the window and looked down at his daughter. "Another hour or so, my little muffin."
She giggled. "I'm not a muffin."
"A turtle dove?"
"Perhaps a teaspoon?"
"A potato spud?"
"Nooooo," she said, giggling at the familiar game.
"So what can you possibly be?"
"You know..." she said, throwing her arms above her head, "I'm your princess!"
"Why, of course," he said in mock wonder, and bowed his head. "My little princess." They both collapsed in giggles and hugged. Katherine looked on with a smile.
Before Gerta had been born, he had thought it impossible that his heart could hold more love than it held for Katherine. But the moment he had first cradled Gerta, felt her little body nestle into the crook of his arm, and felt her tiny hand curl around his finger, he had come to know that the human heart contained no boundaries.
It was a lesson he had never learned growing up. Born to impoverished parents in the slums of Berlin, Ernst had found out quickly how the world worked. There were those who had money and possessions, and those who didn't. One took from the other and didn't care a damn what happened. Simple as that.
When he was six, his mother had grown sick. No hospital would take her, no clinic would see her because they could not pay for service or medicine. When she died, she was buried in a mass paupers grave. On the way to and from her unmarked grave, Ernst had to walk past the ornate mausoleums and elaborate gravestones of the wealthy -- people he had cursed every time he did so.
Two years later, when his father lost an arm in a factory where he had part time work, the owner refused to give him compensation. When he had reported back to work a month later -- with his stump still raw and oozing -- they had said they had no work for a cripple. Soon after, Ernst was sent to live with his uncle. He never saw his father again.
Ernst grew up resenting the wealthy, greedy, aristocratic class, none of whom had worked a day in their lives, he was sure. He, on the other hand, had been apprenticed by his uncle to a book binder at the age of eight and began working 14 hours a day, six days a week.
At the time, all he knew was he had no parents and owned nothing. Later, he came to realize that he did own something, something very precious -- his personal honor. It had been Hans, the old book binder, who had shown him, more through example than by teaching. With a world so desperately separated by class distinctions, money, power, and possessions, the one thing any man could have -- no matter how impoverished -- was personal integrity. No man could take it away from another, it could only be sacrificed on the altar of greed, lust or passion. And without it, an individual was simply an empty shell, worth nothing more than a worn out gunny sack.
Just as important, the old binder had also taught Ernst to read, and fed the fire of his curiosity with book after book. They had worked hard together so Ernst would pass the university entrance exams. It had taken three tries, but they had finally succeeded; Ernst went to Berlin University during the day and worked nights at the bindery shop.
He had taken as many and as varied courses as possible. What he had loved, though, was language. He found he had an ear and an innate understanding of other tongues, as if he could somehow understand the meanings of words before even learning their actual translation. As he came to know other languages, and read their great works of literature, he realized the commonality of men, that all human life was filled with the same elements: longing, passion and tragedy.
During his first year of graduate school, Ernst was given an assistant teaching position, a small flat, and an even smaller stipend. For a few glorious months he felt as if the tragedies of life had somehow forgotten him.
When the Bank of Rothschild foreclosed on Hans, Ernst was reminded of how the world worked -- the rich took from the hardworking and didn't give a damn about the consequences. The old man lost the bindery and his home, and was thrown in jail for not paying his bills. While in a dank, cold cell, he caught influenza and died. Ernst only found out when he showed up for his weekly visit. No one could tell him where Hans was buried.
His despair was like a hole in his chest, an ache that never went away. That was when one of his politically active teacher friends gave him the simple, yet powerful, "Manifesto of the Communist Party," by Karl Marx. Other books followed, like the Friedrich Engels and Marx three volume "Das Kapital." The maxim they proclaimed -- "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" -- seemed to speak directly to him, giving him answers to not only the world's problems but his own. Here were thoughtful, well-reasoned ideas of how the world could be a better place, how there could actually be equality among men. And how the aristocracy could be brought down and held accountable for its lifestyle and misdeeds.
He began to plot with other graduate students and a few professors. If change wouldn't come through political means, then he was bound by his personal honor to make the change happen in the streets. He would do it for himself as well as for his brothers still stuck in poverty and ignorance. As their first act of freedom, they planned to bomb the--
"Ernst, are we really getting a house to ourselves?" Katherine asked.
He smiled and patted her hand. "Yes, my love. It's been requisitioned from the Braegens -- the people who own the village of Hoogboom and live in the Chateau Oude Hof."
"Will it have running water?"
"Is it in town?"
"Just outside, I think. A little walk is all. Nothing we can't use," he said with a smile as he patted his belly.
Katherine's face turned serious. "What will it be like? How will the Belgians act?"
"They are just like us, my love. At first I'm sure they'll resent us. I would. But if we show them respect, compassion -- if we comport ourselves with integrity -- they will come to accept us."
Katherine looked away, the worried look still on her face. "I hope you're right."
"Of course I am," he said.
Hadn't he been right about Katherine? He had seen, almost immediately, his salvation in her love. He was no anarchist. He didn't want to bomb anyone. He didn't want to kill anyone. He just wanted to be left alone to live his life in peace. And best of all, her love had somehow filled the hole of despair that had plagued him since Hans' death.
