It was late. The Nazis were sprawled about the massive dining table after the huge amounts of red wine they had consumed with dinner.
Music of Wagner encompassed the room with richness, blending often with the drone of an aircraft formation and the clacking of the railroad tracks in the distance, often becoming loud enough to blend with a crescendo of a musical phrase.
Antoinette placed a gold-bordered dessert plate with an apple dumpling and sauce in front of Major Hurst who sat at the head of the table.
“Mademoiselle, Gutes essen. The food has been more than satisfactory. He reached over and grasped her wrist.
“Thank you,” she replied attempting to break away. “Someday I will study culinary arts in Paris and do even better.” She backed up, her wrist still encircled by the major’s firm grip. Then he released her and held out a crystal goblet with a long stem. She poured more wine and thought, ‘How glad I am that I hid the silver goblets.’
“Jahowl. But, you must also study the German arts of cooking. Do you know how to prepare Rahmosschnitzel? . . . I will immediately send for recipes. Fortunately, you French keep the postal and phones functioning . . .”
“Rails and highways, too,” put in Lutjemeir.
“Don’t go,” said the major to Antoinette as he gave Lutjemeir a stern look for interrupting. “Sit with us. We are all proper gentlemen and we will officially introduce ourselves to you.”
Lutjemeir, eager to please his kommandant, jumped up and placed a chair next to the major. Antoinette found herself surrounded by Nazis.
“We have the most superior Nazi officers here . . . in this very room,” continued the Major. His head nodded slightly left as he said, “You have already had the honor this morning of meeting Lieutenant Karl Walther, the one who speaks such good French we often look twice to see if a Frenchman has joined up.
“We call the officer next to him, ‘The Professor’ because he knows so much about art. He has just told me his mother would like that painting over there. And, by the way, we have heard there is a relative of one of those impressionist painters in your village. Do you know who that might be?
“Be that as it may. Hans, here,” he continued, reaching over to pat Lieutenant Lutjemeier on the shoulder, which caused Lieutenant Lutjemeier’s face to brighten considerably, “likes to be out in the country. He’d rather be farming than fighting, but tonight he seems to be in no condition to do either because he’s had too much of your fine wine.
“And, then, you have the privilege of knowing me, Major Reinhard Hurst, number 1245 in the Waffen-SS, career officer, proud to have served the Führer in the Czech Sudentenland, Austria, Poland, and Greece.
“Ah, but now that we are guests in your home, you will become well acquainted with each of us.
“We will expect a meal like this every night . . . that is, unless we tell you otherwise, as we might take a meal at the cafe, or have other plans for the evening.
“Don’t worry about our laundry. We can get recommendations for a laundress. I give you permission to find a friend who can help you with whatever you need. You’ll clean our rooms on a daily basis, make the beds, and collect the laundry.
“Each week, beginning with tomorrow morning, before we leave around 7:30, you’ll give Lieutenant Lutjemeier a list of provisions you will require for our meals and those things will be delivered to you. No longer will you need to go to the bakery, the grocer, or wonder if you have enough left on your ration cards. See how good we are.”
Antoinette sought the eyes of her great-great-grandfather in the painting, seeking to find strength in the courageous legacy of her ancestor. The gall of this Nazi was almost too much to bear.
“Tomorrow night you and a female friend about your age are to come and join me and . . .” He paused and looked from officer to officer . . . ” Karl . . . yes, that’s right, Karl. After dinner, we’ll have some nice plans. You and your friend will enjoy the evening we have in mind. Eric and Hans, you may join the others at the cafe tomorrow night.”
Antoinette thought immediately of Danielle. ‘Now, you can be among these officers and see for yourself.’
Major Hurst pulled himself unsteadily to his feet. “We’re going to retire, except for Lieutenant Larsen, that quiet one, the one most sober. He can help you get these things to the kitchen.”
Antoinette and Lieutenant Larsen watched the three officers leave the table and tramp up the stairs. Lieutenant Larsen held a goblet and swirled the wine around. She could see that Officer Larsen wasn’t going to be much help, so she sent him off. Then she sat at the table and began making a menu plan for the week, listing the foodstuffs she would need.
Although some items were unobtainable, she still included them to see what would happen. Things like sugar, red meat, cinnamon. There were daily rations but not many foodstuffs available anymore.
She was registered with the butcher, who now was only open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and, with the baker. She had not worried about them being out of things when she finally got to the head of the line. But, lately, even they seemed to be running out of pastries and chicken for their important customers.
As she wrote out the list of items for the week’s meals, she felt as if she had gone back to a time when she could get whatever foods she wanted. What a wonderful time that had been. She hated wasting time lining up in queues just in the hope that the meager food she needed would be available. Now, she’d no longer would have to stand in line. Suddenly she thought of him, the Waffen-SS officer, the prince, the king, the person who granted these gifts. What an unbearable, pretentious, despicable person he was.
The grandfather clock struck the half hour after midnight. She jolted like a kitten caught on a tabletop. ‘I must get some sleep in order to be alert tomorrow.’
Antoinette quietly climbed the rickety steps past the floor where Nazis were asleep. She found her way in the dark the steps to the tiny room in the attic that now was hers. She fell into bed. The new day was there almost before her head hit the goose-down pillow.
The day of the arrival of the Nazis had been so filled with happenings that she had no energy to dream or picture in a nightmare the traumatic event which would take place the next evening.
