Chapter Three: Thursday, January 27
Early on Thursday morning Vernon Kellogg, director of the Brussels office of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, sat down at his desk and looked with tired eyes at the mountain of papers covering nearly all of the ornate leather top. He lit the first cigarette of the day, took a long drag, then put it in an already overflowing ashtray. Leaning back in his chair and exhaling slowly, he savored the silky taste of the smoke and the unusual moment of silence.
His corner office had two sides filled with large windows running nearly floor to ceiling. Today, they were uncharacteristically filled with morning sun, which Kellogg noted ruefully only highlighted the incredible dust and clutter filling every corner. I've got to straighten this place up, he thought, but knew he'd never find the time.
A man in his late forties, he looked 10 years older because of the deep worry lines etched in his forehead and the gray that nearly filled his full head of hair. They belied the air of purpose, the focused intensity, that never seemed to leave the man. Kellogg knew he couldn't let up -- if he did, the work would falter, and if the work faltered, people would die. Just as he decided this was no time for ruminating, a quick knock at the door was followed by it opening. Who the hell was that? Why couldn't he have five minutes of quiet, just five minutes.With a start Vernon recognized the man and sprang to his feet. "Herbert, what a pleasant surprise," he said as he came quickly around his desk and shook hands. "Didn't expect you today." "On my way to Paris. But I've got a meeting with Von Bissing this morning and thought I'd sit in on your weekly meeting this afternoon. Things to discuss." The short, stocky man took off his hat and coat and threw them over one of the chairs in front of the desk. Any time Kellogg began to think he was too tired to go another step, he would think of Herbert Hoover and imagine the kind of schedule he had. Colliers magazine called him the only man in the world who could travel freely between London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin, and get an audience with any monarch or head of state in the world. He never stopped moving, going from one capital to the next, ironing out seemingly impossible diplomatic difficulties so the food and clothes continued flowing into Belgium and Northern France.
Kellogg smiled to himself. Hoover was founder and head of the CRB -- the largest corporation the world had ever known, and the largest food and relief drive ever seen -- and yet his clothes, demeanor, and physical appearance marked him as common and rather unremarkable. What was remarkable, Kellogg thought, was the man's boundless energy. He could barely sit still, as if ideas and plans formulating in his head were driving his body to constant movement. Hoover was already pacing to the windows and back when he turned and said, "What about Charleville?" With Hoover there was little time for pleasantries. "Resolved," Kellogg shot back. "William Brent is out, Hallem Tuck is in. Should take care of things." Hoover nodded. "What of Brent?" "Rene's taking him to Rotterdam tomorrow. He'll be home, safe and sound -- and out of our hair -- in a few weeks." Kellogg pulled out his cigarette case and took one out, tapping it on the case. Lighting it with a flick of his thumb across a match, he mumbled, "Lucky bugger." Hoover smiled and pointed to the cigarette still burning in the ashtray. Vernon shrugged. "I should own stock in Players," he said, referring to the English cigarettes he smoked. "What of the new man?" Hoover asked, pacing back to the desk. "The friend of Clare's." Kellogg stiffened. "Comes in today. You know I didn't want him. I've felt all along--" "Don't condemn Abel for being Cain's brother." Kellogg nodded, but rummaged among the pile of papers on his desk and extracted two files. He opened the first one. "A hard brother to ignore. Clare's been marginal since he came aboard in..." he skimmed the file, "November 1914. One of the first wave." Kellogg kept reading. "Dropped out of Princeton in his third year -- some say booted out for cheating. Nothing proved, of course. Then there were the rumors in London just before the war."
"Incident with the Viscount's wife?" Kellogg nodded. Hoover's round face tightened noticeably. His already thin lips went white. "If anything had been proved..." Hoover looked away. "You know I don't abide those sorts of things." Hoover's austere, clean living life as a Quaker was legendary. All the delegates knew that any public incidents involving drinking or women would not be tolerated by The Chief. For the young and enthusiastic delegates -- most of whom were recent Ivy-league graduates -- it was a hard lesson to remember. Over the past two and a half years an unwritten and untalked about compromise had been reached -- as long as certain “unseemly” behaviors were not flaunted and stayed beyond the view of the public and the Germans, the CRB administration would look the other way. Most delegates understood and abided by the compromise; the rest didn't last long. "Back then," Kellogg added, "it was chaos. We needed every volunteer...and Clare had incredible credentials." "Did we ever check those--" "Where was the time, Herbert?" Kellogg said with exasperation. Hoover waved it away. "It should be better now." Kellogg agreed. "Pulling him in from the provincial office was a great idea, Herbert. Thank you. Now I can keep an eye on him, shorten his rein a bit. See how he runs." He closed Clare's file and opened the second one. "But why approve his friend, Matthew Hollins?" Kellogg didn't need to read this one, he had read it last night. "In his very first year at Princeton he was involved in a drinking scandal," he paused for affect. "Something to do with an off-campus establishment and some less than lady-like wom--" "Yes, Vernon, I know," Hoover said. "But that was when Clare was still at Princeton. After he left, Hollins was never in trouble again. In fact, he made dean's list for his last two years and ran varsity cross country. I think there's something there." Kellogg was continually surprised at how much detail Hoover could remember. And when did he find time to read Hollins' file? But Kellogg's respect for Hoover didn't change how he felt about the new man. "I'm sorry, I just won't trust him -- or Clare -- until I see some results." "Give him a chance, Vernon." Kellogg tried another tact. "What do we do with him?" Hoover paced again to the window, then turned. "Right now Clare's handling the Inspection and Control Department." "Right." "Assign Hollins to Clare." "You're joking!" "If anything's going to happen, let's find out right away. See how the two get along...what mischief they might come up with." "Fine," Kellogg said, unconvinced. He closed Hollins' file, his mind already on the next problem. "Any suggestions on the canal situation in Tamines?"
Matt Hollins hurried to the two large doors that marked the entrance to the office building at 66 Rue des Colonies. Standing by the door, he adjusted his best bowler to a slight angle, hoping it made him look dashing, ran a gloved finger under his high starched collar, then checked the knot of his tie. Everything was in order. Where was he? He turned back and called out, "Come on, Clare." Clare laughed from the middle of the street. "Don't bust your britches," he said, walking up in a slow, steady stride. "It's bad enough you've got me here early," he said good-naturedly, patting Matt on the shoulder, "don't compound the offense with your puppy-dog enthusiasm." Clare turned and took the brass knob of each door in a hand. "Matthew Hollins, I introduce you to the CRB," he said, then swung the doors open with a flair. Inside, a small reception desk stood sentinel over a cavernous room filled with rows of desks. Secretaries were clattering away on typewriters or answering jangling telephones. At the reception desk, a dark-haired, fine-featured woman in her mid-twenties looked up. Matt noticed she brightened considerably when she saw Clare. "Monsieur Torrey," she said cheerfully, not even glancing at Matt. "Yvonne," Clare said, giving her a quick wink. "This is the new man, Matthew Hollins. Matt, this is Yvonne Caughenberg." Matt took off his bowler. "A pleasure." Yvonne gave him a quick nod, then turned back to Clare. "I'm still waiting for that lunch you promised." "Someday soon, I can assure you," Clare said smoothly. "But now, my dear, we must be off. Work awaits." He bounded toward the large staircase that led to the second floor, calling back to Matt, "Come on, man, look lively. If you're going to force me to be early, then let's make a proper entrance." Matt took a last look at the pretty receptionist, then hurried after Clare. At the top of the stairs was a long, wide corridor with numerous office doors. Clare stopped Matt at the first doorway on the left. Inside the large, high-ceilinged room Matt could see 30 or so men, similar in age and appearance. Most milled about in small groups talking, while a few others sat at some of the numerous partners' desks that created two massive rows down the length of the room. A large bank of windows overlooked Rue des Colonies. On the opposite wall various sized filing cabinets were lined up like tin soldiers on review. Clare threw an arm around Matt's shoulders, leaned in close and said softly. "Well, my boy, here we go." Turning to face the room, he proclaimed loudly, "New man on the floor! New man on the floor!" Immediately conversations stopped and all eyes turned to the door. In a rush they gathered around Clare and Matt, introducing themselves, shaking hands, and making a major commotion. Others looked at Clare with surprise. "My God, it can't be? Clare's early." "Get a camera." "A CRB first." "Can't be Clare. Must be a German spy in disguise." Clare affected a hurt expression. "Gentlemen, please, not in front of the new man." As one man shook Matt's hand he asked, "You know why Clare was given the Inspection and Control department?"
