The stone cellar was cold, the light dim. The girl seated on one end of a rough bench shivered, then pressed her arms over a thin blouse. She despised underground places, but the enemy was coming. Soon. Too soon.
Her dark eyes glanced at three men: her brother Leon, and Francois and Maurice from the neighboring village of Cher. They were pouring a hot brew of milk and coffee from a thermos. They began taking places on the bench across from her and were holding the hot mugs tightly in their hands.
They were dressed almost alike in black pants, dark shirts and berets. On their right arm was the same red-and-blue armband as the one she wore. They looked like roosting chickens and she smiled at the thought.
Jacques, her beloved friend and companion since childhood, the one for whom she’d bear any pain, indignity, or effort, even to agree to meet at this dank spot, was studying the map spread between them.
She noticed that Maurice kept flicking his eyes toward a British-Bren thirty-five caliber machine gun on the lopsided shelf behind them. Jacques was focusing so intently upon one section of the map, that he didn’t notice Maurice getting up to take down the weapon.
As if knowing how much his sister disliked the chilly, damp cellar, Leon reached over and patted her knee. “This will be the last time, Antoinette. It’s been so hot, isn’t it good to be a little cold.” A year younger than Antoinette, he liked to tease his big sister.
Jacques looked up to speak, his voice blunt. “Can we concentrate.”
Antoinette felt the sparkle go out of her brother’s eyes as she watched his body stiffen. To soften the rebuke from Jacques, she hastened to make a suggestion.
“I know . . . we must all trust the same person. The one point we do agree on is that it be someone who goes in and out of Villepente in the regular course of a day.”
Francois repositioned his beret. “Yes, I see. Trains go through Villepente every day. My Paris contact says the baggage man on the late run is one of us. So, we could hand him a suitcase and say, ‘My mother’s suitcase is falling apart. I am giving it to you for repair, take it to the leathersmith in Villepente.’ Then, we go to the leathersmith for any messages.”
“Too complicated,” put in Maurice. “And, could we trust the leathersmith?” He leaned forward to whisper, “But isn’t everything we do is risky, never tried before? Maybe the baggage setup is good as any.”
Leon nudged his sister with his foot. “Trust has to be earned. Know anyone who has earned our trust?”
Suddenly Jacques exclaimed, “Hey, remember the little kid -- the shoemaker’s nephew. The one who found us in the cave and volunteered to help if the Germans came. He’s a smart one. Quick on his feet. He surprised us when he showed up and we had traps set for intruders, too. But, he sidestepped those. I’ve seen him run. I’ll bet he could outrun me. He’s clever, that one. What do you say to using Gerald to get messages back and forth?”
A stillness fell over the group while they pondered Jacques’ suggestion. Then Jacques declared, “Leave that decision for the moment.” His hand pointed to various spots on the map. “I say we blow this bridge if we hear they’re moving troops to Russia. It’s bound to happen. Hitler has to move his men from the coast if he’s not taking them across to England.”
Jacques continued, his forehead squeezed with concentration. “We’ll watch. See how things unfold. Maybe the Brits will have another target for our mischief. Meanwhile, we’ve got to find out why they’re here. Is the day they’ve come, this day -- August 8, l941, significant?”
His dark eyes looked at Antoinette. “Get to us tomorrow. We’ll be by the bridge.” He stood up.
“Take care,” he said squeezing her shoulder as he passed by, followed by the men. Then he paused to add, “Since there were no objections, we’ll ask Gerald to carry our messages.”
The men snuck out of the village to head back to another of their hiding places somewhere in the hills surrounding the village.
Antoinette snuffed out the candles, then slipped about the village tacking signs to lamp posts: Vivre dans la defaite c’est mourir tous les jours.
She slashed large “V’s” across the words which said, “To live in defeat is to die every day.”