The next day found Antoinette folding linen napkins on the large kitchen table. She was so absorbed in her thoughts, she didn’t hear Lieutenant Lutjemeir when he strode into the kitchen.
When he said, “Mademoiselle,” she startled.
In a thick German accent, in French words, he apologized if he had frightened her. It was all she could do to keep from giggling at his attempt to pronounce the French words he was looking up in a little German-French handbook for soldiers.
“Here is my list for the week,” she told him, saying each word clearly and very slowly.
She felt comfortable in his presence, even though he wore the black uniform. He fumbled the large cap he held and the language dictionary fell to the floor. She gracefully bent down and found it under the table, then gestured that he take a seat. She noticed the hands into which she placed the book. They were so large, he might be able to hold more than a dozen eggs in them. Village men bragged about the number of eggs they could hold in one hand and she recalled that fact when she placed the thin little book into his hands.
He hesitated, unsure about whether he should continue to sit down or not, his strong jaw and square cheekbones indicating discomfort in the decision.
I like this one, thought Antoinette. He doesn’t look as if he would harm anyone. I think he was the one who drank so much wine last night. I think the major said he once was a farmer. He does look like one, with his big hands and the big chest and shoulders.
“I am going to the farm,” she continued, trying to find short, simple words he might grasp more easily. “So, I must go now.” She pointed to the direction she would be bicycling. “I need carrots for the soup tonight.” She laughed as she tried to depict a carrot with gestures. Her face brightened when she realized he might think she was describing something else.
His face muscles relaxed and his eyes brightened when he comprehended. He laughed, too.
“I am Antoinette, remember from last night?”
“I don’t . . .” He fumbled looking for the word “to remember” in the dictionary. “I am Hans.” He blushed.
“Yes, Hans. Thank you.” She handed him the list she had made late the night before. “I hope you will like Villepente.” There was genuine sincerity in her voice. Then she realized why. He acted like one of her mother’s brothers, her uncle Jean Peju. Uncle Jean often showed similar frustration in the presence of females and unfamiliar situations.
“I like it here,” he grinned. “I like this house -- my bed. A good bed, good --” and he started thumbing through the book again, but the word sheets wasn’t in the book. Soldiers had few occasions to use the word, except, perhaps when they were on leave.
Antoinette was chuckling when he started using hand motions to describe bed linens.
She was recalling their conversation as she bicycled back from the farm where she had collected carrots and apples. Now she now was heading for the Phantoms’ secret hiding place near the bridge.
As the bridge came into view, she thought of the violent act she had witnessed that morning as she left the village. She had heard the loud roar of a truck coming, so she stopped the bicycle beside the stairwell of a building and waited for it to pass by.
A German truck roared up to the street lamp several buildings ahead to the lamp post where she had put up one of the signs. Two soldiers in brown uniforms jumped out and tore down the sign. They flung it off with a bayonet, then slashed it in two. Each soldier crumbled up a section and threw it into the back of the truck, along with the other ones they’d taken down.
The German words they spoke in anger were not in her German dictionary. She knew they were saying bad things about the person who left the signs. When the truck took off, she heard two windows slam shut on nearby buildings. So, she thought, others had seen what had happened. Again, she hoped that no one had seen her put up the signs.
Fortunately, as she drew near the timbered area on the hillside close to the bridge, she saw no vehicles or people, so she slipped the bicycle into the woods and pulled back a large bush which hid the passage opening.
Creeping between the narrow limestones, like a needle going through a hem, she hit her head and scratched her forehead on a sharp protrusion.
The thin light from her candle revealed two directions and a tiny arrow pointing the direction. She pawed her way the last few yards to the hideout and knew Jacques now was only a few feet away. She could sense his presence. She fell into the dome-shaped area. Jacques and Francois were huddled over a piece of paper laid out upon a large stone but didn’t hear her enter.
She whistled softly several times like a bird calling in the forest.
Jacques and Francois turned around. “Oh, it’s you,” breathed Francois.
“They’re angry. They’re whacking down the signs.”
Jacques etched out a large “V” with a knife he drew from his belt on a stone.
“If we let you come and we don’t resist, we will die,” declared Francois. “So, we resist, but we said it better, didn’t we?”
The Resistors showed that when a nation is defeated and occupied by an enemy, words take on precious meaning of defiance. The signs they left were a declaration of independence, their bill of rights, a refusal to exist without protest. They dared risk words to present a challenge to the oppressor.
“Antoinette, come here. We were just going over a diagram of the bridge. We’ve just got a radio. Left it at the farm. Now we’re waiting for the British guy who’ll show us how to use it . . . tell us what they want us to do.”
Jacques put his arm about her shoulder. “Things are going fast,” she breathed.
Then, Francois told more about his recent meeting in Paris with other Resistors fighting the Germans. “They aren’t inclined to rally to de Gaulle, who has left for England. They say they resent the men who have fled France. The real fight is here in the internal Resistance, like us.”
“It has become a serious dilemma.” Jacques explained the politics of the situation. “To continue to accept London’s arms and help is to place our cause under de Gaulle’s command, but to refuse is to risk losing what little help we have.”
“What if we disagree with what they tell us to do?” she asked.
“We can’t. Not if we want their help.” replied Jacques. “And, should you ever need help from the Resistance and you can’t find any of us - Leon, Francois, or me, just get to Marseilles in the unoccupied zone south of the demarcation line. It’s still free of German occupation. It’s a big city, Antoinette, with many buildings, cellars, and warehouses with hiding places and safe houses.