"Because he's so organized?" Matt shot back. The room roared their approval. "No," the man said laughing. "Because the Belgians found it faster to grow their own food than wait for Clare to deliver it!" More laughter as the group surged around them again. It felt to Matt like a fraternity rush party back at Princeton. "Give him air, gentlemen. Give him air." The group moved back a few steps and the man who had spoken stepped up. "Hugh Gibson. You must be Hollins." Matt nodded and shook hands with the short, elf-like man. The handshake was firm, the eyes steady and a little grin ran across his face. A few inches shorter and Gibson could have been a Leprechaun, Matt thought. "I'm secretary of the U.S. Legation and assistant to Brand Whitlock, head of the Legation." "Hugh’s the real power behind the throne," someone called out. "More like Machiavelli," another added. "Gentlemen, please...you're giving the new man the wrong impression." Hugh turned back to Matt. "Officially, I'm the liaison between the Legation and the Commission. Unofficially, I try to keep all you delegates in line. A most arduous task, I must admit." Catcalls and laughter. "Once again, the Honorable Mister Gibson overstates his position." A tall, dark-haired, good-looking man a few years older than the others, spoke up in perfect English, but with a slight accent. "As you have already seen, Mister Hollins, I truly keep the CRB functioning."
"You're a bloody chauffeur, Rene," someone said and everyone laughed, including Rene Jensen. "What that means, of course," Rene said with a straight face, " is that I'm the 'driving' force behind the CRB." Loud moans erupted at the pun. "Enough mindless banter," Clare said, "It's time to show Matt something important...our game." Shouts of "game!, game!" filled the room. Over it all, came a clear, strong voice. "We'd better not. The meeting will be starting soon." Matt noticed Clare's eyes narrow, but he maintained his smile. "Matt, let me introduce you to the CRB's conscience, Mister Fred Eckstein, chief delegate in Antwerp. A more serious man you'll never find. Hasn't had any fun since Ought Six." A small, intense looking man with coal-black hair came forward. "Knock it off, Clare. I just meant--" "You begrudge us our little game?" "No, of course, not, it's only--" "Then let the game begin," Clare shouted, and the other men cheered in support. As Matt was hustled away by the crowd, he noticed Fred rooted to where he stood, stern and lonely looking. He quickly found himself standing between two rows of partner's desks where a line had been drawn on the floor. One man went to the far wall and began removing a large landscape painting. When it was taken away, Matt saw the painting hid a dart board.
Looking back over his shoulder, Matt could see Fred still standing alone. He turned back to the crowd. "What of the work?" he asked. "Do we have time to play a game?" "Time? Time, he asks." "Not another go-getter." "It's necessary, Hollins." "--tension reliever." "Most important thing in this office." The men's excitement drove the image of Fred from Matt's mind. "Clare bought the first board." "He stole it from a charity box--" "Go to hell, Bob, I bought it downtown." "Shut up. Let's go." "Are we playing with rules this time?" "No rules!" someone said. Everyone shouted no rules. Clare grabbed the darts from one man and took charge. "Quick game, no rules." He pointed to one man. "Bob, you and Matt. Okay, gentlemen, jackets." A man with nearly black eyes and even blacker hair parted down the middle took off his jacket. Matt wasn't sure what to do. "What about work? I thought--" "De-jacket that gentleman, gentlemen," Clare shouted. "Work comes later, old chap." Numerous hands wrestled Matt's jacket off. Everyone was talking and laughing at once. Clare shouted over the noise. "The object is to get a bull's eye." He took on an air of mock seriousness. "We know we must maintain strict neutrality at all times." A low grumbling came from the crowd. "But that doesn't mean you're prohibited, in mind's eye of course, from imagining that the bull's eye is the profile of, say, His Excellency, Kaiser Wilhelm, or perhaps our very own Baron von Bissing or Baron von der Lancken." Boos and catcalls. "However," Clare said above the jeers, "there's one proviso. If your aim's not true, you must pay the penalty." Clare swung an arm around and pointed to the massive fireplace on the opposite wall. A man standing nearby picked up a large glass jar from the mantel and held it high. Matt could see paper bills and numerous coins inside. "Every time you miss the board," Clare continued, "it'll cost you one franc -- all in the name of the children's Christmas fund." The men cheered. "Now, let the game begin." Clare handed a dart to Bob, who took it, bowing ceremoniously. The men quieted down. As Bob began a pitcher's wind-up, the crowd started a low rumbling "ohhhh," which grew louder, like a train approaching, then exploded as Bob rocketed the dart toward the board. A cheer went up as the dart slammed into the board a half an inch above the bull's eye. Matt hesitantly took a dart from Clare. He was sure he'd blind one of the men with a wild shot. Looking around at the friendly, expectant faces, he wondered if they'd still be so friendly after he wounded one of their comrades.
The crowd's rumbling on his wind-up didn't help his confidence. With teeth gritted and a tight smile, he let fly. It landed with a resounding thud in the plaster above the board. The men booed good-naturedly, stamping their feet on the hardwood floor. At least he hadn't killed someone, Matt thought with relief.
The jar was quickly passed through the crowd. Matt reached into his pocket and extracted a one-franc note. Cheers and clapping accompanied the bill into the jar.
Suddenly, the noise stopped and men started acting busy with other things. Many glanced furtively at the door. "Don't I get a second chance?" Matt said loudly, as he turned to look at the doorway. A man in his forties with a full head of nearly all gray hair stood ramrod straight in the door. The smoke from a lit cigarette in his hand seemed to match his fiery gaze. "Time for the meeting," was all he said, then walked away. A couple of men hurried passed Matt. "Good first impression, my boy." "Nice entry, Hollins." "You'll be his favorite, for sure." Matt turned to Clare. "Who wa--" "Vernon Kellogg, Brussels director." Clare lowered his voice so the other men wouldn't hear. "A true SOB." Matt felt his stomach drop. A director. How did he get suckered into playing that stupid game? The man probably thinks I'm a fool. He looked around and noticed Fred Eckstein looking at him. It was a hard, appraising stare. Clare tossed Matt his jacket. "Come on, deadeye, now we can't afford to be late."
Matt and Clare joined the men as they headed downstairs and into a large first-floor conference room. High-backed oak chairs lined the walls and in the middle of the room was a massive oak conference table. Twenty-six chairs ringed the table. Note pads and coffee cups were at each place. Matt walked toward a seat at the table. Clare took his arm and led him to one against the wall. "They're for directors... and ass-kissers." "Cut the crap, Clare," Bob said in a soft southern drawl as he took the seat on the other side of Matt. The man who had thrown darts with Matt was all business now. "Robert Jackson," he said, offering his hand, "late of Savannah, Georgia. Currently chief delegate here in Brussels." He nodded toward the table, "As a seat's vacated, the rest of the table holds a secret vote on who's to join them." Another man leaned over from Bob's other side and whispered, "A real honor." He glanced toward Fred Eckstein, who was taking a seat at the table. "Eck, was asked to sit there after only two months."
"While your partner in crime, here," Bob said, tossing his thumb toward Clare, "will probably make it sometime during the next war."
"He's not my part--" Clare interrupted. "Kellogg hates me." Matt saw Rene come in, almost regal in his bearing and fine clothes. He was nearly a head taller than most others around him. He carried that air of nonchalance Matt had first noticed in the motorcar ride yesterday. It seemed to fit him like a loose overcoat and scarf. Matt wondered if it was as easy to take off as put on. Rene looked over and saw Matt. He smiled and winked. Bob nudged Matt and looked toward the door. "Brand Whitlock, U.S. Minister to Belgium." A thin, scholarly-looking man entered the room. He wore a formal gray frock coat, matching pants and cravat, and shiny black shoes with light gray spats. There was a bony severity about his gaunt face. His complexion was pasty, while his pinched cheeks and high cheek bones accentuated a tightly drawn mouth. He wore rimless pince-nez that seemed to furrow his brow and make him squint. He shuffled along as if the weight of his office made each step painful. Right behind him, mimicking his walk perfectly was his assistant, Hugh Gibson. Most of the delegates saw Hugh and began laughing. Whitlock noticed the laughter and turned around quickly. Hugh looked back with a straight face. Bob chuckled. "Whitlock's like a prize cock without his harem -- a lot of fluff and feathers; not much else." As more young CRB delegates entered, Bob pointed and rattled off names and positions. Matt couldn't keep up. He noticed, however, many older men, some with long beards, filtering into the room and taking seats at the table. Most wore formal frock coats and beaver top hats. "Who are they?" he asked.
"Members of the Comite Nationale. Our Belgian counterpart." Bob lowered his voice. "As pompous as they look. Offices just across the street...but they still can't make it on time." Bob nodded his head toward the last two empty seats at the table. "Once again, we're waiting on the Belgian Bad Boys." "Who?" Clare jumped in. "Emile Francqui and his sidekick, Emmanuel Janssen -- two of the wealthiest, most powerful men in Belgium. Francqui's the director of a private bank and president of the CN. He had a career in the Belgian Army and was with Stanley in Africa. Then in China." "Where he and Hoover had it out," Bob added. "About what?" Matt asked. "They supposedly had a falling out during the days of the Boxer Rebellion," Clare said, "when both of them were working on the defense of Peking." "How'd they get together on the CRB?" Matt asked. "Francqui helped organize the first Brussels relief efforts in September 1914," Bob said. "At that time numerous Belgian communes received permission from the Germans to import food and sent representatives to England to plead their cases to the Allies. The English referred them to our Ambassador, Walter Page, because of our neutrality. He sent them all to Hoover, who was winding up his volunteer work as head of the American Relief Committee." "The one that helped American tourists caught in Europe when the war broke out?" Matt asked.