Within two months of their meeting, Katherine dropped out of school and they married. Her parents disowned her, but she didn't care. He extracted himself from the anarchist group, although none would speak to him anymore. No one was at their wedding, which took place in city hall with a clerk as a witness.
On their wedding night, after Katherine was sound asleep, he crept to the window and got down on his knees. It was a position he was not used to. Putting his hands together, he looked up into the dark sky and made a pact. He gave his word that while he would still try to right small injustices of life, he would promise not to do anything to upset the world order, not disrupt the balance of power and wealth. In return, all he wanted was for him and his wife to be left alone to live out their lives in peace.
Every morning he silently restated his pact. After Gerta was born, and they moved into a modest two-story flat, he would slip out of bed, kiss his sleeping wife, pull his baby from her crib, and creep downstairs. There, for an hour or so, he would cuddle his daughter and speak to her of his dreams. When she got a little older, they played together.
It was his special time to acknowledge life's wonder and mystery and sheer joy of living. And, of course, he always re-stated his pact. He didn't consider himself a superstitious man, but he rarely forgot to do so. On one of the few days he did forget, Germany had mobilized, sweeping him off to war.
Ernst smiled to himself at the thought of a war starting simply because he had not repeated his vow. What silliness. He looked over at his wife and child beside him in the staff car and smiled. Nevertheless, he had not missed a day since.
He turned and looked out the open window for the thousandth time. Through the summer heat and road dust, he saw northern Belgium's flat, featureless landscape flying by. The green grass and low shrubs has already done a respectable job of camouflaging the shell holes and other signs of war. He thought of the date, July 14, 1915, and realized that within a few weeks it would be exactly one year ago that he and his comrades had swept through the Belgian countryside on their way to their real goal, France.
No one would have guessed the fierce resistance put up by the peasant soldiers of Belgium. And no one would have guessed the horrors of the dreaded franc-tireurs -- civilians who had forsaken their personal honor to become nothing more than assassins. Sniping from trees, laying booby-traps for unsuspecting soldiers, they fought like animals, not men. Even women and children had taken up arms.
They obviously had no idea of how the world worked. It was a soldier's duty to fight, it was a civilian's duty to accept the outcome. That was the way of the world, that was the way life worked. And that was why he understood his superiors swift and ferocious retaliation of franc-tireur attacks. For every German soldier killed, 10 civilians must die.
Ernst was pulled from his thoughts as the motorcar drove through the little village of Hoogboom. The homes and shops looked well maintained and orderly. It appeared to be a peaceful, sleepy place -- just what Ernst had hoped for.
On the far side of town, the motorcar pulled up on a gravel drive before a little thatched roof cottage. Before Katherine could reach for a door handle, William Rhinehard, personal aide to Mueller, jumped from his seat beside the chauffeur and ran around to open the door.
"Uncle Willy!" Gerta shouted, and flung herself into his arms. He laughed and let her down gently, then offered his hand to Katherine.
Willy had been assigned to Ernst after he had been field promoted in the trenches of Northern France. The shock of taking command -- something usually reserved for the moneyed, aristocratic class -- was only a little less surprising than Willy being assigned to him. Having a man servant/aide had embarrassed Ernst, but Willy had noticed and immediately retreated into a passive role where he did and said little. As the weeks went by, however, Willy began to do more and more for Ernst, inching his way into his charge's daily life. Slowly they built up an easy going and confidential friendship that Ernst knew he could now never replace.
After helping Katherine out of the motorcar, Willy came hurrying around and helped Ernst, whose bad leg always made him clumsy when getting in and out of machines.
Who cared that he would never run again. At least he still had both legs and could walk without a cane. He was glad of the limp, it would always remind him of how lucky he was. Most of the men who had left the trenches in France had done so in pieces. He had personally seen many of his friends and comrades do just that. For him it had merely been a piece of shrapnel and months of recuperation in a Bavarian hospital.
Yes he was lucky, and he intended to make sure his actions showed his gratitude. He would start with the men of his new garrison and the peasants living within his area. He had been given command of a small garrison that patrolled part of the border between Belgium and Holland. His job would be to stop the flow of downed airmen, escaped enemy soldiers, and young Belgian men from crossing into neutral Holland and ultimately on to England. He would also be in charge of hunting down the guides who aided those men, as well as the franc-tireurs who lived and operated in his area.
For those trying to escape to England, he would make sure his men treated them with respect and care. They were only doing what was honorable, as far as their countries were concerned. But the guides and franc-tireurs, they were beyond contempt. They were civilians who didn't know their place in the world. They had forsaken their integrity; they did not deserve his respect or compassion.
He looked up and saw a burly peasant in traditional corduroy pants, work boots and coarse shirt, standing with hat in hand. His face showed little, but Ernst was sure that below the surface was much contempt. He knew it was contempt for the uniform, not for the man inside it. He would show this man that Ernst Mueller was different.
"Good afternoon," he said in guttural Flemish.
The man looked startled. He mumbled a reply.
Ernst asked him in halting Flemish if he knew French; he had not had time to gain fluency in Flemish yet.
The peasant nodded and they slipped into French. Ernst learned the man was named Verheyen and he lived in a cottage on the Braegen estate.
"Verheyen, have the people who lived here been taken care of?"
The peasant looked surprised again. "Monsieur Braegen has taken good care of them. They now live--"
"Why isn't he here to greet me?"