“Go to the Cafe du Moulin Joli or the Cafe de la Poste. Ask for work, say you have been sent by Butterfly. And, there’s also another shop, La Lingerie Pratique. That’s owned by two women who are part of the group ‘Combat.’”
“But it’s huge!” Antoinette had never been further from Villepente than Cher. “Surely, you must know . . .”
“You disappear into a crowd easier in a big city than in a little village, especially if you know who to contact. Ask Danielle. She’s been to Marseilles. She’ll explain how easy it is to find your way around. Just learn how to read the bus schedule so you can find your way to the right people.”
Antoinette was disturbed. Jacques felt it wasn’t about Marseilles but something else.
“They want me . . . and Danielle . . . to be with them after dinner tonight.”
Antoinette thought, All our discussions and planning since we were defeated and formed this group are ending in a way I never anticipated. Will Jacques see my being with them tonight as a way to glean information or will he react like father, with fear and alarm?
“They’ve taken over our house. Father and I have been sent to the attic.” Antoinette flared. Her eyes flashed.
“I can’t let them know how infuriated I am.”
She realized a night with the Nazis might prove difficult but she knew she had courage to face whatever happened. Just like Joan. Wasn’t Joan the same age when she led French troops into battle?
Jacques and Francois told her they thought the invitation was slightly dangerous and for her to be extremely cautious. “Report everything. Even small details. One might be a piece that fits into the bigger puzzle of why they’ve come.”
“The wine will help, I’m sure.”
Antoinette savored a few more minutes before she went back into the passage. As she going through the tunnel, she felt exhilarated by Jacques faith in her. Now she could play as important a role as the men.
The mayor’s office was crowded the next morning with the ten block captains and ten ward men who had been chosen for the census. They were pressed together, sweating profusely in a combination of anxiety, heat of the day, and the crowd of bodies in the room.
Mayor Gautheir stood beside Major Hurst. The kommadant stood behind the desk poised like a giant predator. Lieutenants Lutjemeir and Walther flanked each side of the inner doorway. Armed German soldiers guarded the exterior of the building and hallway.
The last ward man arrived and squeezed into the herd of bodies.
Major Hurst roared, “You -- you leaders of Villepente -- I am holding you responsible for this!” He flashed one of the grim signs left by Antoinette, the message of the Phantoms. “Step forward anyone who knows anything about this!”
Tension was thick as the putrid air. No one spoke. The room filled with rapid breathing.
Henri Gautheir opened his mouth as if to speak and finally said, “As we are all here, perhaps, if Major Hurst would agree, this is a time to begin our new ways. I have his administrative directives to hand out.”
Hurst fumed. His eyes darted about the men like bees.
“Major Hurst, may I present the operatives to these good men? I’ve put the papers in the top drawer . . . at your left there ...”
“Touch nothing in this desk -- !” Hurst yelled. “This is MY desk, now, mine, and don’t anyone touch it ever !”
Lieutenant Lutjemeir squeezed through the crowd. With a nod of okay from his kommandant, he opened the desk drawer, removed a sheaf of light green papers, and placed them in front of Major Hurst.
“Is there anyone who does not read,” barked the major. A rumble of no’s were heard.
“As part of these directives . . .” the major held the papers in the air waving them about . . . “each one of you, as part of his report, will list persons you think may be responsible for this.” He held the piece of cut-up sign above his head, and waved it as though it were on fire, then flung it to the floor behind him.
“Now, go ahead, pass those things out,” he said to Lieutenant Lutjemeier.
Lieutenant Lutejemeir went through the crowd handing out the papers with the kommandant’s directives, the ones the mayor had taken down the day before and run off on stencil.
Peering into the crowd of sweating men, Major Hurst thought, ‘Everyone here has something to hide . . . an undeclared radio set, a Resistance pamphlet, a forged ration card, even a letter unflattering to us. Especially, it may be a matter of not being able to explain the absence of someone.’
“Are there questions?” he barked. “Now is the time to ask
them, you leaders of Villepente. Now is the time to get thoughts, misconceptions clarified. Ignorance is not an excuse. There are no excuses, only performances.
“The mayor here will assist you captains with your wards. Any questions? You consult with him. He will be in the office next to me. No excuses. Only answers. Do you understand?”
A timid voice was heard. “Will the Ministry of Food continue to issue ration cards?”
“Still the same seven cards?” another asked.
“Good questions. Ration cards will be distributed locally as before through your mayor’s office. However, if there are discrepancies with the information in your reports, there will be noticeable reductions.”
“Yes, another question?” asked Major Hurst acknowledging someone in the back.
“Pictures of Hitler. Where are we to obtain those?”
“Good. Good. Right here. You pay ten francs for each.”
“Can anything be substituted?”
“Yes, if there is already a picture of the Führer, we have
flags for sale - same price, through your mayor’s office. Do inform everyone.”
Major Hurst thought. ‘These idiots. They think of nothing but trivia. His stomach took a cartwheel and his head felt ready to explode. Too much wine. These people, why are they packed in here? This can not go on.’
“Get out -- all of you -- out,” he demanded, pounding his hand on the desk.
Henri Gautheir edged to the door, and eased his way into the doorway. It was a signal for the villagers to follow. He strode into the hallway and stood under a doorway where a hinged nameplate read Tax Collector. The poor tax collector had been bumped out of his office to a tiny closet.