Bob nodded. "The Chief consolidated the various communal relief efforts. It brought Francqui running to London to protect his interests. They finally pounded out the setup between the CRB and CN."
"Francqui said the CRB wasn't even necessary," Clare said. "Felt the CN could handle the whole show...what a pompous ass." "England straightened him out," Bob said. "Said they wouldn't allow ships through the blockade unless the Americans were involved. Every shipment is consigned to us until we turn it over to the CN." "Francqui hates that," Clare said with a smile. Just then Francqui and Janssen burst into the room. Conversations died. Francqui was a large man, stout and round with dark skin, black hair and moustache, and brown, restless eyes. Taking his seat and laying his dispatch case on the table, Francqui bowed slightly toward Kellogg, who sat at the other end of the table, and off-handedly apologized for his unavoidable tardiness. Janssen sat next to him without a word.
Francqui looked around the room. "I heard Hoover was in town. Why isn't he here?"
Kellogg responded in rapid, idiomatic French. "Monsieur Hoover sincerely regrets his absence but is presently meeting with the German Governor-General -- guaranteeing the food relief." "Tell him, I'd like to see him today before he leaves. I'll be in my office all day." "I'm sure Monsieur Hoover will be happy to send a runner to fetch you when he has the time," Kellogg responded sharply. Some of the Belgians looked shocked. Francqui merely waved an arm as if to dismiss the whole affair. He reached into his dispatch case and pulled out a sheaf of papers. Putting on a pair of dark-rimmed reading spectacles, he began to read.
The entire meeting was conducted in French, rapid French that Matt found hard to keep up with. Francqui read from a prepared agenda. Matt started taking notes, but Bob stopped him. "Don't bother," he whispered. "These meetings are for Francqui to vent some steam -- like Old Faithful, you can set your watches to him." It was nearly noon when the meeting adjourned. As the men milled about, Matt looked for Francqui and Janssen but they were already gone. Earlier that morning -- as Matt was learning about the dart game -- Laura took the train from Capellen into Brussels, carrying a carte blanche travel pass signed by the German Governor-General in charge of Belgium, Baron von Bissing. She had received the pass because of her dairy and charity work, but it was the first time she had used the privilege for personal reasons and it sickened her to do so. This was an emergency, though -- she needed to talk to someone, find out what had happened and what she was supposed to do. When she reached the main Brussels railway station, Gare du Nord, and was changing to a local tram, she spotted a man following her. She looked away immediately, barely overcoming her initial reaction to flee. He must have been on the train the whole time. What an idiot she was for not looking, for not being more careful. She lost the German in the crowded narrow streets of the lower, older part of town. It seemed easier than she had imagined. Not being sure, however, she kept glancing back for the next five minutes. When she was positive he was nowhere to be seen, her steps took a momentary lightness, a bounce she hadn't felt for days.
Getting in to see the man who had recruited her was also easier than expected. She was ushered into his plush offices on the third floor of an old office building. Windows overlooked the Boulevard Barthelemy, one of the broad thoroughfares that had taken the place of the city's fortification walls years before. Arture didn't look surprised to see her. When his secretary closed the oak door, he came around from behind his desk and took her hands in his. "I was expecting you, after I heard the news." He led her over to a deep, comfortable chair and sat down in one beside it. "You weren't followed, were you?" "I was," she said, "but I got rid of him 10 minutes ago." "Are you sure?" "Quite." He walked over to his desk and picked up an inter-office telephone. "Check the front," was all he said, then came back to where Laura was seated. "Can't be too careful," he said, adding, "Now, tell me about it." "It was horrible," was all she could say. She saw once again Mueller's crazed expression just before he shot Jo, and the pain in Verheyen's puffy face as he stared at her. "It's my fault they're dead. I didn't speak up, turn myself in. They killed Verheyen and his family because he wouldn't give them my name." She looked at Arture hopelessly, knowing that no one could ever absolve her. "Rubbish, utter rubbish." "What?"
"It's not your fault." Laura looked away, knowing he was wrong. "It was Jorges -- the fool." Arture looked out the window. "He bragged of his work at a bar. Someone overheard him, of course. Mueller got Verheyen's name out of him." He looked back at Laura. His eyes were hard. "Jorges got what he deserved." "No one deserves that." "He did. He was a traitor...in the end. All traitors deserve the worst." Laura was shocked by the power in Arture' voice. She had never heard him so forceful. "Besides," Arture added, "Verheyen knew the risks." His voice frightened her, almost as much as Captain Mueller's. "Mueller knows it was me," she said. Arture sat up. "How?" "After he shot the two Allied airmen he came to Oude Hof. I was nearly caught. He hit Pereke." "What?" "Mueller hit Pereke when he tried to protest the searching of the chateau." "Is he all right?" "Yes." She paused to collect her thoughts, then said, "I came to find out what happened, what I can do now?" "You're through. Your job's over."
"Why?" she said in shock and anger. Deep inside she felt a spark of relief, but quickly pushed it aside in disgust. "It's obvious. You're not strong enough for this work." "Let me be the judge of that," she said harshly. "No, Laura, I must be. I'm the one running this operation. I decide which operatives are functional or not." He sounded like he was talking about farm equipment, not people. "But I can do the work. I know I can." Her anger was building. "Verheyen didn't die so I could sit at home. I must continue." "Brave words." She shook her head. "Bravery, I've found," she said, thinking of Verheyen's death, "is doing what's right no matter what the consequences." "But brave words are only that, words. Will your actions be as strong?" "Give me another chance. Besides, you know I'm right for the job. I already know the procedures and I know the terrain better than anyone in the area." He stood up from his chair and walked to the window. He took a few moments to stare down at the street. Turning, he walked back and stood before her. "Unfortunately, you're right. I have little choice right now, I need all the guides I can get." "What do I do?" He began pacing around the room. "First, I'm shutting down the operation in your area for a while."
Laura began protesting. Arture raised his hands. "Only until the Germans have relaxed a little. Then, we'll begin again. I'll find another area control. When the time is right, the control will approach you."
Arture paced some more. "Mueller might try to trick you. We'll need a code word that the control will use when he makes initial contact." He stopped and smiled. "I have it. He'll use the term 'head-strong.'"
Laura laughed for the first time that day. "He'll give you further instructions then." The phone on the desk rang. Arture picked it up and listened. Replacing the receiver, he said, "The front's clear. You can go now." As he was saying goodbye, Laura asked him a question that had been on her mind all day. "Do you have any other people in my area?" "Yes, of course." "In Oude Hof?" "No. Why?" "No reason," she said, thinking about Isidore. Walking out into the busy street, feeling the small amount of sun that penetrated the thick Belgian haze, she felt a little relieved, somehow lightened of a heavy burden. Now, it was time to face him, she thought with determination. As the CRB/CN meeting broke up, Clare was handed a note by one of the numerous teenaged office runners. It read: "Please meet me for lunch -- the Cafe Rialto at noon. Thank you, Laura Braegen."
Damn, damn, damn, he thought. Just what I don't need right now. Clare knew this was a critical time in Matt's development -- a time when he could be shaped and molded in the necessary ways. He had planned on guiding his friend through the entire day. Now Hugh Gibson would have to do it. Damn! He had no time for silly women right now. Making his excuses to Matt, and pulling Gibson aside for a hasty conference, Clare gathered up his hat, gloves and overcoat and left the building before the usual Thursday luncheon crowd of delegates piled into the street. He hurried along, wondering how much of a scene Laura would make. He couldn't afford a public outburst that might come to the attention of Kellogg, or worse, Hoover; it was unthinkable he might be kicked out of Belgium just when things were turning his way. So how to handle Laura? My god, nothing happened, yet she acts like we had a deep relationship. He should have left her alone, should have known her serious, stuffy side would cause trouble. But he simply couldn't resist the wonderful swell of her breasts in her lace bodice, and the longing he saw in her eyes. He was sure she had perfect breasts, the full, grapefruit-sized ones with nipples that sprang taut to the touch.
Why was it that homely girls always had the best bodies? Was it God's way of compensation, of balancing out life's inequities? He didn't know, but he was glad his father had told him of the phenomenon. He never would have found such perfect hips, asses, legs and breasts -- many of them attached to average, sometimes even unattractive faces. He would have passed them all by if his father hadn't tipped him off to the truth that lay beneath so many clothes and social conventions.