"He was detained by business, and sends his apologies."
"I'll want to speak to him about our bivouacking on his farm. Tell him that."
"You'll need to speak to Mademoiselle Braegen," Verheyen said proudly.
"Mademoiselle Laura Braegen manages the entire farm."
Verheyen's cheeks reddened, but his eyes were steady as he added, "She does a good job."
"Whatever. Tell her I will want to speak with her."
Finishing with Verheyen, Ernst turned to the happy task of moving his family into their new home. Katherine, Gerta and Willy were overjoyed by the quaint cottage. Dark beams hung low, but were brightened by the white-washed plaster between them and by large windows. The front door opened onto a small sitting room. To the right was a kitchen area with an old fashioned woodburning stove and, to Katherine's delight, there was running water in a large sink. While the cottage had running water, there was only an outhouse in back. They were all surprised, however, to find electric lights in each room, something none of them had dared hope for. A crude stairway led up to a second-story bedroom, complete with double bed, large armoire and a basin for freshening up.
Willy was relieved to find a small room attached to the back of the cottage. With great fanfare, he announced that it was his. He would have it ready for inspection within a day or two. Gerta said she wanted to do the inspection and Willy agreed with a salute.
That night the four had a quiet, happy meal together in their new home. They all went to bed early.
Next morning, Katherine was surprised to find she was awake before Ernst. She looked over at his peaceful face and marveled at how much it had returned to what she had loved at Berlin University. When he had come home from the Front -- during his furloughs and then again after his injury -- his face had been taut and strained, as if some unseen hand was pulling his very hair and skin from the back of his head. Now, his face was relaxing again, fleshing out to be the happy, compassionate one she had fallen in love with.
She watched him a moment longer, then quietly slid from beneath the sheets. She put on her robe, then padded on bare feet over to Gerta's trundle bed and pulled the sleeping girl into her arms. Still no movement from her husband. Ernst must be more tired from the move than she imagined. No matter, she would take the baby downstairs and let him sleep awhile longer.
She knew Ernst would be distressed at not having his special time with Gerta -- something he had become fanatical about since returning from the Front -- but he deserved to sleep a little longer today.
Cradling her baby in one arm, she softly closed the bedroom door and went down the stairs. She would put on a kettle and get some tea ready; Ernst had always liked tea rather than coffee and she had grown to feel the same. Looking around, she already loved her little cottage. It might be small, but she felt that made it cozy. And it was so neat and clean, she would barely have to do anything for a few days.
As she entered the little kitchen she noticed a wooden box on the kitchen table. That was odd, it had not been there last night when she had wiped off the table after dinner. She went over and began to open the lid.
Ernst woke with a start. He had had another horrible dream of the trenches. He had smelled the stench of mud, human feces, sweating bodies, fear and death. He had seen Gunther lose the right side of his face again, and there was still nothing he could do about it. He still went over the top, and he still could not dodge the shrapnel that had caught him like the stab of a red-hot poker iron. He reached under the sheets and rubbed the spot, but the pain lingered.
Suddenly he sat up, realizing where he was and that he was alone. My God, what time is it? He reached over to the nightstand and popped open his pocket watch. Quarter to six. He had slept late and Katherine had let him sleep. He had missed his special time with Gerta...and his pact.
But what could go wrong? He looked around at the crude but homey room and felt he had found a place he could call home. This would be where he and Katherine would finally find real peace, and they would make many babies together. He would be respected by the conquered Belgians and beloved by his men.
Ernst flopped back into the goose down pillows, a smile of contentment on his face. Maybe he'd sleep just a few more minutes, or until he smelled the tea brewing. A few more minutes.
Just then a horrific explosion rocked the little cottage.
The first man who talks of love to a girl must be a fool if he doesn't
blind her. I'm glad it's over now. I don't feel the slightest pang
when I think of him. The last time he was here he was so
Will I ever get married? I feel like such an old maid!
Laura Braegen carefully capped her ink pen, blotted the page, then read what she had written in her diary. When she was done, she put it back in its hiding place. She wanted to write so much more, but would not allow such self pity. Her countrymen were fighting and dying in frozen trenches while she sat in her warm room feeling sorry for herself. A shiver ran through her as she thought of the trenches. She moved her bare feet closer to the fire, which smoldered in the marble fireplace next to the desk. She wished again that she was a man so she could take up arms and fight.
Even through her thoughts his face appeared. Such a handsome face. Classically strong chin, fine nose, high cheek bones, black, slightly curled hair, and brown eyes so dark she got lost trying to find the iris from the pupil. His smile, which bordered on arrogance, seemed to say he could teach her much about the art of love making.
I'm feeling like a little school girl again, Laura chided herself. He always makes me do that. But such a man -- so powerful in looks and powerful in presence.
It was true he had never said the word love, it didn't seem in his nature, but she had thought him honorable. Then he wanted to go walking in the woods, something she knew would be dangerous. It was a disastrous walk, punctuated by his more and more unsubtle demands and her forceful refusals. The worse came later, though, when he turned his attentions to her sister Helene and ignored her. Pretty, flirtatious Helene who had no more brains than a bird. And she went walking with him -- given him, Laura was sure, what he wanted.