As the leaders of Villepente trudged bleakly into Henri’s new office to measure further the changes in their lives, they felt frightened, suspicious, alarmed, and each felt alone. No one knew where anyone stood and everyone was afraid to speak out or to take a stand. There were so many sides to be on. Pro-Ally. Pro-Vichy. Pro-Nazi. Gaullist. Communist. Black Market. Collaborator. Informer. Resistor.
Each man in his own way thought, ’If kommadant in there ever questions me, what will I say about my friends, my brother? What about my brother? Is he immune to their temptations? Would someone send an anonymous letter about me? What should I do if I see something to report?
It all happened so quickly. By the second day after the arrival of the Nazis, the leaders of Villepente were already regarding their neighbors, some even their families, as the enemy.
Lieutenant Lutjemeier closed the heavy wood door as the last villager left. Major Hurst bellowed, “Do not close that door! Can’t I have some air in here? Get this place aired out!”
Major Hurst got up and strode out the door, out the town hall, and into his waiting Mercedes. Lieutenant Walther, who was in the driver’s seat, started the engine and without directions, knowing his kommandant as well as he did, pointed the vehicle towards a spot by the River Sienne.
After a stormy confrontation, the major liked to relieve his frustrations with a good swim. Hot as it was, the swim would do them both good. Within a few minutes, the village was left behind and the green countryside began to work its calming magic. Germans could appreciate the beauty of the rolling French countryside. Major Hurst said, “Karl, we’ll fix those bastards. We’ll adopt their charming ‘V.’ We’ll paint our own ‘V’s’ on their town hall. We’ll let them know the ‘V’ stands not for their Victoire but for our Vergelting, Vengenance.”
As the weeks went by in Villepente, a sign painter in the village turned out posters and handbills, red-bordered handbills with white interiors and the letters “VH” and the words “Vive Hitler” underneath. And “V - Deutschland Sieght an Allen Fronten -- Germany Victorious on All Fronts.” The Germans adopted the French counter-charm to the German swastika and made it their own.
August continued insufferably hot. Antoinette, for the second dinner, decided to make Chou Rouge Landois. She began by putting layers of cabbage, onions and apples into a deep red clay casserole dish. Then she added seasonings of salt, pepper, sugar and herbs and a little orange peel, moistening it all with a bottle of red wine. Before serving the casserole, she stuffed little sausages into the cabbage layers and baked it a little while longer.
The rich fragrance from the dish, which had been baking for hours, filled the house with an appetizing aroma even now after the officers had devoured it and were finishing the light meal with dishes of fresh raspberries and clotted cream.
Danielle put the serving tray by the sink as Antoinette washed up the clay dish. “The major has eyes only for you. He’s terribly handsome. His blue eyes are so powerful. His skin looks so soft, I just want to stroke it. But, I think Lieutenant Walther is even better to look at. When I saw them earlier today out driving in their big black car, I couldn’t wait until tonight.”
As she scrubbed the sticky dish, Antoinette was going over in her mind the dilemma of how to conduct herself. She disliked Major Hurst. How would she act if he touched her? Her father warned her not to upset the major. She wasn’t certain what might happen tonight. She had been frequently asked, directly or indirectly by female friends, and especially, Danielle, if she had ever made love with Jacques.
She never said what she and Jacques did when they were together. She knew her friends talked about them. They were obviously in love, yet, there was something that led others know she was a virgin. She exuded a naivete. Perhaps when they were together, they maintained a quality of being separate. There was a bit of standoffishness between them, the way he hesitated before he touched her, and never too familiarly.
Sex was not a topic for discussion when Antoinette was around. Antoinette only hinted about the topic with her mother. She remembered what Mama had said several months ago before she left to run the farm.
“You’re a good girl, Antoinette. You have a fine friendship with Jacques. If you ever decide to be the kind of girl who can’t resist temptation, tell me. I can show you what to do to protect yourself.” Those were Mama’s parting words.
Antoinette could not imagine making love until the night of her wedding.
Her body tensed with hatred when she thought about Major Hurst. His flashy uniform and earthy cologne mean nothing to me.
For many months Antoinette wanted to share her feelings about how it might be to make love with Jacques. But with whom? Certainly not the priest or her papa. Or, Jacques. Maybe, if times were different. But with the war, there were always things of greater importance than what she should do about her longing to be joined to Jacques in body as well as spirit.
She longed to be held. To have someone whisper things in her ear. Have strong arms about her, to make her feel protected from the horrors of war.
Lately, this illusive feeling of wanting to show Jacques how truly much she loved him kept surfacing. If times were different, Jacques might have asked her to marry him by now. His invitation would come as naturally as the changing of the season, the rustling of the wind through the leaves as they walked on the bluffs above the river. Now asking Jacques about making love with him was impossible. There wasn’t even time to be alone.
Danielle chattered on, shattering Antoinette’s reverie. “I wonder what it’s like to have someone make love to you. Especially if they are exciting. The boys from here are just boys and now they are all scattered. We could be killed by a bomb. Or, we might freeze to death next winter as we almost did last year. So, I say, why not enjoy the only thing we have left to enjoy -- making love.”
Danielle’s eyes shone with anticipation. “We’re only going to be young and beautiful once. I don’t think these Nazis are so bad. They are just here to do what they have been told. Their politics should have nothing to do with you and me.