While he made it a practice to be seen with pretty-faced women -- an image had to be maintained, he knew -- and he would occasionally bed them with enjoyment, it was the others, the wholesome ones with the great bodies and the greater longings, that he feasted on with extreme relish. Now, as usual, he was in trouble again. This time, though, he really hadn't done anything -- just led her on a little. What was the harm in that? Some mild flirting, a little grabbing. Nothing serious. Why did she do it? Why did she force herself on him? Laura sat across from Clare Torrey in the crowded restaurant and hated herself. It was obvious by his whole demeanor that he didn't want to be there. He had come, she was sure, simply to end the situation once and for all. When she had discovered he was in a meeting, she left a note asking him to join her for lunch. Now, here they sat, not a word between them for minutes. To break the silence she told Clare about Verheyen's death. He was polite, sympathetic about what she witnessed, but she sensed no true feelings, no real concern. In her heart she knew the whole relationship meant nothing to him. She wished for the courage to just get up and walk away. But he was so incredibly handsome -- those brown eyes she could get lost in, and the bright, white smile that went straight to her loins. "Why haven't you come to Oude Hof lately?" she asked. He looked uncomfortable. "There's been quite a lot of work and I --" "You don't want to see me."
"That's not it." "Yes it is. I know it." "You must admit, you made it rather uncomfortable for me last time." "I shouldn't have done anything when you went walking with Helene? Said nothing when you ignored me?" "Nothing happened between me and Helene. I --" She noticed he would not look her in the eye. And a light flush was rising in his cheeks. So! something had happened. Damn that Helene! She tried to stay composed. "I'm not convinced." "Nothing happened, I tell you. She's a wonderful girl, who knows how to enjoy herself." "Meaning I don't?" Clare paused as if thinking carefully of his response. "You must admit, my dear, you have a tendency toward seriousness." "There's a war on, for God's sake! Men are dying while we sit here eating. How can I not be serious?" "There's a time for everything, Laura. You must learn to live a full life, even in the middle of war." The intimacy of hearing him say her name made her ache. She knew she was trying to argue someone into loving her -- something she had promised never to do. Her whole attitude disgusted her, yet she seemed helpless in the face of her feelings. "What all this means, I suppose, is you don't want to see me?"
"That seems a little harsh in the light of --" "Nevertheless, it's what you mean. I can see it in your eyes. Well, I won't burden you again, I can assure you." She finally found the strength to rise from the table, even though she was only half way through the meal. She couldn't bear to stay another minute. He rose as well, protesting, but lightly, she noted with disdain, so no one even glanced their way. "This, of course, doesn't mean you're unwelcome at Oude Hof," she said. "Feel free to visit any time...as before. I promise to hold my tongue." The sun which had been out earlier was now in hiding behind thick, dark clouds that promised rain for the Belgian capital. Lying close to the center of the country on the Senne, a tributary of the Dyle River, the actual city was confined to a pentagon formed by large boulevards that replaced ancient fortification walls. Within this area was a lower town, running along the dock areas in the west and to the north, and an upper town that ran along a ridge to the east, as well as in the new quarters to the south and southeast.
The CRB office was near the center of town, between the Bois, Brussels' famous park, and Saint Gudule Church. It was still in the upper part of the town but close to where the slope began to the lower section. Right at noon, a group of 25 CRB delegates poured out of the office on their way to their usual Thursday lunch cafe.
As Matt walked along with the other delegates, he took a good look at the city. The streets were livelier than he expected. There were no carriages, few horses and only a few motorcars -- all carrying German officers -- but hundreds of people, bicycles and dogs crowded the narrow streets and filled the broad boulevards. Men in bowlers and dark overcoats careened along on bicycles beside well-dressed ladies attempting to pedal stylishly. The jingling of bicycle bells was a pleasant replacement to the honking of motorcar horns Matt was used to in large American cities. Numerous dogs pulled all kinds of carts and vendors stalls. When Matt and his parents did the Grand European Tour in 1908, they didn't visit Holland or Belgium. His father said there was nothing of value in the low countries. Now, walking through Brussels, Matt was impressed with the city's beauty. With its wide boulevards, numerous parks, outdoor cafes and cylindrical message posts, it reminded him of Paris. When he said so to the group, Rene was quick to respond. "Don't say that too loud," he warned with a smile. "A mob will gather. For centuries tourists have said Brussels is like a little Paris. The people of Brussels are quite tired of being thought of as second best." As they walked on, Matt was amazed at how normal the city looked. The only sign he could see of the war -- other than the lack of motorcars and horses -- was the Germans. Hussars, German cavalry, in flashy dark-blue uniforms rode on prancing horses, while infantry in field gray and shiny boots walked haughtily about. German policemen kept a watchful eye on everyone. Unlike their comrades, the policemen wore ill-fitting gray uniforms, trousers stuffed in dirty boots, and squat helmets. A brass plate in the shape of a half moon dangled from a chain around each man's neck. On it, in bold relief, were the letters P-O-L-I-T-Z-E-I. With bayonets fixed, they wandered in pairs or stood at major intersections, sullen reminders of Germany's occupation.
As the group approached the cafe, it passed two German policeman who stood staring at the large group. "Damn cognacs," one of the delegates said softly. There were grumbles of agreement. "Gentlemen," Fred Eckstein admonished. "We don't have to like them, but let's not call them names. We're supposed to be neutral, remember?" "Cognacs?" Matt asked. "The metal sign around their necks," Bob Jackson said. "They're like the plates that hang around the bottles of a particular kind of cognac. So the underground newspaper, La Libre Belgique, dubbed them cognacs." "With a bitter after-taste," Rene said, with a smile. Most nodded in agreement. The cafe they went to was just off the Bois. It was warm, noisy and smoke-filled. The delegates were known to most, and many of the customers called out greetings as they walked in. Tables with pitchers of ice water were already set up in the back. Belgians, Matt was told, thought it improper to drink water at a meal -- it was for bathing, not drinking, they said. It took constant prompting to get the owner of this restaurant to put out pitchers for the regular Thursday luncheon. During the rest of the week, someone said, the Brussels delegates ate in the office, but when the gang was in town, lunch was enjoyed outside the office.
Matt found himself seated between Hugh and Rene. As everyone settled down into conversation, Matt turned to Hugh.
"One thing I don't understand --" "Only one?" Hugh interjected. Matt smiled. "Where's the hunger?" "Pardon?" "Here, for instance. It looks like everyone has a decent meal. And I've seen some street vendors selling food. I thought Belgium was starving?" "It is," Hugh replied. "But you've got to understand, the CRB's been working for almost two years now, not just bringing in charity, but trying to stimulate the economy. Right now a loaf of bread costs as much here as it does in England and Germany. A fact we're all proud of. So any of the prosperity you do see -- the ability of a person who can afford it to buy what he wants -- comes from the Commission's efforts. Just remember, the more people buy, the better off the entire country is. So don't be put off by the wealthy who appear to have a lot. They've bought it all, and in doing so, have helped Belgium." "And things are always better in the city than the country," Rene added. "When you travel around you'll see more of the hunger, more of what you're here for. Just remember, when you see healthy faces it's because of the CRB. Without the Commission, half the people would be dead by now." Just then a few waiters brought their food. Each placed a large bowl before each delegate and a basket of black bread. One apologized for not having any butter. "What's this?" Matt asked, pushing his spoon back and forth through the soup. "Waterzooi, a Belgian specialty," Hugh said between spoonfuls. "A kind of bouillabaisse. Fresh or salt water fish boiled in various herbs." He reached for a slice of bread. "Go on," he laughed, "give it a try."
Matt found it delicious and warming. As he ate he studied his companion. Hugh had the same easy style and flowing charm of Clare but with a seemingly deeper sense of purpose. Alert and slender, Hugh combed his dark hair straight back, accentuating ears that stuck out slightly. Keen dark eyes sparked with merriment and an enigmatic grin seemed never far away. He had a cocky air of self-assurance Matt found appealing. Hugh brought to mind visions of a young Teddy Roosevelt -- brash, alert, ready for action.
Matt also noticed Hugh was a snappy dresser. He wore a short morning coat, low-cut vest and pants with cuffs. He also had a pinky ring on his left hand and a wrist watch -- one of the few Matt had ever seen on a man. Every man Matt knew carried a pocket watch.
While the meal was filled with laughter and CRB stories, everyone quieted down when Matt asked about the underground newspaper mentioned earlier. Hugh and Rene both glanced around. While the men at the other end of the table purposely began a loud conversation, Hugh explained quietly. "La Libre Belgique," he said, "is probably the single most important publication in Belgium today." The other men within earshot nodded. "It comes out about once a week and is only four pages, but it has the latest uncensored war news. Because we never seem to get major European papers until they're weeks old, La Libre supplies the country with current news. An invaluable service." "No one knows how it gets the news," Bob added, "but it's incredibly current." "It serves another function too," Hugh said. "Every time it comes out it boosts the Belgians' morale -- it's the biggest thorn in the side of von Bissing. He hates it."