Men only talked of honor, they never lived it. What good are principles if they're but words, hollow of deeds? Men are despicable when they talk one way and respond to life another. Would she ever find a man who was dedicated to his principles?
At 25 years old and with her looks, probably not. The age could be overlooked, she knew, if a woman was pretty and kept quiet. But she knew she was neither.
She hated the way she looked. Her face was too oval and fleshy, her nose too prominent, and her brown hair -- which she hadn't pinned up yet -- lacked the richness and body of her sisters. She knew her shoulders were too broad for her average height, and she hated the way she stood, so solidly, so manly.
Then there was the way she spoke her mind. Belgian men resented her strong, forceful opinions, accusing her of being unladylike. Laura tried countless times to restrain herself, but the words came of their own accord. Even as a child, talking with her beloved father, Pereke, she said what she felt. Expressing her thoughts seemed as natural as breathing.
The silly women of her class wanted to talk only of gardening, parties, music and sometimes, in hushed tones, of men. There was so much more, so much that excited her -- politics, international affairs, Pereke's development of the Congo, and Belgium's internal conflict between the Flemish-speaking people of the north and the French-speaking citizens of the south.
Then the war came, and with it vigorous conversations on the resistance and Germany's wall of steel that locked Belgium away from the rest of the world. After dinners she hosted with Pereke, she demanded there be no separation between men and women, and the result had been exciting conversations filled with depth and breadth.
And finally, the war had brought the young Americans, supervisors in the Commission for the Relief in Belgium, the CRB. Brash, alert, enthusiastic men with open faces and quick smiles. They held to few traditions and accepted little of Belgium's social conventions. Even though they were officially neutral, many quickly gained a sympathy for the Belgians and a hatred for the Huns, and rarely tried to hide either. Altogether, they brought a fresh, exciting wind to her tired country. Laura and the rest of the Braegen family welcomed them with open arms, extending to them the comfort of Oude Hof and their house in Antwerp. Rarely did a dinner or night go by without one of them seated at the table or sleeping in the third-floor guest rooms of Oude Hof.
As one of them, he had offered much -- new ideas and thrilling possibilities -- and was so handsome that looking at him made her ache. Now, she was convinced he had only courted her because he thought she would be desperate, would give him what he really wanted.
Well, it was over now. She would go on. She would be practical and strong. Wasn't she always practical and strong?
The sun was just beginning to rise, casting its dark hues into her room through two large windows. As she watched, the morning's blood red subtly shifted to burnt orange, then hazy yellow. Turning around, she saw the light catch the dark tones in the carved wood of her bed's headboard. A bed, she was certain, that would never feel the weight of a man's body.
She padded on bare feet across the thick beige rug to her bathroom, where she removed her full-length nightgown and washed her face and hands. She sponged her body, then walked naked to her armoire. The air drying her skin made it tingle and flush. She powdered her underarms then pulled undergarments from a drawer at the bottom of the wardrobe and slipped them on. Opening the two doors, she contemplated what to wear.
The armoire was large -- so large that she remembered being able to hide in it as a little girl. Her governess, Miss Lance, never was able to find her crouched beneath the hanging clothes. Now it was bursting with dresses, skirts, blouses and riding clothes. On a shelf above them were hat boxes and neatly folded sweaters. Numerous pairs of shoes lay in racks below the clothes.
Deciding what to wear wasn't difficult these days, most of the outfits were useless. After the invasion, Belgian women everywhere had silently decreed that only white or dark-colored clothes would be socially acceptable anymore. White symbolized the healing and nurturing of nurses, dark colors a nation mourning its enslavement. Bright prints and patterns were stored for happier times.
Laura picked out a simple white housegown -- skirt fairly hobbled at the ankles, full bodice with little decorative lace work and a high waistline -- and a pair of white, high-lace shoes. Directly above her heart she pinned a small watch, the last present her mother had given her before she died 17 years ago. Laura hardly looked in either of the armoire's full-length mirrors as she gathered her long hair and rolled it deftly into a bun, pinning it to the top of her head.
Leaving her room quietly, she walked down the hall, her steps muffled by a plush pale blue and beige carpet. She passed the lift and briskly took the one flight of stairs to the first floor. Going to the vestiaire in the right front tower she found her long coat, gloves and hat. As she was putting them on, Isidore approached.
"Bonjour, Mademoiselle Laura." He helped her with her coat. "May I get you anything?"
"No, Isidore, I'm fine." Laura was continually amazed that no matter how early she arose, Oude Hof's maitre d'hotel was at the ready in his formal butler's attire.
Isidore had been with Pereke since before she was born. His hooked nose and long, dour face never showed emotion. At every meal he stood absolutely still against one wall, a towering giant, hands placed behind his back, watching the other servants and the Braegens. As children, Laura and her two sisters tried to get him to smile or react in some way. They made faces and played with their food in hopes of a response. Most times they were caught and scolded by their parents. She had never seen him smile. Over the years, Laura had become quite fond of this stoic man who faithfully served her father and ruled the servants with ominous silences and devastating stares.
"Will you be back for breakfast, Mademoiselle?"
"If all's well at the farm."