“When I peeked out from behind the curtains this afternoon and saw Karl going into your house, I lost my heart. He is the man I’ve dreamed of. He is so nice. Of all of them, I find him . . . irresistible. Best of all, I think he likes me.”
Antoinette barely heard Danielle. Her thoughts kept returning to how much she loathed Germans, who only twenty years before caused her father to suffer so much in the trenches. Now, here France was, again, occupied by Germans.
If she went along with their plans this evening, she might ask the major why they had come to Villepente. Uncover the real reason.
Antoinette emptied water from the dish pan into the sink. “Before we go back in there . . . listen to me. I want you to promise me . . . something.”
“Oh, I’d never say anything about hiding . . .”
“Yes. Don’t do that. But more important, we must not tell anyone what happens here tonight. Can you imagine what people would say if they knew we were alone in the house with them.”
Danielle nodded in agreement but her face revealed wistfulness.
The girls returned to the dining room, Danielle glowing with anticipation, Antoinette more than ever determined that she would get the best of this German, this Major Hurst.
Eric and Hans soon clicked their heels and said good night. Antoinette and Danielle were alone with two Nazi officers.
Lieutenant Walther went upstairs and brought down a movie projector. He set it on the dining room table and began showing a Charlie Chaplin movie on the wall.
The fourth reel ended. Lieutenant Walther was attaching the last reel. Danielle and Antoinette were laughing together. Major Hurst watched them. “So you like the little man. Our Führer likes to watch Chaplin, too. He finds him splendid. I like the way the girl looks at Chaplin. Now that’s the way we want you to look at us.”
Antoinette’s head came up. She stared at Major Hurst across the table and smiled.
Lieutenant Walther moved his chair closer to Danielle’s and put his arm around her shoulder.
“Ah, that’s much better. See, Antoinette, how your friend, is behaving like the little vixen in the movie. She is showing Karl she likes him. Women like Nazi officers. Everywhere we go, they fall all over us.”
“For good reason.” Lieutenant Walther grinned. “It’s our patriotic SS duty to sire at least four or six children. Women need us. We must bring the population of the Reich up to the quality and quantity Hitler desires. We encourage racially pure unmarried women to have children with us.”
Lieutenant Walther looked directly over at Antoinette. “You could have a child free of cost through the Fountain of Life Bureau. We’ve set up luxurious Lebensborn Centers throughout Germany for pregnant women. Stay there many months before and after the birth of a child.”
Danielle appeared fascinated by their ideas for the fathering of children. She looked up at Karl. Antoinette stared at the painting of her great-great-grandfather.
“Come over and sit by me,” the major beckoned to Antoinette.
The lieutenant and the major went on to describe more of Himmler’s “marriage” policies. They especially emphasized the fact that producing a child was a woman’s sacred duty to the Führer.
Major Hurst kept beckoning to Antoinette. “My Aryan pedigree has been certified. Any child you would have with me would be legitimate. There is no shame to have a child out of wedlock to an SS officer. It can be your greatest happiness.
“And, if you want to take the parcel with you after the birth, you are entitled to be called ‘Mrs.’ But, if you do not want the parcel, the Lebensborn Center will place it with a suitable family. Or, I might adopt it and increase the size of my new family to be.”
“We have a ‘Fetching Home’ operation, you know,” continued Lieutenant Walther. He related how fair children of other countries were being taken to Germany to be raised. The program was also called Lebensborn.
Major Hurst motioned to Antoinette again. “Officers can’t receive a promotion if they are childless.”
“How many children do you have?” Danielle looked deeply into the eyes of Lieutenant Walther.
“None as fair as any we could have together,” Lieutenant Walther said after a moment, considering her question. He laughed. “As for the Major, he has been a ‘conception assistant’ to SS friends so many times, there is no count available. Which brings me to say, Major, if you and the lovely lady will excuse us, we will begin work on the possibilities for my next promotion.”
Danielle took the hand Karl held out to her and they disappeared up the steps.
The major pushed his goblet across the table for a refill. Again he encouraged Antoinette to come to sit beside him.
“Ah, my lovely one, Antoinette. Bismarck said it well -- ’Wenn sich der Deutsche seiner Kraft recht bewusst werden soll, dann musser erst eine halbe Flasche Wein im Leibe haben, oder
hesser noch, eine gauze.’” He translated what he said. “If a German wants to be properly conscious of his strength, he must first have half a bottle of wine inside him --or better yet, a whole bottle.”
“Did you know you have ‘Schondecken’ qualities?”
Antoinette became drawn in by his worldliness. She came over to take the chair he kept nudging out. He told her why she should feel honored to be so acknowledged. “Schondecken” meant she set a beautiful table. He was talking about the things she loved so much and she began listening with an intensity she didn’t realize.
The major sought her eyes. She felt the intensity of his desire for her.
“A handsome table is the pride of every German woman. To use the special table coverings, the special dishwares, these are as much a part of the meal as food or drink. I see you know flowers bring a grace to the table, too. We Nazi officers appreciate these touches.
“We Germans favor the prolonging of pleasure.” His words slowed, the timbre of his voice mellowed and became even more seductive.
“Our national sport is gut essen gehen -- dining out well.
I remember one evening in particular after the theater in Berlin at the Hartke in the Meinekestrasse. The Berliner Riesenbrotwurst mit Kartoffelsalst dish I had was as lovely as your meal tonight.”
“And what was that? She looked into his eyes. They were hypnotic. She found it difficult to look away.
“A crispy, giant fried sausage accompanied by savory potato salad.” His sensuous voice continued.