Bob jumped in again. "Von Bissing's offered a 50,000 franc reward for the head of the editor, or editors. Just to be caught with a copy will land a Belgian in jail for a year." "The best part," Hugh said, starting to laugh, "is that without fail a copy gets to von Bissing. Sometimes it arrives in an envelope addressed from Germany, sometimes it's tossed through an open window. Other times it's brought in by an unsuspecting orderly with the morning's mail. Drives him crazy." "Who do you think the editor is?" Matt asked. "Rumors abound," Bob said. "Some say it's printed in a moving motorcar by the Jesuits. Nobody really knows. It's the damnest thing. Normally, Belgians can't keep a secret. They gossip all the time. But on this topic -- not a peep." Matt turned to Rene. "What do you think?" Rene's nonchalance disappeared and his voice took on a seriousness Matt had not heard from him before. "It's not wise for Belgians to even think such things." He looked Matt directly in the eye. "No matter who they're with. "Something I can speak of," Rene said, his serious face transformed, "is women..." Matt and Hugh smiled. "All kinds of women...and where to find them." "We call Rene 'the phantom,'" Hugh said, "because he's always showing up in the strangest places. Rendezvouses with women, of course." "Please," Rene said in a tone of mock hurt. "I prefer to call them rendezvous with the heart."
The "bicker session," as the men called the delegate meeting, began at one p.m. in the same first-floor conference room. Once again Matt sat along one wall. Kellogg was seated at the head of the table and around it were all the honored delegates, each with a pad of paper and pencil in front of him. Most of the men seated along the walls had small note pads or memo booklets resting on their knees. Kellogg opened the meeting by introducing Matt, who stood to a round of applause. He told Matt to stop by his office after the meeting ended. Just as Kellogg began, the door opened and a thick-set, boyish-looking man entered. He walked straight to the table and stood beside Kellogg. The assembled men rose as one, silently looking at their chief, Herbert Hoover. Matt could feel the tension in the air, feel the men beside him straighten up. If he didn't know better, he'd think they were coming to attention. Hoover laid an overflowing dispatch case on the table and took off his hat and coat, placing them on the back of his chair. "Sit, sit," he said. He pulled a legal pad from the case and glanced at it for a moment.
The room was silent and Matt saw pencils poised over note pads. He looked up to see Hoover drop his pad on the table and scan the men. Matt felt as if Hoover was looking straight at him. His eyes had a startling intensity, as if the man had a high fever.
"What the hell's been going on around here?" Hoover said, his voice soft but the tone deep and disturbing. "We started the soupes back in 1915 at the commune level and now they've all gone to hell. This can't be the product of America's finest, can it?"
Matt kept his head bowed over his note pad. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that everyone was doing the same. Hoover began pacing around the room. "I'm not talking about the repas scolaires, or the infant-feeding societies. They're fine. It's these communal soupes." He paused and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Listen," he said, the tone of harshness softening, "we're not here for the rich -- we all know how overstuffed we are at some Belgian dinners. The poor need those communal soupes. I just learned the CN has no standard for feeding the poor through them."
The strength was coming back into his voice. "They have no idea over there," he said, throwing his arm in the direction of the CN offices across the street, "what foodstuffs are being distributed to soupes in various parts of the country."
Now pencils were beginning to scratch across paper. Matt had no idea what to write, but knew he wasn't going to be the only one not writing. He started transcribing what Hoover was saying. "Every commune in Belgium should have a soupe," Hoover was saying in that soft but strong voice. "And with uniform standards of ingredients. You chief delegates, pressure those communes who don't have soupes to establish them. Let's not work through the CN this time, shall we? I think it would be better to work through the local commune presidents who'll take it through the ranks to the CN." He walked over to a window and looked out. Turning back to the men he said, "By our next meeting I want complete reports from all you chief delegates on what the communal soupe status is in your province. Absolutely complete this time, Mister Bowen."
There were some chuckles as Matt heard a meek, "Yes, sir." "And Torrey, by then I want a complete report on your inspection of all existing communal soupes." Clare jumped in with a strong, "Yes, sir." "Before summer, that is," Hoover said, a small smile playing across his face. The men laughed. Clare's face flushed, but he kept Hoover's stare. "Yes, sir." "From these reports," Hoover said, continuing to pace, "we'll arrive at a scientific standard for the food values -- the calories obtained from the hydrates, albumens, proteids -- and be better equipped to determine distribution." He looked around. "Any questions?" No one spoke. "All right. Next point. Possible impressment of labor. Some of you have heard the rumors that the Germans may begin forcibly deporting Belgian workers into Germany to work their factories. Their justification is that they'd only use the 'chomeurs' -- maintaining they'd be helping the Belgians -- and us -- by removing the unemployed from rationing." Matt's pencil stumbled across the paper. Deportations of the unemployed? He hadn't read a word about it in America. How could they do that? Surely the CRB wouldn't allow it. "While we all realize the horrendous nature of these possible deportations," Hoover continued, "we can't do a thing to stop them."
Hoover looked out the window for a moment, then continued. "What we can do, however, is refuse to be a party, in any way, to this act. Our agreement with the Germans states they can't have any figures or lists belonging to us or to the Belgian committees. This includes the chomeur lists the communes have compiled for us. Currently, in isolated places, the Germans are already trying to secure these lists through threats to the local burgomasters. If they get them, it'll make it easier for them to find the labor." He paused and looked up, waiting to gain everyone's attention. When Matt glanced up, Hoover's eyes seemed to bore into his. He finally spoke. "We must not let them get those lists." There was a moment of absolute silence. "Do I make myself clear?" The room resounded with affirmatives. He stood stone still, scanning the men. "Any questions?" When no one spoke, he turned the meeting back to Kellogg, who began with his agenda. For another two hours the men talked about the problems they faced: The continual arguments with local committee presidents, the pilfering of the lightermen as they carried CRB food in their canal barges, and the constant aggravation caused by German sentries or local German authorities wanting to exercise power. Matt felt totally lost, not understanding a thing that was said. But he kept writing, taking down everything, hoping that at some point it would suddenly make sense. He was surprised at how free everyone was to talk. Kellogg and Hoover let the men banter their problems back and forth until a solution was reached. If one didn't seem forthcoming, either Kellogg or Hoover would offer possible answers. "When the local CN man directly contradicts me," someone was saying, "how can I function?" "Tell him off," someone offered. "Brilliant, Lance. That's going to get me far." "Further than letting him walk all over you. Once he does that, he'll do it again and again." "Easy for you to say, but I've got to live with them." Hoover let the discussion run for a few more minutes, then jumped in. "Gentlemen." The men instantly stopped talking. "Remember you're primarily advisors. I know it's a difficult task, but it's got to be done right. You mustn't try to tell the CN people what to do." He smiled lightly, "just like I have to remember not to tell Francqui what to do. We all know where that gets us," he said, eliciting laughter. "If you keep in mind," he continued, "that we hold the upper hand, that we control the situation at all times, then it's easy to let them have their little ways. And, really, it's only the CN people, anyway. All the other Belgians trust us completely. But remember, once you realize the power is yours, then you find there's no need to wield it so obviously. True power is subtle." When the meeting broke up, Kellogg asked Matt to join him and Hoover in his office. Hoover welcomed him, then asked him to sit. Matt took a chair in front of the desk, Kellogg behind it. Hoover began pacing again. Matt thought he must walk miles everyday just by pacing. "Hollins, it's good to have you with us," Hoover said. "I hope you're up to the task at hand." "Yes, sir, I am." "We're not here," Hoover continued, staring at the floor as he paced, "solely for ourselves and by ourselves. We're here as the representatives of the American people. We must bring to the work the highest ideals, the greatest efficiency."
"Yes, sir." Matt felt a rush of emotion. Hoover was putting into words his own feelings. This was why he was here. "I know what you mean, sir." He desperately wanted Hoover to know he felt the same way. "I'm ready. I've even memorized the CRB oath." "Good for you," Hoover said with a slight smile. "That oath," Kellogg added seriously, "is of tremendous importance. It's the linchpin of the work. Without it there would be no trust among the parties. Without trust there would be no work. And without the work, people would die." "'I do swear on my honor as a gentleman,'" Matt recited, "to maintain absolute neutrality in word and act, vigilance and firmness in guarding the interests of the population, and tact in official dealings of any kind with the Allied forces, the Germans and the Belgians.'" "The words aren't important, Hollins," Kellogg said sternly. "It's the principle behind them." "I've given my word," Matt said simply. "I can assure you it'll be upheld; 'My honor is dearer to me than my life.'" "Ah, a classics man," Hoover said. "Yes, sir. Princeton, class of '12." Hoover thought for a moment. "Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha, if I'm not mistaken." "Yes, sir."