Laura quickly passed through the great hall, her shoes echoing off the parquet floor not covered by the large Turkoman rug. She went through the French doors onto the back stone terrace and into the misty cold morning. She liked to start her day looking out over the lake. This morning two black swans were gliding gracefully across the still water. Sheep were grazing on the other side and birds called out to one another, no doubt protesting the damp, chilly air. A tiny island, no more than 100 feet across, lay in the middle of the lake. A ring of thick pines edged the island with five taller ones in the center stretching into the mist.
Laura took a deep breath of the cold air, relishing the ache it produced. Her cheeks flushed from the cold and the tip of her nose tingled. It will be a good morning, she thought with a smile.
She walked down the stone steps to the rim of the white gravel that circled the house like a moat. Her shoes ground into the pebbles as she walked to the side of the chateau where a cobblestoned lane led to the farm and dairy buildings. It crossed a wooden bridge spanning one of the property's numerous canals that fed the lake.
In a few minutes she reached the farm, which was the size of a small village. Buildings lined three or four converging cobbled alleys, and long barns for cattle, horses and sheep stood near two newly-built dairy barns. Surrounding these were the houses of the farm superintendent, the gardener, and the game keeper, as well as numerous smaller cottages for the farm tenants. All were red brick with thick thatched roofs, and sported red and white painted shutters and doors. The two new structures were oblong and housed the 150 dairy cows that produced milk for Antwerp children.
Laura was proud of those cows and the milk she shipped everyday. In late 1914 Pereke had decided, at Laura's prompting, to supply milk to Antwerp's children. He secured authorization from the Germans to buy 100 dairy cows from neutral Holland and bring them to Oude Hof. When they arrived, he told Laura he had no time to supervise the undertaking and put her in charge. It had been a struggle to organize the grazing, milking, securing the containers and delivery, but working sometimes 12 hours a day she had done it. Now there were 150 cows producing 2,000 liters of milk a day and the operation nearly ran itself.
As she turned down one alley, she saw the high-wheeled delivery wagons with their Percheron horses lined up outside the dairy buildings waiting for the early shipment. Within a few hours the milk would be loaded and on its way to the train station at Capellen for the short trip into Antwerp.
Burly men with faded corduroy pants, coarse shirts and peasant caps stood by the wagons smoking and talking. They raised their caps and nodded respectfully as she walked to one of the smaller buildings. Inside, she made her way to her little desk and chair off in one corner.
Verheyen, the farm superintendent, was waiting, cap in his only hand. He was coarse and big like the rest of the workers, but her father had chosen him five years ago because his eyes shown a shrewd intelligence and kindly nature. Now, his one good eye still reflected that, and so much more.
"Good morning, Verheyen," Laura said in guttural Flemish. "How's Jo?"
"Getting better, Juffrau," he replied in Flemish. "She thanks you for sending the soup."
She nodded, then sat down at the desk and motioned him to take the chair beside it. Once again she noticed Verheyen sat so only the good side of his face was to her. She also saw how he placed his right hand over the stump of the left.
"How's the milking this morning?" she asked.
"Ah, Juffrau, very good," he said. "The cows must have had a peaceful night, for they give more today than I've seen in many mornings. We might even top 2,100 liters." The good side of his face beamed as if the cows were his own children and had just accomplished something wonderful.
"You must be congratulated."
He shook his head fiercely, trying to deny the compliment, but still glowed with pride. Laura smiled at his shyness. She had heard rumors he actually snuck out into the pasture in the early evenings and sang to his cows in an effort to relax them so they'd produce more milk. She had never asked him about it -- he would have died from embarrassment, she was sure -- but looking into his good eye, she knew it must be true.
"And the rest of the farm?"
"Juffrau, more Germans came last night."
She was instantly alert. "When?"
"Around two a.m."
"The same place."
"Was he there?"
Verheyen's one eye closed for a moment. "Yes. Screaming and yelling like a crazy man. He's having them dig more of those damn trenches." He realized he had swore and began apologizing.
She waved it away. "How many?"
"I counted at least 50."
She knew his propensity for embellishment -- a national malaise. It was probably an additional 25 troops. That meant close to 300 men bivouacked on the north property line near the Dutch frontier. With the regular Landsturmers patrolling the chateau and farm, it was another cause for caution.
Verheyen lowered his voice. "This will create problems with --"
"Later," she said. He nodded.
They talked of the farm for more than an hour, the superintendent giving details of every aspect. The pigs weren't eating as well this month. The sheep's wool was thin, meaning less for market but at least the rest of the winter would be mild. The oxen weren't getting any better as replacement for the requisitioned horses, but he would continue to work them hard.
When they were done, they walked out of the barn still talking business, mostly for the benefit of any who might be listening. Once the farm was out of sight, Laura turned to Veryehen and asked quietly, "When is the next shipment?"
"Tonight," he whispered.
"Two. Both airmen. One English, the other French."
"The same rendezvous?"
"Ya, Juffrau. They'll be there at one a.m. Take them to the usual place."
"Password?" she asked.
"'Belgium remains ever free.'"
"A good thought," she said, more to herself than Verheyen. "Anything else?"
"Only to be careful," he said shyly.
She was touched by his concern. "Of course I will. Aren't I always?"
He nodded, then turned and strode off toward the farm.
Walking back to the chateau she thought again about how much violence had befallen such a peaceful, gentle man. Verheyen's complete innocence had saved his life during Captain Mueller's brutal torture back in 1915. She had heard that the German bastard finally stopped when he realized only a man who knew nothing could remain silent through the tearing out of an eye and the chopping off of a hand. But such irony.