“Being here reminds me of a garden restaurant I know near Frankfurt. It’s an old, old place with a rustic dining room, something like this. A leafy terrace dining room, too. A garden. The place makes its own breads and wines. You would enjoy their wild boar and the whipped cream parfaits.”
She was now completely caught up in the enchantment of the what he was telling her, as well as the feelings she was having when she looked into his eyes.
“Sich verwohnen lassen --let yourself be pampered.” It was the way the Germans felt about food. “We like to have wide, wide choices.” He continued to intrigue her with stories of many fine foods and restaurants. He even mentioned the tavern at Althier where he had asked for the Dammerschappen. Those were the times when he had began drinking at twilight, singing and dancing and drinking beer from a glass boot until dawn.
“You have, what do I say, such a distinctive quality about what you cook. About you, too. Undoubtedly, you are to be successful, very successful. What I like best is not your creations for the table but the perfection you achieve of even the most simple of dishes. Your chicken last night and the soup were perfection. And, this one tonight was equally memorable.You create with such a light hand and intellect.”
He reached over and picked up one of her hands and enfolded it within his. “Your touch is light, so gentle,” he said, continuing to stroke her hand. “You are so beautiful. This long hair. The way you float as you move. Ah, you don’t realize what an utterly charming creature you are.
“You are like a lovely summer flower, one of the sweet ones we see now, wild in the fields. I will unpeel you, petal by petal and you will enjoy every moment as you abandon yourself to the pleasures of this night. As you do, remember you are enjoying one of the richest emotional experiences you will ever know. You are with a master.”
He lead her up the steps to the room which once was hers and seated her upon the high-backed upholstered chair by the bed. She watched him begin unfastening the collar of the gray uniform and felt captured by the gracefulness of his actions. He unfastened the pistol holster and waistband and he laid them at her feet as if they were a gift. His eyes never left her.
He hung the jacket, shimmering silver in the dimness of the warm room, over the back of her chair, and reached into the pants pocket.
With a silver lighter he drew from the pants pocket, he lit the candle in the holder on the bedside table. She could see his broad shoulders, his narrow hips, the bulge between his legs. His bare arms accentuated the fine muscular structure beneath.
Her heart pounded. She began to feel hot, so very hot. An excitement built within her body. She found herself unable to reason.
He reached for her. She knew she should look away but she could not. The closer he came, the more details she could make out in his face. Fine cheek and jaw line, soft skin, huge blue eyes with long lashes, perfect teeth.
She meant to take a deep breath to clear the tension but it turned into a sigh.
He took her hand and kissed it. She did not pull away as she meant to do. His other hand began to stroke her thigh, going ever higher up her leg. She wished he would stop, then she became confused and didn’t know what she wanted.
His hands, oh, those hands of his were moving ever so slowly, stimulating, exciting parts of her that were thrilling and throbbing under his ministrations.
He kissed her neck. The kiss sent heat waves up her throat and into her ears. She began to perspire.
He was murmuring things to her in German. He took her hand, pulled her from the chair, swooped her into his arms, laid her upon the bed and knelt beside her. He gave her a huge, wet kiss which soon she began to give back. He breathed passion into every bone of her body as they kissed. He opened the button on her skirt and slid it down her hips.
He approved of what he saw. Her mound was round and fleshy. He nibbled on the short dark hairs, licked the insides of her thighs as he unbuttoned his pants and boxer shorts and stepped out of them. His male member sprang free, huge, eager to please.
One broad hand pulled the blouse off her shoulder. He began to coax each nipple into erection, murmuring in German, the sweetness of her. Then, he suckled each nipple in turn with a touch perfected by the many golden opportunities available to a magnificent SS officer.
His pleasure expanded as he watched her expression turn into lust. When he saw her eyes close as the intensity of passions within her body heightened, he knew she was almost ready for him to enter.
But, as in all things, he was patient. He would wait for his pleasure. He would bring her to peaks of ecstacy. She would learn to beg for him.
He began to stroke the mound he knew had never been touched before. This was like taming a wild animal. He had all the time in the world.
Later, much later, when he entered her, he whispered, “It is pain once only, then it is wonderful. You will see. I will teach you the wonders of love. It is my best talent. Tonight has been for my pleasure. Tomorrow night it shall be for yours as well as mine.”
He knew exactly what he was doing, saying. He had done the act so many times before. But, the first time for the woman made sex even more exciting for him. His whole body had exploded, the orgasm lasting seconds more than usual.
Antoinette, a naive young girl, who had never traveled far beyond the limits of her small village, was swept away by the skills of the older man, lured by his sweaty masculinity, the lusty cologne fragrance of ginger and lemon. Her skin, bones, hair, her very insides tingled because of his expert slow hands, sensuous lips, powerful muscles.
Afterwards, when dawn neared and she lay in his arms, a sense of betrayal came over her. No matter what reasoning she had used to justify giving herself to him, no matter what the cause, what she had done made her different than she had been before. Virtues she once possessed had vanished, especially purity of body and mind. His expert lovemaking had transformed her into someone so passionate she couldn’t wait until the next time.
She slid out from under his enfolding arms and went up the servant’s stairs to her room in the attic.
She poured water from a pitcher into a bowl. She washed the stains from her loins. She looked at her flushed face in the mirror and gasped.