Kellogg ran a hand along the side of his head, then gripped the back of his neck, kneading the muscles. He looked tired. "Hollins, keeping your word here is harder than it sounds. I've seen men enter Belgium with the strongest commitment to neutrality. Even some, I might say, who believed in the German cause. Within a fortnight they change." He took a drag from a cigarette, eyeing Matt through the smoke. "A rage begins burning inside them. My job -- or one of them -- is to spot when that rage is about to break free...then send those men home. Many last only six, maybe eight months -- although we do have some delegates who've been here since the beginning, almost two years now." Matt lit a cigarette and took a long pull, letting the smoke out slowly. He still wasn't sure he could do the job, but he was positive he'd remain neutral; he had given his word. Now all he wanted to do was get to work. "I can do it, sir." "Let's hope so," Kellogg said, resignation in his voice. "What will I do?" Matt caught a glance between Kellogg and Hoover and wondered what it meant. Kellogg said, "Clare is the head of a new department we've created called Inspection and Control. He's overseeing the efficiency of all provinces, and reporting directly to me. You'll begin by being his assistant." Damn it! Matt hoped to be free and clear of Clare and his games. Now he'd be working with him -- under him. Clare's lackey was not the role Matt envisioned he'd play in the CRB. "Thank you, sir. Thank you very much. I won't let you down." "I'm sure you won't, son," Hoover said. "Just remember: duty and honor." "I'm here to work for as long as it takes," Matt said. "Duty and honor mean everything to me, sir. It was my father. He was the one who taught me about --"
"I'm sure you'll do well," Hoover said. "I just wanted you to know I understand what you were saying and bel--" There was a knock at the door. Kellogg called "enter" and in walked a handsome woman. She was tall and lean, with a warm face and sparkling eyes. Her brown hair was in a bun, with wisps hanging down along her temples. Matt wished she had come a moment later, after he had made Hoover understand. "Darling," she said to Kellogg, "Sorry to disturb you, but I won't let Herbert get away again." She laughed gaily. "Herbert, you've slipped by me too many times. I'll take no excuse this time." Before he could answer, she noticed Matt. "Well, another bright young man." She approached Matt. "I'm Mrs. Charlotte Kellogg. And you, I presume, are Matthew Hollins?" Rising quickly, Matt was surprised at her forthright manner. "Yes, ma'am, I am. A pleasure to meet you." Directing her gaze at Matt, but her comments for all of them, she said, "I've broken up your meeting for good reason, Mr. Hollins. Mr. Hoover gets to Belgium only once a month or so. For nearly a year now I've tried to get him to visit one of our children's cantines." "My wife," Kellogg interrupted, "is the only lady delegate of the Commission. And I think," he said, smiling fondly, "she feels the necessity to push all the harder to prove a woman can do the job." "Nothing to do with being a woman," she said with a slight tone of indignation. "It's high time Herbert see what the relief work is really about."
"Charlotte," Hoover said smiling, "I would be honored to accompany you." Looking at Matt, he added, "I think this might also be a good time to take along our newest delegate." "Of course. Mr. Hollins is quite welcome." She walked over to Matt and put her arm through his. Walking him toward the door, she called back over her shoulder, "Come along, gentlemen, the children are waiting."
Mrs. Kellogg and Hoover sat in the back seat of the open limousine, facing forward, while Matt and Mr. Kellogg sat on two fold-down jump seats, facing back. As the motorcar negotiated the busy streets, Charlotte explained to Hoover the Brussels charity situation. Trying not to intrude, Matt leaned forward to hear.
"As you're aware on paper, Herbert, the Commission provides food for the established charitable organizations throughout Belgium. Brussels has many such groups. One of the oldest is 'Petites Abeilles,' or 'Little Bees,' which was started five years ago to feed the poor. When the war began, the fine women of this group concentrated their efforts on feeding the children of Brussels. "Currently there are 3,000 women volunteers in 124 stations throughout the metropolitan area feeding 25,000 children twice a day -- once in the morning before school, and once after school." Matt was impressed with how businesslike Mrs. Kellogg was, showing an efficiency he had rarely seen in a woman. "What's their ration like?" Hoover asked.
"All up to minimum CRB standards, I can assure you. We give them a hearty vegetable soup, actually a soup stew, with as much meat as possible, a slice of CRB dark bread, and a special dessert that the Little Bees invented called 'phosphatine.' The children love it." "What's in it?" Hoover asked. "It's a creative use of the famous rice problem," she said, a wide grin spreading across her face. Hoover smiled as well. Mrs. Kellogg turned to Matt. "When the relief work began in late 1914 one of the first imports was rice, a highly nutritious food source that was readily available for immediate shipping. But for the first delegates supervising its distribution, there was a surprise in store." She looked at Hoover and her husband, who were smiling. "Belgians did not eat rice," she continued. "They weren't familiar with it and, consequently, didn't want any part of it." "The same went for corn," Vernon added, "which we were also importing in large quantities. In Belgium, corn had been used only to feed animals." "So," Charlotte continued, "before the Belgians ate either rice or corn they had to be educated. Overnight, delegates in all the provinces became traveling chefs, putting on cooking and eating demonstrations in local communes." Her laughter wafted through the limousine. "Our young men dished up batches of cornpone and rice pudding and ate them under the watchful eyes of burgomasters, who expected them to drop dead at any moment. "For quite some time," she added, "a major part of our Thursday meetings was taken up with swapping favorite recipes. "As for phosphatine," she said to Hoover, "it's made of rice, wheat, maize, flour, phosphate of lime and cocoa. The little children love it, and it gives them much needed energy."
Just then, the car pulled up in front of a long, two-story building. The sidewalk was packed with children, all waiting patiently in line. As the four got out of the car and went in, Matt was surprised at how quiet and orderly the children were. Hardly a sound was heard except for the shuffling of hundreds of wooden shoes. There were none of the pushing and shoving, or playing and calling out he would see and hear in a line of American children. He wondered if this was the look and sound of hunger. Walking past the children, the small group entered a gigantic hall filled with row upon row of wooden tables. Each place was set with a large bowl, soup spoon, cup and napkin. Women in white uniforms and white caps were hurrying between the rows pouring milk, distributing small saucers of dessert or dropping a thick slice of dark, grainy bread next to each soup bowl. An older woman hurried over and welcomed Charlotte by name in French. Charlotte introduced her to the three men as the matron of the cantine who supervised 25 lady volunteers. Matt noticed a little bee embroidered on the woman's dress over her heart. When the woman was introduced to Hoover she immediately curtsied, lavishing praise and gratitude on him. As Charlotte translated, Hoover's face turned red with embarrassment. Matt was surprised to see how awkward Hoover was at receiving such compliments.
The matron stopped some of the girls as they scurried about and introduced them to the famous Herbert Hoover. They all curtsied as well, stumbling over words of gratitude. The matron then excused herself to continue her work, saying she would be honored if they stayed to see the children come in.
As the Americans stood watching the hurried preparations, Charlotte suddenly called out to one of the young volunteers passing by. The woman turned, recognized Charlotte and came over. "Mrs. Kellogg, Mr. Kellogg, what a pleasant surprise," she said. Matt thought her rather plain, with a sad, burdened face. "Laura, so good to see you again," Mrs. Kellogg said. "What are you doing in Brussels?" "I had to visit a friend, so I thought I'd help out here today." "I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Herbert Hoover," Mrs. Kellogg said. "Herbert, this is Laura Braegen, one of the finest young women in Antwerp. She's the woman who runs the model dairy that supplies Antwerp's children with milk every day." Matt was surprised to see the woman didn't curtsy. She extended her hand like a man and said in English, "It's an honor, Mr. Hoover. Our country owes you a debt beyond words." Her voice was deep and rich with feeling. "It is I, Mademoiselle Braegen, who am honored. Your name comes up often when speaking of true Belgian patriots. Not only do you manage the dairy, I'm told, but you work in a hospital and at a cantine, as well." She nodded slightly, showing no embarrassment or awkwardness at the praise. Matt was impressed by her composure. "Laura," Charlotte said, "I'd also like you to meet our newest delegate, Mr. Matthew Hollins."
"Mr. Hollins, a pleasure," she said, giving him a firm handshake.
Matt felt her eyes probe his, as if searching for something, then turn away. "Mademoiselle Braegen," he said. Trying to find something else to say, he blurted out, "You're my first Belgian girl." "Mr. Hollins!" Vernon Kellogg said sternly. "Pardon?" Laura said, a slight smile playing across her face. Matt could feel the blood rush to his cheeks. "I meant... what I wanted to say..." Mrs. Kellogg and Hoover struggled to suppress smiles, while Vernon appeared barely able to control his anger. Matt stumbled on. "I just arrived last night. I only meant that I haven't had a chance to meet anyone yet -- any Belgian ladies. I meant no offense. I just..." "I understand, Monsieur Hollins," Laura said with a wide and open smile. Her dark eyes sparkled with amusement. "No offense was taken. Tell me, though, where does such an impetuous tongue hail from?"
"Cincinnati. Cincinnati, Ohio."
A sudden sadness seemed to envelop her eyes. Her smile tightened. "Ah, Monsieur Torrey's home."
"A friend," Matt said with reluctance -- Would he ever get away from Claire?