That same torture had ultimately driven Verheyen, after his recovery, to become a franc-tireur. With Verheyen, though, that meant something special. He had refused to be a party to violence, agreeing only to run the area's network of guides, nothing more. And he had made Laura promise, on her word as a lady, to never stoop to such acts.
"We must never become like them," he warned her, "or we will lose all goodness God has given us."
Back then, looking into the red and raw wound that once was an eye, she gave him her word.
That promise became harder and harder to keep as her hatred for the Germans, and Mueller in particular, grew. In her limited contact with him, she came to realize he was a man devoid of any soul, any goodness, a man dead on the inside. To Laura he epitomized the entire heartless German war machine that rolled over all who stood in the way.
Ernst Mueller wiped his eyes and through his blurred vision once again surveyed the charred ruins of the kitchen. After the explosion that now seemed so long ago, no amount of pleading by Willy could make him move out or rebuild the cottage. As long as he was in this god-forsaken country, he would live in this cottage, and the rubble from that franc-tireur bomb would be a constant reminder, a shrine to his beloved wife and daughter.
It was early morning, that pale time between night and sunrise, and Ernst sat in his usual chair in the living room, looking toward the dark devastation of the kitchen. Willy wasn't up yet. This was Ernst's private time. His ritual time of mourning and reaffirmation.
He turned and looked at himself in the mirror on the near wall. Rubbing his eyes again, his vision suddenly cleared and he faced a sharp image of himself. He knew Katherine's “little bear” had been replaced by what many now thought of as death's grim reaper. Once soft and rounded features were hawkish, and the skin pulled so tight from lack of food that his whole face looked like a grimace. He didn't care. His physical appearance didn't matter anymore -- certainly no one living cared what he looked like, so why should he?
Katherine. She had cared what he looked like. His eyes welled up again and nothing could stop the tremors from rumbling through his body. He could see her radiant smile, her long hair flowing down her back. He could still feel her soft, heavy breasts in his hands, the taut nipples pushing into his palms. Feel the heavenly weight of her as she rode him in passion.
And Gerta. Her childish giggles still rang in his ears like hideous demons driving him nearly crazy. Their games and private jokes came back to him in bits and pieces, haunting him during the day and hounding him in his sleep.
The nightmares came every night, never giving him a chance to sleep for long. They always started so sweetly, so innocently. Idyllic moments with his wife, or Gerta, or both. Just as he was settling into the scene, loving their laughter, feeling their touch, smelling their scent, something horrible would arise from nowhere and snatch them away, or blow them up, or rip them to pieces -- all in front of him, as he stood helpless to stop it. And just as the dream reached its peak of horror, he would wake up screaming, sweat covering his body and soaking the sheets.
His only reprieve from the nightmares -- and the even worse daytime visions of his family -- was work. Yes, that was his only salvation. He found blessed peace from the images only when driving his men. The harder the efforts, the longer the peace. And every franc-tireur he found, every son-of-a-bitch he uncovered and executed, gave him bitter satisfaction. He knew it did nothing to salve his soul, but he didn't care. He knew his soul was beyond help now. All he wanted from life was revenge, the more the better.
Now, every morning, he recited a new pact with the gods. His earlier vow had been made to a neutral, if not benevolent, universe. Now he knew better. Those watching from above were heartless, vengeful, unloving gods. They didn't understand words like compassion, kindness and fairness. No, all they wanted was to laugh at the struggles of man. They found joy only in constantly giving, then taking away, of life's pleasures so they could watch the resulting pain and suffering. It was the spectacle of human tragedy they wanted to see, nothing else.
So be it. He would give them what they wanted, if they gave him what he wanted. Every morning he now repeated his new pact: Give me one more day to seek revenge, and I will give you the thrill and spectacle of the hunt.
The only concession to his former self was that he would do so with his personal honor intact. The gods could take everything else away from him, but they couldn't take that. No one could. Hadn't he freed that peasant Verheyen when he became certain he hadn't been a part of the bombing? He could have had him shot, but his personal integrity said no.
The executing of 20 civilians for the loss of Katherine and Gerta was different. That was ordered by the High Command, and was part of Germany's policy that franc-tireur actions were not honorable, so they would be responded to in kind.
The spectacle of the hunt -- that's what he promised the gods in return for every new day to seek revenge. And the gods would have their show tonight, that was sure. With that thought driving him, he rose from his chair to begin his day. Yes, tonight would be a very special night indeed.
When Laura entered the chateau, the cold morning's walk had driven all thoughts of Mueller from her mind. She felt good and ready to face the day. She gave her things to Henri, Isidore's assistant, and walked with high spirits into the breakfast room.
This was one of her favorite rooms, always warm and friendly. It was much smaller than the formal dinning room and dominated by an oak table and six high-backed chairs. The parquet floor was only partially covered by an oriental rug, and a massive fireplace always seemed to have a well-stoked blaze. Seated at the table were Pereke, Evelyn and Grutje. Isidore stood off to one side, watching his master.
"Good morning, Pereke." She kissed him on the cheek, feeling the hairs of his white, pointed beard on her lips.