She realized what she had done. She had made love with a Nazi. She had made love for the first time. But, it was too late for regrets. She knew she no longer wanted to consider anything but to be with him again. She was infatuated, pulled by the attraction of the sensuous and powerful Nazi. The man with hypnotic eyes.
It was insufferably hot. In the third-floor attic rooms where Henri Gautheir and Antoinette were quartered, one small window opened from each of their tiny rooms to let in air.
The sky was beginning to lighten as Antoinette gently tried awakening her father. “Papa, wake up. I must talk to you.”
“Ah, my little one. You look as if you have had no sleep at all.” Her face appeared flushed, her eyes wide with anxiety.
“Papa, I’m so afraid. Monsieur Ricco comes today. What do I tell him? He might think Leon is in a . . . ” Antoinette caught herself before she said Resistance group.
Henri got up and sat on the edge of the bed close to Antoinette.
“When Monsieur Ricco comes to take the census of this household today, tell him . . . ah, I’ve been thinking about how to explain Leon’s absence, the situation not out of my mind a moment for months. Yes, I know Mr. Ricco to be a smart man. Of course, he’ll know Leon is still around somewhere. How can we say he is in the woods with the Resistance? In times like these, you can trust only a handful.
“Then, yesterday, I heard someone coughing, and the solution came to me.” He reached under the bed and pulled out a certificate.
Henri handed the paper to Antoinette.
“See, it says Leon has leukemia and is excused from any war effort.”
“Oh, Papa, you are wonderful.”
“Not I. Dr. Renet.”
“Both of you are wonderful. It’s good, Papa. If they ever see Leon, he looks so thin that they will think he has such cancer. If they ask me where he is, what do I say?”
“The farm -- but, of course, for the sunshine and good air.”
“Then, I will get this to Leon at once.”
“Yes, go as soon as possible. And, take CiCi with you.”
“But, I like having CiCi here. I would miss her too much.”
“Daughter, I can’t explain. Just take the cat out to the farm, please. Next week Monsieur Ricco will come again. The Nazis are asking membership dues to pay for their occupation costs. Each house and business must pay with things that have value. Of course, they have a list which will say approximate monetary worth of anything.
“Start by giving one of those ugly bronzes in the living room. I’ve never liked their looks and your mama has only been keeping them in case one of you children want them someday.”
“I’ll tell Mama about your sacrifice.” She laughed at her little joke.
“My little girl. It is so good to hear you laugh. It’s too long since I’ve heard laughter in this house or anywhere.”
“But, the good silver,” gasped Antoinette remembering she hadn’t told her father about the silver.
“It’s hidden here under the eves. The only thing of real value I couldn’t hide was the painting in the dining room. It’s been hanging on the wall so long, we’d have to paint the wall, and there’s wasn’t time or the materials for that.”
Her tone of anxiety changed to gentle concern as she asked, “Papa, is there anything you want me to tell Mama?”
“Tell her to watch out for the village men who come to trade their services for food. She can be much too generous. Your Mama would feed the world if she could.” Whenever he mentioned his gracious and capable wife, he always felt such pride.
“Dr. Renet and I will drive out one of these days. Don’t tell her so it can be a surprise.”
“Now, come give me a big embrace to last me through this ugly day.” His arms encircled her and she hoped his closeness and love would insure the same for her.
Antoinette grabbed a bicycle from the communal stand in front of Danielle’s house down the street. She stuffed CiCi inside a big box, closed the lid, then tied it onto the rear luggage rack, and pedaled toward the Place de la Madeline on her way out of the village.
Nazi swastikas flew overhead on buildings. There
were two tanks on the street. The black Mercedes was parked in
front of the town hall, but there was no sign of Nazis. No villagers were about.
Turning the corner of the Place de la Madeline opposite town hall, two Germans emerged from the Poulet Cafe and yelled, “Halt. Mademoiselle, halt.”
One of them stepped in front of the bicycle and held the handlebars. His huge hands and stocky body created an immobile wall. “Where do you think you are going?”
“I am preparing food for your officers tonight. If you don’t allow me to pass, Major Hurst will not be happy,” she challenged defiantly attempting to push his hands off the bars.
“Ah, you must be the daughter of the mayor about whom we are hearing so much. You must not be aware that no one is to leave their house today because of the count being taken.”
“I am aware of it. But, I am certain the major would permit me to go to my parents’ farm. I need herbs to make their omelettes tonight. I can be back before Monsieur Ricco comes. So, if you just get out of the way . . .” and managed to pull off, pedaling hard and disappearing around the corner.
She pedaled fast and did not look back. The sweetness of the summer air uplifted her spirits. Half mile north of the village, she could see the Villepente Railroad Bridge, an arched marvel of massive stones. She loved its classic design. The masterful bridge had been constructed by tradesmen generations before to resist strong winds in the gorge. She thought the bridge beautiful from a distance, but, close up its sheer size could be frightening. The amount of stones in its arches were beyond count. What if one of them came tumbling down to start the fall of others?
Once out of sight of the railroad bridge, she concentrated upon the sweet summer fragrances mingling in the slight breezes. Anticipating seeing her mother and sharing with her all that had happened brought tears to her eyes.
When Antoinette pedaled up the tree-lined lane to the farmhouse, she was crying hard, the tears streaming down her cheeks. Her mother who was in the vegetable garden saw the bicycle coming along the main road.
The bicycle had a noticeable wobble and erratic pattern to its course.
Helene had been pulling carrots and shaking off the dirt before placing them in the large basket at her feet. She stopped and stood with a bunch in her hand. Something was wrong.