"No doubt," Laura replied. "Well, I must get ready for the children." She turned to the others, "If you'll excuse me?" The three nodded and shook her hand. Matt jumped in. "I hope we meet again sometime."
Laura turned and looked at Matt, as if studying him. Some of the sparkle returned to her eyes. She extended her hand, "I'm sure we will." Still holding his hand, she quickly leaned toward him and whispered so only he could hear, "Thankfully, you are not my first American boy." With another wide open smile, she was gone, leaving Matt dazed. What an interesting woman. He had been mistaken earlier -- with her unrestrained smile and twinkling eyes, she wasn't plain, far from it. No, she was actually a handsome woman. Still not pretty, but definitely handsome. Just then the doors were flung open and the children entered. They knew where to go, the oldest heading toward the back of the large hall, while the little ones stayed in the area where the Americans stood.
There was still little noise, other than the shuffling of worn wooden sabots across the floor and the scraping of benches being pulled back. But as the children began to sit down and warm to the smell of soup, laughter and bits of conversation could be heard.
The women began walking up and down the wiggling rows, ladling out the hot soup. A child could not be served without saying something, and soon the room was filled with cries of "merci, merci," and "beaucoup, Mademoiselle, beaucoup!" At the nearest table, Matt overheard one little girl say, "I like the pieces of meat best," and another say, "But it's the broth that warms me most."
Matt noticed that Laura Braegen was serving children nearby. He watched as she ladled out the soup, stopping occasionally to ruffle the hair of some child. There was concern and love in every move she made, and yet there was something else as well. It was in the way she carried herself. Matt suddenly realized that what he saw was an air of determination and purpose. He watched as she went back to the kitchen for more soup. He liked the way she walked.
Late that night, Matt wrote in his diary.
A long day. So much I've seen and I don't know what half of it means. In the morning, before the meetings, it was like the college days -- everyone trying to top each other in jokes. No one seemed serious about the work -- except Fred Eckstein. He seems like a true delegate, taking neutrality seriously. Clare acted like he was in classes, not giving a damn about anything, while Hugh Gibson -- secretary of the U.S. Legation! -- played court jester. Meanwhile, Rene Jensen watched everything with hooded, uncaring eyes. Throughout the jesting in the morning and at lunch, I wanted to say something, wanted to ask the men about the work, but knew I had no place doing so. I joined the fun -- actually having a good time of it -- hoping things would change. In the afternoon, everything did change. Hoover walked in. Suddenly the men became professional, direct and serious. It was the Commission I had imagined. Later, I went to a children's cantine with Mr. Hoover, Mrs. Kellogg -- a fine woman! -- and Mr. Kellogg. Got to see the children being fed. An incredible operation. I hadn't realized the magnitude of the feeding programs. Met my first Belgian lady -- I won't forget that unintended joke for some time! -- Laura Braegen. An intriguing woman.
As Matt sat upstairs in his room evaluating his first day, Clare sat downstairs in the first-floor salon of their requisitioned townhouse, also evaluating Matt's day. After Matt had said goodnight, Clare had prepared everything as he usually did at the end of an evening. Josef, Clare's domestique, had brought him the usual glass of cognac before retiring to his quarters in the cellar. Clare had then gone around the room and turned off all the electric lights so he could get the full effect of the fire in the fireplace. Usually, he would get lost in the hypnotic dance of the fire's colors. Tonight, however, he hardly noticed the flames, and had yet to take a sip from his snifter. While the fire still burned warm, it was slowly losing its luster. Clare would never have dared hope it might work out the way he planned, let alone better than planned. He had submitted Matt's name, but was sure that SOB Kellogg would turn it down just because he was a friend. Clare was so sure of Kellogg's reaction that he had had an alternative plan in place. Now, with Matt here, that wasn't necessary. Even better, Kellogg assigned Matt to Clare. Why, he'd never understand, but his Pappy had taught him never question good fortune, just grab it before it's taken back. He suddenly remembered his cognac. Today was definitely worth a toast. He raised his glass to the fire and swirled it a few times. The flames caught the amber-colored liquor and gave it golden highlights. To fine women, fine liquor, fine tobacco -- and the time to pursue them all. He downed half the glass at once.
Matt's here -- he still couldn't believe it. Right where I want him...and need him. It'll be just like the old days, except now the stakes are a lot higher. That's okay, I've honed my skills. I'm ready. Besides, Matt's never been a match for me. And with Matt here, I can really do what I want. Probably even get out from under Kellogg's scrutiny. That's what I need to do. Clare was reminded of another lesson from Pappy. He could hear him saying, remember, boy, the way to get your way is to give the customer what he wants. If he don't know what he wants, then you decide and sway him to your way of thinking. Anyone can be swayed, you just gotta find what makes 'em tick, then set the watch yourself. Clare raised his glass. To setting Matt's clock. He downed the remaining cognac in one swallow.
End of Chapter Three
Chapter Four: Friday, January 28
The town hall in Hoogboom had seen many tenants in its long history. In 1596 Frederik Eyecks, the feudal lord who owned the surrounding countryside, built it as a granary. It wasn't much to look at, just a modest white-washed rectangular building topped with a thick thatched roof. But the local artisans worked for nearly a year to make the mud bricks and then plaster them over to create smooth interior and exterior walls. For the ceiling of the one-room granary, they shaped large, rough-hewn beams of dark wood that still showed signs of every ax blade's strike.
During every harvest season for more than a 100 years, it became the village's center of activity, as the farmers brought their grain in to be weighed, stored and finally ground into flour. Friends, wives and children nearly always came along on such a momentous occasion -- the delivery of a year's worth of effort. Inside, the farmers and their wives waited nervously to see how much the miller would pay. Much rode on his decision. A year's work came down to a moment's calculation. Outside, the children played, the neighbors gossiped, and the wagons congregated. Such activity needed proper space, and so, naturally, a town square slowly grew up in front of the granary. Little shops began appearing in the adjacent homes, catering to those who waited. Later, the area directly before the granary was paved so that the wagons and horses wouldn't mire in mud when it rained, or kick up dust when it didn't. Even after the granary was converted to a home in the 1700s by a well-to-do merchant who ran barges between Rotterdam and Antwerp, the town square of Hoogboom was established. Over the years the old granary grew as new owners added on a room to the right, a room to the left and, finally, a large addition spanning the entire back. In 1845, Charles Braegen's father, Edouard, bought the home and gave it to the village for a central hall where the commune leaders could meet and social functions be held. Forty years later, Charles himself paid to have it refurbished and even added a large second floor. Offices were built and it became a true and proper town hall. For the next 29 years, each duly-elected commune leader had the privilege and right to occupy the large second-story office that looked out over the square. Many such office holders found it soothing -- sometimes downright sleep-inducing -- to lean back in their chair and watch the little world of Hoogboom go by.
That's what Captain Ernst Mueller found himself doing early on Friday morning, two days after Verheyen's death. Although this morning there wasn't much to see from his office windows. Usually he would first spot the night patrol stomping in towards the barracks on the other side of town, blind to all but the hunger gnawing at their bellies after a night of marching. Then came laborers trudging to work in the earliest part of morning. By mid morning, right about now, it would be the wives and children, visiting the bakery next door, or the butcher four doors down, before going on to the vegetable market on the south edge of town.
Today, though, the square was relatively quiet. Yesterday, it looked even worse, like a deserted town. No doubt, it was all part of the peasants' mourning the executions.
The executions. He still couldn't believe what happened, what he did. All he had wanted was to give Verheyen a way out, to save himself and his loved ones. But that stupid fool turned his back on himself and his family. His family. How could he do it? No sane man would have. A wife and child. The most precious gifts given to a man. My God, the man had no soul. And then, when Verheyen spat in his face, Ernst felt something snap inside, like the flick of a light switch. The next thing he remembered, his fingers were snarled in the wet sticky hair of Verheyen's wife. With horror he realized the hair was wet with blood and brains. The same blood and brains he found all over his hand. He could still hear the dull thud as he let go of her head and it fell hard to the cobblestones.
He knew the crowd felt he caused this pain and suffering. But no, he knew better. It was this fucking country! The goddamn Belgian people were to blame. Starting with Verheyen and ending with Laura Braegen. They were responsible. They killed that poor woman and her young son. He wasn't responsible. Hadn't he tried to save Verheyen and his family? Damn right he did. Every one of those god-damn peasants standing there were guilty, not him. He was only doing his duty, nothing more. Mueller consciously pulled himself back from a force that seemed to be drawing him down into a black abyss. With trembling hands he pulled out his cigarette case, pulled one out and stuck it in his mouth. It took two matches before he could light it. He inhaled deeply, relishing the dull ache it produced in his lungs. Letting the smoke out slowly, he tried to calm his racing heart. This whole country was full of crazy people. People who turn their backs on their families, on their own children. People who refuse to know their place in war. War was for warriors, not common people. But these peasants didn't know that. They changed everything. Made him do things he would never do otherwise. It was their fault. All their fault. Now he not only sought revenge for his beloved Katherine and Gerta, but for himself as well. The Belgian people had made him change into something he hardly recognized. In so doing, they would pay a heavy penalty. Idly, Mueller looked across the square and for the first time noticed the fresh bullet holes in the plaster from the executions. They made him think. Some of his men had missed. He needed to work on that -- all his men should have hit their targets. No German bullet should be wasted on a wall when they could be slamming home into the flesh of a franc-tireur. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his watch, a gift Katherine gave him two years before. He flipped the lid and checked the time. Perfect. He reached over and flipped the intercom switch. "Time to go, Willy."