Charles Braegen looked up from the mail he was sorting through. "Good morning, little one." His smile
spread to his startling blue eyes, which peered from thick, dark-rimmed pince-nez. As a child, Laura had always thought that God must look like Pereke. Back then she had mixed the French for "little father" with Flemish and created her name for him, Pereke. She had used it ever since.
"Good morning, Grutje, Evelyn."
Her grandmother and sister said hello as she took her usual chair to the right of her father. "How did you sleep?" Laura asked. "You look a bit tired."
"He's fine," Evelyn snapped. "Aren't you, Papa?"
"Yes. Yes, of course," Charles said in a deep, mellow voice. He patted Laura's hand. "But thank you for asking. How is the farm and the dairy?"
"We're getting more milk out of those Dutch cows every day. No doubt because Verheyen sings to them at night," she said with a laugh.
Charles smiled as he dropped a letter into the worn leather dispatch case propped against a table leg.
"May I get you anything, Mademoiselle?"
Laura turned at the familiar voice. "Good morning, Gerandina." The maid did a slight curtsy. "Just coffee and a roll, please."
"More coffee," Evelyn ordered.
When Gerandina disappeared into the pantry to send the orders down to the basement kitchen, Laura turned to Evelyn. "Do you have to be so rude?"
"I'll treat them as I please. I don't have special relationships with the staff. To me, they're just servants."
"Evelyn," Charles said, "without them we'd be nothing. There's nothing wrong with your sister's friendship with Gerandina."
"But Papa, I --"
"I won't hear another word."
Evelyn scowled but said nothing. Laura wondered where the happy, smiling sister she had known before the war had gone to. In her place was a harsh, brittle woman. Evelyn didn't keep her hair in a bun on top of her head like most women, but rather parted it down the middle, pulled it back severely and knotted it at the base of her skull. The wire-rim spectacles didn't help either, giving her a scholarly look. Since the war, Evelyn rarely showed the radiant smile people had loved her for.
Just then Helene waltzed in. "Good morning, everyone. Isn't it a wonderful day?"
Laura envied her youngest sister's tall, full figure. Everything about her seemed to spell happiness and fun. Her face was round and lively, with a little-girl look to it. She was dressed in a colorful skirt and blouse that brought out the slight auburn in her hair and the blue in her eyes.
"Take that silly dress off," Evelyn demanded.
Helene's smiling face died a little. "I won't."
"You'll march up stairs right this moment," Evelyn said. "It's a disgrace to our family and to our country. Now go on. Go on."
Helene looked to Laura.
Evelyn didn't let up. "Tell her Papa, Grutje, she must do as I say."
"Oh, Helene," Laura chastised gently, more concerned with Evelyn's usual wrath than by Helene's desire for pretty dresses. "What have you got on?"
Helene sat down, a sullen look on her face.
"You know you can't go about like that," Laura said quietly.
"Why not? I get so sick of wearing drab clothes. It's not fair. I'm 21. When you two were my age you had fancy balls, parties, pretty dresses. All I have are peasant clothes."
"Things are different now," Evelyn snapped.
Laura shot a stern look at Evelyn, who flashed a spiteful look but said nothing more. Laura turned back to Helene. "We must all do our part."
"Isn't it enough I work in the hospital and feed the children in the cantine? Isn't that enough?"
Laura noticed Evelyn tensing for an outburst. "Helene," she said before Evelyn could begin, "you know that's little when our men are fighting and dying for us."
"But how's it going to help soldiers if I'm in ugly dresses," she said defiantly. Her face suddenly brightened with a mischievous smile. "Actually, it would help our side if I wore pretty dresses."
Laura raised a questioning eyebrow.
"If I wore something pretty all the time, word would get around."
"No doubt," Laura said, playing along.
"Sooner or later, even the soldiers would hear."
"Well, when they heard how pretty I look, they'd want to finish the war quickly so they could come home and see me."
Laura laughed, her face exploding into a broad, wide-open smile. Charles and Grutje joined in. Only Evelyn was silent, brooding into her coffee.
"You can still make me laugh," Laura said, thinking how wrong she had been to think flighty little Helene could be so devious as to steal a man from her. "But please," she continued in a serious tone, "you must put on something more sensible."
Helene's smile faded, but she stood up and slowly walked out of the room.
"You handled that well," Grutje said.
Laura noticed Pereke nodding in agreement. Evelyn sat with an inscrutable look on her face.
"Your dear mother would be proud," Grutje added.
Laura loved her grandmother, almost as much as she loved her mother. Grutje was always there, with her heavy-set, calm face and wide, loving mouth. When Laura was young, just after her mother died, Grutje would hold her for hours, rocking and singing the grief away. In all the years since, Grutje had not changed. She still wore dark, sensible dresses, a black lace cap over her white hair, and a watch that hung by a little velvet ribbon around her neck.
But Laura wished Grutje wouldn't always refer to her mother and what she would think. It was disconcerting to be reminded constantly of someone watching from the grave.
After breakfast, Pereke asked to see Laura in his study. They walked together, Charles shuffling slowly along with one arm clutching his dispatch case and the other entwined in his daughter's arm. To get to the study in the left front tower they walked through the library. Many people thought the library was the prettiest room in the chateau. Laura agreed.