It was unusual for her to feel anxious. Why did she feel this apprehension?
She raced across the garden to her daughter, thinking: ’What has happened? Is it Henri? Is he alright? What is troubling her? She worried about her husband and the fragileness of his health. Any time she felt trouble in the air, her thoughts flew to Henri.
The bicycle dropped. The box opened. The cat fled to the barn. Tears streamed down both their faces. They held each other a long while. Neither spoke until they were kneeling across from each other underneath the low branches of a gnarly, old apple tree.
Both started talking at the same time.
“Tell me, nutchkin, tell me.” A mother’s heart went out to her daughter.
Antoinette told what had taken place the night before with the major. “Mama. part of me was willing. I am so ashamed.”
“You are very beautiful, my Antoinette. Ready to love and be loved. You must realize that there are too many differences between you and this German for him to really love you.”
“Mama - I am two weeks from the menses. Will I . . .
“Don’t worry until you know for sure. I can give you herbs, but you must take them every day to prevent future misfortune.” Then she added, “If staying in Villepente is all too terrible, you must go to Marseilles and find work.”
“I can’t leave you, Mama. Or, Papa. He needs me. He doesn’t say much, but he’s not the same since these Nazis have come.”
Pierre ran up. “Antoinette, Antoinette, can I ride your bike? Can I?”
“Come here, first, you little one. So your big sister can give you a big squeeze.”
Pierre ran off and Helene asked if she were hungry. “I have some bread and cheese.”
“I can’t stay long, Mama. The man is coming for the census. It is only a miracle I got here as it is. Oh, but I have this important paper for Leon from Dr. Renet. He must have it immediately. And, yes, I am starving.”
They strolled arm and arm to the house, Helene fraught by an inner turmoil. Should I tell her? It might help her to see the situation more clearly. After all these years, I still feel shame. I’ve told no one, but . . . still, how would I feel if her father found out what I’m telling? How can I justify what I did so many years ago? Can what happened to me help her? If so, then I must do it.
“Mama. You’re not listening.”
“No, nutchkin, I was thinking about something. Before you leave, I must tell you something. Let’s enjoy this brief time together,” she said and smiled despite her volatile feelings.
“Oh, there’s Leon.” Antoinette ran off to greet her brother who was coming out of the barn.
There was a pleasant respite around the kitchen table before Antoinette said goodbye many times over to the people at the farm. A box was filled with produce and strapped to the back of the bicycle.
Antoinette walked the bicycle along the lane, her mother by her side. They stopped at the junction to the main road.
“I can’t help but worry about you, my little one. You have become a woman in the flash of one night. A mother wants her daughter to think the most of her. But on the other hand, a mother wants to teach about life, to protect a child by her own experiences,” she said gently.
“Perhaps I can make you feel better about what took place last night if I told you what happened to me . . . there are certain similarities . . . so you can see it is possible to be happy again.
“I was a few years older than you are now when the Germans brought a military agricultural expert to our farm during the first world war. He was with us several months.
“I remember the same feelings as you describe. Dread. Feeling terribly wound up. Being mixed up. Just being scared. And, of course the worry of being with child. I desired him. He made me feel good, transported me out of the terrors of all the fighting around us. The guilt has never left. I try to forget but it sits like a little bird on my heart.
“His name was Sigfried. Our lives were hard then, too. But, he saw to it we kept our animals, our food. I can see him yet, sleeping in my father’s woolen night shirt. He would have long periods of silence when he would be thinking about going off to the front. He said he would be traveling to his death in one of those slow-moving trains we could hear in the distance in the night. I remember how much he appreciated the little things, the cold nights we sat around the kitchen table as he checked off another day on his German calendar.
“He would say lovely things. Once he told me, ‘Today I saw you hang up the wash and I will always remember that lovely vision. I will press it to me like a dried flower in my book of memories.’ He said war was not natural, that it seems to go on forever, but, at least we could try to kill the heart of war by our kindness to each other.
“You see, I did what I had to do for us to survive. In a few weeks, they went away. He had a family. He showed me their picture. My parents were away so they never knew. I never told your father. Every farm in our area had its German agricultural technician so it appeared natural. I told no one. I have kept my secret until now.”
Antoinette threw down the bicycle, went to her mother, enfolded her in her arms and said, “All these years and you never said anything. Then, you risk everything to tell me.”
Pulling away, the mother said, “Sometimes there are parts of us we try to deny. I tried to tell myself then it was not right to have someone like him love me. But, those were bad times and even though he was the enemy, he was a good man. Many years later, when I could see things more clearly, I still felt it was my only choice.
“I remember telling myself many times since then - it is only one chapter in my life.”
“Oh, Mama, I’ve hardly begun to know you.”
“And, of course you know the next chapter.” Helene’s warmth and love for Henri reflected in the eyes of Antoinette.
“Oh, yes. They needed women to cook for the wounded French soldiers and you went and that’s how you met Papa.”
Antoinette pedaled off, the tiny seed of hope given to her by her mother growing in her heart. She carried fresh tarragon and eggs in the box bouncing on the rear for the omelettes and what was hoped to be preventative herbs to protect her from conceiving a child.
She left behind a medical certificate for Leon, a few minutes of fun for Pierre, a fluffy orange cat, and one very worried mother.
Antoinette turned to wave goodbye one last time and saw her mother clutching the bottom of her apron to her chest.