In a moment his aide de camp walked through the door, came to attention, clicked his heels, and saluted. "The car is gassed and ready, Caption Mueller." In any public situation, this was how Willy always acted, even though Ernst had told him he could be less formal -- they were friends, for godsake. "But what would others think?" Willy always said. "The greater the formality, the higher the prestige in the eyes of those watching." Willy came over and helped Ernst on with his Great Coat, then held the door for his commander. As they stepped out into the brisk January morning, with the usual pewter-colored clouds hanging low, a peasant woman and her young daughter hurried by. Unbeknownst to either of them, the girl's stuffed doll dropped to the cobblestones. Ernst hurriedly limped over, scooped it up and called out, "Madame." The woman stopped and turned around. When she saw who it was, she immediately seemed to shrink into her coat, all the while pulling her little girl around behind her legs. She made no move to come to him, so Ernst hobbled over. With some difficulty he knelt down. "Look what I found," he said in Flemish to the little girl. "I think such a lovely dolly must belong to someone as cute as you." Ernst thought she was one of the prettiest little girls he had ever seen -- almost as pretty as Gerta. All he wanted to do was touch her for a moment, feel her little arms wrap around his neck, and nestle his face into her neck and hair. Just for a moment. How he missed his Gerta. The little girl smiled and tried to reach for the doll. Her mother instantly pulled her back with a ferocious jerk. The girl cried out, but the mother took no notice. "No, Captain, it is not her's," she said in a defiant tone.
Ernst didn't understand. He stood up. "But Madame, I saw her drop it, just now, back there." She refused to look him in the eye. And he could tell she was shaking in fear. In a quaking voice she said, "You are mistaken." "But mommy," the girl called out, "it is mine. That's Hanna." "No it's not," the mother commanded. Suddenly Mueller understood. She was just like all the rest. She could not separate a man from his duty. She could not accept even the smallest kindness from a man who had rightly fulfilled his duty as a German officer by executing franc-tireurs. "May I go?" she asked, still in a tone of hatred and fear. Ernst looked at her, at the frightened eyes and trembling lips, then down at the little girl peeking from around her legs. It made him sick, nearly physically sick to think he could create such feelings in others. He turned and walked away without a word. Sitting in the back seat of the staff car as Willy drove out of town and toward the Braegen estate, Ernst realized he was still clutching the doll. He looked down at the button eyes, the threaded nose and mouth, and felt like crying. This time, however, the tears did not come, just a noticeable increase in the empty feeling within his gut. He gently lay the doll down on the seat beside him.
A few minutes later, Willy drove the car through the massive brick and wrought iron gates of the Braegen estate. The gatekeeper and his wife glared at the staff car, but did nothing to stop them. Within a kilometer they came to the formal entrance to the chateau -- a 500 meter straight stretch of road lined with giant poplars and ending in the circular drive in front of Oude Hof. Ernst leaned forward and called out, "Stop here, Willy." Before Willy could get out of his seat, Ernst extracted himself from the back and came to stand next to the driver's window. "I want to walk a little. Go on ahead and tell the maitre d'hotel that Captain Mueller wishes to speak to Mademoiselle Laura Braegen." Willy looked nervously at Ernst. "Are you--" "I'm fine, fine," Ernst lied. "I'd just like a moment alone." "As you wish," Willy said, his worried look still on his face. He drove off slowly. The poplars had lost their greenery to winter, but still presented stately sentinels as Ernst limped along. He could not imagine having so much money that he could afford such an estate, afford to own servants. He knew his envy was as powerful as his desire to take it all away from them. What right did they have to be so wealthy? The Braegens were just like all the other wealthy people in the world -- insulated and isolated from the masses, from the people who did the real work, suffered the real pain of living. Well, he would show them what pain was all about. He would teach them about the hardships and trials of life. Yes, he, Ernst Mueller, from poor German parents, would teach these rich Belgians. He had almost accomplished that goal the other night. He had been so close, so close to finding the proof necessary to arrest and execute Laura Braegen. What had gone wrong?
He knew. He had faltered, not focused completely on the task. He had been distracted. When they were all in the salon, he first turned his attention to the old man. It was then that he saw it. He couldn't believe he hadn't seen it before. Charles Braegen looked a little like old Hans, the book binder who he had been apprenticed to, the man who taught him to read and who taught him personal honor was the one thing no one could take away. The thought of Hans -- and seeing his eyes in the face of Charles Braegen -- had rattled Ernst. So much so that he turned to his real prey -- Laura Braegen. Then it happened again. He suddenly became aware she was only in a thin nightgown and robe. He could see her bare ankles. He could make out the shape of her breasts in the robe. She looked nothing like his Katherine, but the two women shared the same lush ripeness, the same fullness of figure that had so enticed him years ago. He had never noticed when dealing with her before. It was then he realized what was going on. The gods were laughing at him. Once again making sport of him. They were purposefully mocking him and his beloved Katherine. He could do nothing to the gods in revenge, but he could certainly do something against those humans who mocked him with their reminders of his past. His hatred for the Braegens soared to a new level that night, and was never going to be reduced until Laura Braegen was caught and executed as a franc-tireur.
He had to admit, he had handled things badly that night at Oude Hof. But now, in the light of day, things would be different. He had a plan. He would frighten the rabbit from its warren, then grab it as it tried to run.
Laura couldn't stop the tremors that ran through her body as she sat in the grand salon opposite Captain Ernst Mueller. It was all too much. Two days ago he was a screaming madman, firing into the head of Jo, ordering the execution of Verheyen. Now he was sitting in her formal salon with a civilized look on his face. She could hardly contain her fear -- and her hatred. Although it was morning tea time, she refused to serve Verheyen's killer. He was pleasant at first, which took her by surprise. He asked after her family and even mentioned that he hoped the situation with Verheyen and his family had not disturbed her too much. Surprising her again, he asked that Isidore be dismissed. She looked to Isidore, who stood against one wall, seeing nothing on his hawkish features. But when she asked him to leave, he hesitated for a moment, the first time she ever saw him do so. "If you need anything, Mademoiselle, I will be here immediately." He glanced warily at Mueller. "Thank you, Isidore." Laura waited until he drew the doors closed before saying with a confidence she didn't feel, "What do you want?" "I want to help you," he said. To Laura the words sounded as if they were dripping in oil. "You can't do anything for me." "You're wrong, Mademoiselle. You see, I know about you." Panic clawed at her stomach. "I know you were the one I was seeking the other night." Laura paused, thinking how best to respond. "If you're so sure, go ahead and arrest me...better still, why don't you execute me?" She reached with trembling hands for the cigarette box. "No, I think not. Not just yet. Here, let me," he said, pulling matches from a pocket and lighting her cigarette. Watching her inhale deeply, he continued, "Fortunately for you, I could find no proof. And Verheyen -- that fool -- wouldn't talk. But I know." "What's stopping you?" "Honor." "Honor! You use such a word...that's a disgusting joke." He shrugged off her insult. "I must have proof. You're guilty, but I must have proof. We Germans are civilized men... unlike you franc-tireurs, who kill as assassins do from hiding places." "Civilized!" she cried, rising from her seat, "Civilized men don't kill women and children. Civilized men don't burn whole villages to the ground...Get out of this house. Get out now!" "Merely reactions to your barbarism," he said quietly from his seat. "We've conquered you and you fail to give us the respect we deserve. Is that honor?" "Don't speak to me of honor, you don't know the word."
Mueller smiled politely and tapped the couch seat next to him. "Sit, sit. No purpose is served by such argument." Laura didn't move. "As you wish," he said. "Now, to the reason for my visit. I'll talk, you'll listen, then I'll leave. I know you're a guide. I've come to warn you...warn you of me. I'm after you... watching you. Soon you'll make a mistake and I'll catch you. Then," he said, rising to stare directly into her eyes, "I will arrest you...and kill you." She could feel his hatred and loathing as if it was a physical presence. And yet there seemed to be something else. Barely able to control her fear, she suddenly realized he was moving ever so slightly closer to her. "Isidore!" she called as she took a step back. The doors flew open, revealing his imposing figure. "Yes, Mademoiselle?" "Show this German out." When they had gone, Laura collapsed on the couch. She ground her cigarette into the ashtray with trembling hands. End of Chapter Four and Part One