They entered the library through massive wooden doors laboriously carved with numerous figures that climbed up both sides. As a girl, Laura had to stand on tip toes to reach the door handles and struggle to push the doors open. Along the walls dark-wooded built-in cupboards came to waist level. Above these were bookshelves, also built-in, that nearly reached the 20-foot ceiling. Hundreds of colorful leather-bound books could be seen through the leaded glass doors of the shelves. The fireplace was big enough to walk in and was fronted by two spiral marble columns and a marble mantle.
Two brown leather upholstered chairs, the ones Pereke and her mother used to sit in after dinner, were on either side of the fireplace. Beside Pereke's was a three-step library stool. In front of the fireplace was a plush couch with side tables and two Flemish side chairs. Behind the couch was a French-carved oak refectory table with a lamp on each end. A window behind the couch looked out on the front lawn.
Walking to the single wooden door on the far side of the library, the two entered Charles's study. Smaller than most rooms in Oude Hof, it was still able to seat six to eight business associates comfortably. The room, Laura knew, held Pereke's heart. Here he had built much of his empire. Here he smoked and took brandy with King Leopold II. And here he had stayed locked away for a week and grieved for his dead wife.
The room was circular, conforming to the shape of the tower, with a ceiling that rose to a high conical point. Windows surrounded the room, bringing in what light the cloudy Belgian weather would give up. A partner's desk with a hand-tooled leather writing surface dominated one side of the room. Behind it was a large fireplace, and in front were numerous chairs arranged in a semi-circle around a low table. Across the room, angled against the round walls, was a heavily stuffed couch Laura knew was comfortable for naps.
"I love this room," she said.
Charles smiled, then moved to his partner's desk, as Laura took a seat on the couch. "I can still see you as a little girl, right there, your legs dangling over the side, staring at me as I worked."
"I was fascinated."
"With what?" He took out a cigar from the box on his desk and clipped the tip.
"Everything. You working, the desk, this room...even your smoking."
He laughed as he puffed on his imported cigar. "And then," he said through the smoke, "you sat through all those boring business meetings."
"I couldn't stay away." After years of her silent company, Pereke didn't seem to give it a thought when she stayed for his business meetings. The other men also grew to accept her. Following some of those meetings, Laura began asking her father questions. Questions about his shipping business, his South American wheat farms, his rubber plantations in Malaysia and his Congolese development granted by his friend, King Leopold II. Later, she made suggestions to Pereke when they were alone.
"I thought they'd die of shock," Charles said, chuckling, "the day you actually said something."
"I thought I'd die from fright." She remembered it well, the aghast faces, the silence. But when Pereke hadn't reprimanded her, the men thought about what she said. Jorge Born, Pereke's business partner, was the first to accept her. The other men eventually followed suit.
"Now," he said, leaning back in his chair, "I ask your advice..." He looked away for a moment, when he looked back, his face was all business. "The 'Demonico' was torpedoed."
"When?" Laura asked, suddenly alert.
"Last week. Just heard this morning."
"That makes five this year?"
Laura stood up and began to pace. "Wasn't it carrying rubber to America?" she asked.
"You have a good memory."
"I started it on that run before the war."
"Ah, yes." Charles puffed on his cigar.
"We must replace it quickly. Who knows when the Boche will stop us from trading with neutrals. I've never understood why they've allowed Belgian companies to do so in the first place."
"Never look too closely at a business advantage," Charles said. "And, besides, it's not that great of an advantage when none of our ships can enter or leave Belgian ports."
"What about a replacement?" Laura asked.
"Just received a letter from Ernesto in Buenos Aires. There's a seaworthy vessel in port for sale. A grain carrier. The price is high, but it could be used to make the rubber run. Or, we could buy it for the grain run."
"When will the 'New Belgium' be out of dry dock in Buenos Aires?"
"Your uncle's letter says a month."
"Then I'd buy the ship and convert to rubber."
"Rubber's getting more lucrative than grain."
"You'd forsake the grain market?" Charles said, his eyes twinkling.
"Of course not, that's our foundation. But with America's large grain harvest last year we'll do well to make a small profit this year. Besides, we have plenty of grain vessels -- providing the Boche don't sink them -- while we have only two left on the rubber run. Rubber's booming now, Braegen Shipping needs to stay with it."
Charles broke into a broad smile. "You've learned well, my daughter." Coming around the desk he embraced her.
That night Evelyn, Helene, Charles and Laura came back from Antwerp on the same train. The women had worked all day at their different hospitals, with a few hours spent at the children's cantine serving the afternoon meal. The sisters had taken a moment to stop by the CRB office, housed in a Braegen building near the wharfs. Laura noticed Evelyn's quickly hidden disappointment when the secretary had said Fred Eckstein was out. She wondered if this was something to watch for.
After getting off the train in Capellen, Charles and his three daughters walked back to the chateau singing old nursery rhymes. Laughing and singing, Laura was reminded of the days before the war, when they had all been so happy together.
The evening meal went well, with no arguments. Later they adjourned to the second floor salon de famille, used in the evenings when only the family was in attendance. Pereke asked for music and the girls alternated on the piano. Laura and Evelyn even played a duet, laughing and hugging each other as they used to do before the war.
Laura excused herself early, hating to leave the cheerful room but knowing she would need to be alert when the rest of the family slept.